Undaunted, sheep producers have begun buying and
selling stock within the restrictions imposed by
foot-and-mouth. Jeremy Hunt investigates the options
HITCHING up the trailer and setting off on the regular round of autumn sheep sales has been replaced this year with breed society registers, databases, videos and web-sites.
While some producers are making do and not buying in replacement ewes or stock rams, others have decided not to let foot-and-mouth impede their businesses any more than it has done already and are determined to trade.
Cancellation of large mid-summer sheep fairs was the first body blow to the seasonal sheep trade, stemming traditional flow of breeding stock. The major auction sales of Scotch, Welsh and North of England Mule gimmer lambs have also been hit, not to mention the vast number of breed society and multi-breed fixtures that should be providing the ram power for next years lamb crop.
So what are the options? Many more sheep than usual are being offered through classified advertisements in the farming press, but auctioneers, breed societies and new internet sites are also providing a comprehensive range of stock, on offer throughout the UK.
Chris Lloyd, of the National Sheep Association, advises any producer considering buying sheep this season to waste no time in becoming familiar with whats available through these new channels of supply.
"It is important to look ahead if you need new stock and ensure you dont let this years crisis impact on next years flock performance and profitability.
"It is difficult to predict whether some auction sales will be allowed to take place. But I would recommend producers needing to restock or buy in new stock to familiarise themselves with the available options rather than waiting to see whether sales will be permitted.
"The impact of the 21-day rule must also be factored into any purchases and it is vital that licensing requirements for stock movements are thoroughly checked."
Most auction companies now have lists of sheep for sale. According to a spokesman for United Auctions in Perth "we have anything and everything".
The company has tens of thousands of sheep on its register. As well as pedigree stock, there are vast numbers of store lambs and commercial breeding females registered for private sale. It looks likely that the company will have to arrange private deals for the 40,000 North Country Cheviot lambs traditionally sold through the auction ring at Lairg.
"Its a huge task but the stock is there to be sold. It is not a conventional season, but we are sure there is a willingness among producers to trade. Its our job to match buyers and sellers," says the UA spokesman.
The loss of mid-summer sheep fairs has also caused a log-jam of stock in the south and midlands. But according to auctioneer Brian Pile there have been plenty of enthusiastic buyers of shearling ewes.
Mr Pile, of Northampton Auction Mart, auctioneers at Bicester Fair, reckoned to have about 20,000 shearling ewes on his register in mid-August, from a total of 32,000 sheep of all types.
"Providing buyers give us precise details of what they are looking for and an idea of the price they want to pay, we can put them in touch with vendors.
"In many cases, two or three producers have joined forces and travelled to the midlands to inspect several flocks during a one-day visit. Producers make their selections, agree a price and we complete the transaction."
No animals can be sold from the farm for 21 days after new stock has arrived other than for slaughter. Other animals can be introduced, but from every arrival date another 21-day period starts, explains Mr Pile.
"Buying in over a period of three weeks means you are imposing a six-week period of slaughter-only sales off the farm," he says.
Although many of the large breed societies and commercial sheep breeding organisations are offering members stock via their own websites, the launch of website, www.sheepfinder.com is intended to co-ordinate all sales registers in the UK.
Jonathan Barber, chief executive of the British Charollais Sheep Society, has been closely involved in the setting up of the all-breed sheepfinder site.
"We hope auction marts, breed societies and sheep breeding associations will become involved. This website will provide sheep producers with the most comprehensive one-stop shop for sheep during these difficult trading circumstances," says Mr Barber.
To obtain space to sell stock on the sheepfinder website costs £20 as the initial joining fee. There is a further £2.50 charged on every individual pedigree sheep sold and £2.50 for all groups of 10 commercial sheep. It is intended that transactions are brokered by local auctioneers or those appointed by breed societies.
Although F&M has severely depleted numbers of North of England Mule gimmer lambs on offer this year, North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA) secretary Dorothy Bell says there are plenty of lambs available from areas that have not been affected by the disease.
"There are many good, well grown gimmer lambs from clean areas of Northumberland, Weardale and Teesdale. We hope regular buyers will take heed of this and make enquiries through the auction marts from which they would usually purchase at the traditional autumn sales," says Mrs Bell.
She reckons there are about 180,000 Mule gimmer lambs to sell this season compared with the usual 325,000. *
• Sales uncertain.
• Investigate alternatives.
• Remember 21-day rule.