PRODUCERS IN the south west have been dealt another blow with the closure of St Austell Mart, leading farm officials to call for a strategic plan to save the region”s remaining auction infrastructure.

St Austell Market closed on Nov 1 after a developer exercised an option to take over the site at short notice. That leaves Cornwall with just three markets, Hallworthy, Liskeard and Truro – the nearest being 30 miles from the now defunct St Austell site.

Auctioneer Jefferys had hoped to relocate to Bodmin, but planners refused to grant permission earlier this year due to local opposition including representation from the National Trust – a major landowner in the area.

The firm will continue to search for an alternative site, said partnership administrator Pam Selley, who hinted that the uncertainty hanging over the industry would not help when making long-term investments. “BSE was the first nail in the coffin, followed by foot-and-mouth but the market never really recovered despite a send-off by about 500 farmers on the last day.”

overall strategy

The closure sparked concern over the provision of remaining marts. Anthony Gibson, south-west director of the NFU, suggested an overall strategy was now needed to avoid random closure of markets in important areas.

“We could end up with a significant chunk of the region with no markets at all, as has happened in Glos, and that would make life very difficult for producers,” said Mr Gibson. “We need a spread of switched on, modern livestock markets that can do an important, valuable job for both buyers and sellers. We are very anxious to see the right markets survive.”

A survey by the south-west Regional Development Agency last year recommended a new market be opened at Launceston, replacing some of east Cornwall and west Devon’s smaller markets.

Other changes were needed to improve efficiency in market infrastructure, said the RDA. Highbridge and Taunton markets should be amalgamated onto a single site at the edge of Bridgwater, and South Molton Market should relocate to improve access.

Planners should approve permission for a suitable site in Glos to ensure a new market is opened, the survey added.

Chris Dodds, secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers” Association, said such a clinical review of markets could be a disaster for producers. “The loss of any market is a bad thing. It would be wrong for an economist to turn round and say you need this number of markets.”

The country had lost about 30% of its markets since 1997, said Mr Dodds. But surviving marts were now enjoying better throughputs and were determined to survive, despite the “massive financial restraints” imposed by government red tape.

“Large auction markets will survive and continue to thrive, but what will be under greater threat are the seasonal markets which form a very important part of rural life,” he said.

EU transport legislation over travelling time and rest periods would also pose problems if local markets closed down, he added.

Steer prices are holding up well despite the loss of beef and slaughter premium from next year as buyers pin hopes on a more buoyant market for finished stock next year, suggested Peter Huntley, auctioneer at Exmoor Farmers’ Livestock Auctions.

A good trade saw 700 mainly single-suckled beef calves go under the hammer at Cutcombe Market, Wheddon Cross, Somerset, this week (Nov 8) levelling steers at £396/head – a marginal fall on last year.

Heifers averaged almost £1/kg – or £250/head, slightly up on last year. “The amount that steers are down does not reflect the loss in subsidy,” said Mr Huntley. He reckons farmers are expecting a better price for beef from next spring in line with industry forecasts for a fall in production across the EU.

On the day, RF & JD Pither sold a Charolais-cross at £422, while a Charolais-cross steer peaked at £535 for T Holford. A range of breeds was on offer including Aberdeen Angus and South Devon calves.

“We’ve had a good quality entry and a reasonable number of buyers,” said Mr Huntley. “Trade ticked along quite nicely.”