The Dairy Shorthorn Sale

Only two generations ago, most farms in Cumbria bar the hardest hill farms, carried a few dairy cattle, fattening cattle, a flock of sheep, some pigs in the byre and a few hens with maybe a goose or two fattened for Christmas. A living could be made, sons welcomed in to the business and daughters married off in style further down the valley.

Penrith’s town centre auction mart was a hive of activity each and every Tuesday. Hundreds of dairy cows would be offered for sale brought from farms the length and breadth of the county. Scrubbed up clean with udders gleaming, fresh and full. The day was for trading and socialising. The market buzzed from the sale ring to the public bar. The Agricultural Hotel would be thick with the fug of tobacco smoke, resounding to the sound of clinking glasses, raucous laughter, farmers chatter and the heavy drop of domino’s on oak tables. For many farmers this was their only trip away from the farm each week.

In the sale ring the auctioneers worked their magic whilst afterwards the dairy dealers worked theirs, using every trick in the book to find fault with their purchase and haggle some of the sale price back from the beleaguered farmer.

Most of the cows were dairy shorthorn- bred with a few new- fangled black and white Friesian types mixed in. The beautiful shorthorns often red roan in colour were hardy honest reliable cows. Over the years they have slowly died away, replaced by the high- yielding leviathans from Western Europe and the Americas. A few shorthorn herds have continued, keeping the tradition and the breed alive but sales are few and far between. Penrith is one auction mart that does regularly sell Shorthorns every year, but the age of the 300- cow weekly dairy sale is long gone.

Today Penrith auction hosted a rare collective sale of Dairy Shorthorn cattle the like of which has not been seen for many years. The catalogue includes cattle from  several noted Dairy Shorthorn herds including Brafell and Winbrook. The Winbrook Herd owned by Messrs GA & DW Dent has its roots firmly based at Winton House Farm near Kirkby Stephen. The Dent family has over 100 years experience in breeding these cattle.

Today’s sale is particularly poignant as the majority of the Winbrook herd, like many others locally, was almost wiped out in the foot and mouth epedemic of 2001. A few heifers wintered away from home, preserved important bloodlines, and the mammoth job of re- building the herd began.

it is clear that today is an emotional day for some of the vendors. This is the end of road. The decision has been taken to sell the herd. Eventually the last cow will be milked and the parlour shut down for the final time. Sometimes decisions like this can be the hardest. The cows and heifers are so much more than production animals. The cows’ breeding and family histories are entwined with owners families. The farmers knowledge about the cows extends back generations. Favourite cows will have come and gone over the years, loved and respected for what they did to produce quality milk and also introducing new daughters into the herd.

Many times farmers have said to me how sad they were to see an favourite old cow come to market for a final journey. It is never easy because farmers care about the animals they live and work with day after day, year after year. It is perhaps a difficult concept for people reading this from outside of the farming industry, but it is undeniably true that there is a strong bond between farmers and their animals. This is apparent at today’s sale.

It may be 30 years since the last large sale of this type in Penrith market, not long after the opening of the new mart at Junction 40. The old mart site has long gone replaced by the crash and rattle of supermarket trolleys. The “new” mart is still going strong. Those of us who worked at the market when it first opened in 1987 now look considerably different!

Today’s sale was a lovely spectacle and a proud privilege for the staff at Penrith and District Farmers Mart. The Auctioneer for the day was David Jackson, a life- long enthusiast of the breed and a local man who began his own career in the old market at Penrith. Many years ago, as a young auctioneer I was given good advice on how to sell dairy cows. “Never rush” i was told. Dairy farmers are not professional buyers. Sometimes they need cajoled and persuaded to bid. Often a good auctioneer with a little gentle persuasion, can tease a further bid from a farmer who really wants to buy the animal in the ring but doesn’t want to necessarily part with his hard earned money!

David Jackson takes his time. His knowledge of the breed, the bloodlines and the farming families is immense. Bringing the hammer down he not only gives the name of the buyer, but often the farm name and herd prefix of the animals new home. He even has half an idea of which buyers might bid for certain cattle. Buyers have travelled to the market from all over the UK. It is a consumate performance from an auctioneer well versed in his trade. It is even more remarkable that David is a part time auctioneer, only selling a handful of times each year, and more often than not, Dairy Shorthorn cattle.

