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!