These days are dying in the auction world. Dairy cattle are reared on contract with many imported from abroad. Markets still remain the life blood of market towns and the farming industry. Nowadays the usual clink from the auction mart bar is a coffee cup and a quick brew before farmers rush back home for evening duties. The farm staff have long gone too and there is hardly a place left for a single son to learn his craft. The solitary whisky bottle remains behind the bar, unopened.

Today though has been a special day in Penrith Mart, A hark back to the past, and a celebration of a fine dairy breed. I may be biased, but the mart is still needed, still appreciated by farmers and on day like today very worthwhile being a part of. Still appreciated by farmers yes; but perhaps not enough!

Very Quiet at Home!

LOOK OUT BOYS!

I’ve been working in Penrith Auction today. We have been selling all things bovine including breeding cattle, stores, cows and prime cattle for the butchers market. It has been a busy day and after a thirty year career I find myself having come full circle doing the same jobs now in my fifties as i did as a young auctioneer. Nowadays i am part- time, helping our young auctioneer Andrew Maughan at Penrith Auction on monday sale days. I can honestly say i love every minute.

My day begins at the unloading docks meeting and greeting customers. I try to get the back door of their trailers down and the cattle unloaded and heading for the numbering race before the farmers get out of their vehicles.

In all the markets I have worked in and managed, i have always tried to impress on colleagues that customer care is of paramount importance. Auctioneer’s have no divine right to sell any farmers stock. You have to earn the right. Most farmers in Cumbria have a choice of two or three markets. The success of any market is judged around two things; price and service. If a customer goes home thinking their stock has been traded fairly and that they have had an enjoyable day, then he or she will be inclined to return again.

So I hope that my little gesture and the fact that i am prepared to get my hands dirty is at least acknowledged as good service. Apart from that, i love the banter with our customers. You can be sure that when Jonty Stalker from Ratten Cattle pulls up, there will be an exchange of words.  It always good-natured but sometimes close to the bone. In recent weeks he claimed as a teenager to concrete an entire silage clamp with a portable cement mixer and a barrow and an old lad to help him tamp. “Started at Easter and finished by first cut”. With his broad smile you never know if he is jesting or not. This morning i asked him if it was his birthday as someone had steam cleaned his cattle trailer. This type of thing is an important part of the market for me.

I don’t want to appear gung ho. I am not. At 52 years of age, with an expanding waistline and aching knees I am always careful when handling cattle. Working on the docks you must have eyes in the back of your head and your wits about you. An experienced team of drovers work closely, watch each others backs and look after the customers as well as the cattle.

Everyone carries a stick to guide cattle and for self-protection. It is absolutely necessary. If cattle don’t need guided, then a stick need not be used. I abhor the heavy use of a stick on any animals. This should never be necessary if the animal is going forward in the right direction.

However there is no doubt about it, the livestock auction mart is potentially a dangerous working environment. Animals even of the domestic farm type can suddenly become very upset and agitated.  They are unpredictable, can turn on you, take flight and even attack. In that case the only course of action is to run or jump over the rails. At my time of life I prefer not to do this too often. So i try not to take too many chances.

I would like to have been given one  pound for every time a farmer selling a beast in the ring has had to exit in double-quick time only to say; “I can’t understand it. It’s very quiet at home……

Sadly accidents do happen although thankfully they are rare. Personally I have only had one bad incident  in my career (so far). Here is what happened: –

It was a typical busy Thursday morning at Penrith Auction Mart. I was a young junior auctioneer working on the unloading docks where the cattle were to be numbered for sale. Prime cattle were arriving into the auction mart from every angle. It was only five minutes before start time and all farmers were rushing to get their stock in to the market. The cattle auctioneer Richard Morris was  calling over the tannoy that the sale would be starting shortly. The alley leading from the loading docks to the numbering race was bedlam. I was working in that alley trying to get as many cattle into the race as fast as I could. Gates were clanking, cattle lowing and there was really good buzz about the place. The job was “bouncing”.

John Armstrong a director of the company appeared at my side. “We are going to be busy today” He said smiling. I gave a polite reply as I tried to get on with my job.

“How is the trade going to be?” he enquired. I turned to give him my opinion. As I did so I took my eye off the cattle waiting behind me to come up into the race. All of a sudden there was an almighty clatter and I heard the sound of a metal gates being burst open.

“Look out boys!” one of the drovers shouted. I turned around just as a huge 750 kg Charolais bullock burst through the gates and into the alley in which we were standing. In a moment it was past Mr Armstrong and hit me full on in the stomach. I was bodily lifted onto the animal’s head as it continued to charge up the alley at full pelt.

It carried me a full fifteen yards before throwing me down onto the concrete floor. Whilst I rolled over and over in the cattle muck, the beast proceeded to step on me with three out of four hooves, one on the shoulder, one in the midriff and one on the  “upper thigh”.

I lay in the gutter pole-axed and unable to breathe. John Armstrong who was well-advanced in age ambled up as fast as he could. Slowly he bent over me and I raised an arm expecting a hand up. He just looked at me quizzically and then he spoke.

“Are you alright?”

” No Mr Armstrong, i’m not alright”! After a long pause, he rubbed his chin rather quizically.

“I can’t understand it” he said. “That bullock is mine…. and It has always been very quiet at home!”………..

The Herdwick Ewe – “Who are you”?

It is a warm friday afternoon in the Lake District.  I have spent the day visiting farms along the valley of Eskdale. It is the annual stock- taking valuation day that i so look forward to. My final call has just been completed, visiting the Harrison family at Brotherilkeld. Proud farmers like so many in these valleys, Andrew Harrison who farms on the other side of the beck told me recently “all i ever wanted to do was farm Herdwick sheep to the very best of my ability”.   His comment is humble and heartfelt and i am proud to work for these people. Brotherilkeld is the very last farm at the head of the valley.  The side valley behind the farm leads up to the towering mass of Bowfell and the sharp summit of Esk Pike. Both the sheep and the farmers are bred for this terrain. Every nook and cranny of these valleys and mountain sides are known to both. This fellscape is both respected and valued by the farmers. Their care and commitment is rewarded in healthy flocks of sheep that winter well and thrive in the cold wet windswept winter weather that pounds the western Lake District. As I shut the farm gate I have two choices for my journey home. Turn right and drive back down the valley and up the west coast of Cumbria. Or turn left and immediately start the hard climb towards Hardknott pass.

There is no decision, of course I want to travel home through the heart of Lakeland. I’ve done this job for many years and each year I look forward to my Eskdale day. My car struggles for grip on the warm tarmac. Too much throttle and the wheels spin on the tight hair pin bends. At its steepest it is a 1 in 3 gradient and as such one of the steepest roads in the country. Up and up I go past the remains of  the ancient roman fort now called Hardknott. All the way up I am at once admiring the rugged terrain whilst at the same time watching for cars coming down the mountain road. Soon I am climbing towards the top of the pass at 1289 Feet. Hardknott can be a beast in the winter months, I know because I have been up here in years gone by. it is hard to imagine what the Romans must have thought when they created this track in AD110.

Today the view is spectacular. I can’t resist stopping the car at the summit. I am not time pressured. My work is done. I leave the car and take a few steps back down the mountain towards Eskdale. The valley stretches out before in a mosaic pattern of farms, fields and pastures, bounded at each side by the bracken brown slopes of the fell sides.

The air is still and the road remains traffic- less. A deep breath. It is the smell of the countryside. All around me the gentle cry of sheep and the faint bleating of their lambs responding.  Then only a few yards in front of me a Herdwick ewe arises from the grass. She takes a few steps towards me, placing her two front feet on a rock. From this lofty vantage she watches me and waits. Slowly, I take the phone from the breast pocket of my shirt. I take a picture of her. She seems to be asking me “who are you”? After a while she loses interest in me and walks a few steps down the hill. In a minute she is gone from view. The rest of the flock is further down the mountain.

I am left pondering the view and the sheep’s question “who are you”? I look down at all the farms I have visited. Each and every one of the farmers make me welcome, seem pleased to see me, to share some of their life  and their business, proud to show me their years’ work. At that point I realise that this is my workplace, these are my customers. These very sheep are providing me with a job, enabling me to raise a family and allowing me to have days like to day. As I stare down the valley, I realise that I am both proud and grateful, for I am a Lakeland Auctioneer.

The Lakeland Auctioneer

Let me begin by saying i do not consider myself to be THE Lakeland Auctioneer. There have been many over the years and there will be more to follow on in the future. It is the circle of rostrum life. As one gavel falls another gavel rises.

Where i am perhaps more fortunate than most Cumbrian Auctioneers is that my career defining Wembley moment has been achieved. You won’t ever see me selling those six figure sum, breed-  leading, record- making cattle and sheep, at the highest echelons of the pedigree industry. I’ve never made it to that league. My proud moment is the knowledge that during my career i have been the official breed auctioneer of The Lake District’s three indigenous species, namely the Herdwick Sheep (16 years), the Rough Fell Sheep and the Fell Pony. I can only think of one other auctioneer with whom i may have shared this honour and of that i am not even certain.

On that basis i think i can justifiably call myself The Lakeland Auctioneer, proud to have worked amongst Cumbrian farming families, like many other auctioneers whose work i have admired and respected. It is a job built on confidence where good prices, good numbers and happy farmers leave you on the crest of wave and master of all you survey. Alternatively when there is pressure, poor prices, farmers supporting other markets and no money in the pot, it can be a struggle to walk through the market with head held high. I’ve been there and i suspect most other auctioneers have to, though the farmers might never know it!

Some of the best days, are those spent travelling through the valleys of the Lake District, visiting farms, sharing the farmers pride in his farm, appreciating the work, the commitment and of course that privilege of working and paid to do a job amongst Lakeland’s rare beauty. Many days have i taken a deep breath and given thanks. it is those times i choose to remember best.

I would like to take you back to July 1987 when a fresh faces youth straight out of college headed for the brand new mart premises at Junction 40 of the M6, Penrith Auction. Here is an account of my first day on the job as a trainee auctioneer and land agent. It was perhaps a good indication of the next thirty years to come!

THE FIRST DAY

It is July 1987. I am 22 years old, fresh from three years at The Royal Agricultural College and today I start my first proper job. The previous years of training and student employment are supposed to have prepared me for this very day. I am currently back at home, living with my parents near Cockermouth after a three year gap. I make the 30 minute journey to J40 of the M6 motorway at Penrith. So today after my student jobs, labouring on Cumbrian livestock farms, Gloucestershire arable farms, cleaning toilets in a Swindon Gym and hod- carrying on Wiltshire building sites, my professional career begins.

I pull in to the brand- new Auction Mart site at J40. I park up my trusty old Mini 1000, put on my new starchy cream coloured auction coat and walk in to the building as a trainee Land Agent/ Auctioneer for Penrith Farmers & Kidds, on a starting salary of £5,500. I feel on top of the world and very nervous. I am welcomed and introduced in the office and then instructed to make my way down to the calf ring which will be the first sale of the day.

I meet David Jackson for the first time, who from that day becomes a long- standing friend. He is the calf auctioneer and until my arrival was the junior. He is about two years older than me but has worked in the mart since leaving school. He tells me to pen the arriving calves in preparation for the sale.

Very soon there are no empty pens. In fact the whole mart is heaving. The wagons and trailers are queued right around the mart site and out on to the A66. It is bedlam. The new market has seen an upsurge in stock as local farmers are keen to try out the facilities.

I am approached by an aged farmer who is clearly disgruntled by the whole process. He has abandoned his Land rover in the queue waiting to unload his calves and we are fast approaching sale time. He looks me up and down. It is the first conversation with any farmer customer in my new career. Then he speaks.

“I don’t know who the bloody hell you are, but get out there boy and sort this mess out. This is just no good”. He turns tail and I am left standing with my mouth open. Less than 20 minutes in to the job and I have already been shouted at. It will be the first of many rollicking’s in this role, i quickly learn it comes with the territory….. The farmers name is Geoff Faulder from Ewan Close, Armathwaite. Over the years we become well aquainted and I sometimes remind him of our first meeting. He chuckles every time.

Livestock sales will always start and always finish. In the blink of an eye, the sale is over, Sheep and cattle have new owners, the vendors are supposed to go home happy with the price and having had an enjoyable day in the auction. It doesn’t always work like that. But as least for now, I am up and running. I’ve had an enjoyable day. I love the bustle of the market. I love the auctioneers banter and the smack of the falling hammer.

Later, I bounce back down the A66 in my old Mini and I think “this job is going to be alright”.

My first blog post!

A warm welcome to anyone who would like to read my blog. I am passionate about the Lake District, it’s people and in particular the many farmers i have worked for over the last thirty years as an auctioneer and land agent.

This will also be an opportunity to comment on many current events that are affecting the Lake District and its people. I suspect most people who read this will do so because they  like farming or they like The Lake District. in my opinion farmers hold the key to the entire future of land management in this area and throughout the country. Who else can successfully manage the land, produce great food, care for and enhance the environement, our water quality, flora, fauna and habitat.

Farmers offer a great deal of benefits in return for a small amount of investment. I hope we can explore this as we go forward.

So that’s it for now. i hope you enjoy my work. Please feel free to respond.

Best Wishes

Adam