A Year of Challenge, Change and Necessary Evolution

31st December 2020

For everyone, 2020 has been a year of challenge, change and necessary evolution, and certainly this has been the case for the UK’s Leading Livestock trading Company, Harrison & Hetherington.

Here Scott Donaldson Joint Managing Director, looks back on a year which has seen prices peak, virtual sales, events cancelled, canteens closed, and a growing international audience.

Following what were relatively lacklustre trading conditions through 2019, January 2020 began with new hope, with values rising in most sectors, and there were reasons for optimism across the Livestock industry.

This momentum continued into February, and we were delighted to be invited to conduct the on-farm 2-day Dispersal Sale of the 1500 head, Glenmore Organic Dairy Herd, in Co. Donegal, Eire.  Meanwhile, here at Borderway the annual sale of Limousin Bulls attracted huge crowds and we saw the top price of £30k – twice.

While trade continued to rise, early in the year, the deadly virus Covid-19 started to hit the headlines, and when lockdown was announced on March 23rd we had no option but to suspend sales. Fortunately, we never had to close the marts, and seven days later, under COVID-19 regulations, commercial sales recommenced. The legislation introduced a very strict Drop & Go policy, which meant we had to restructure our sales in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines, reducing the number of customers attending. During these initial lockdown sales we saw reduced numbers coming through the sale rings, along with hesitant demand.

For our entire team, this year has been about finding solutions, and with pedigree sales on the imminent horizon, a platform for these events had to be found. And, on 10th April, we were delighted to hold the UK’s first online timed auction sale of livestock with a Sale of Pedigree Dairy Bulls. This sale was a huge success, with a clearance rate equal to the previous year. It set the scene for both the remainder of the year and for the future of livestock trading in these uncertain times.

Our Spring Sales of pedigree beef cattle and sheep were also conducted using our Online Timed Auction platform. For everyone this was a new way of trading, and I am pleased to say that we had a hugely positive response from the breed societies, consigners, and purchasers. Attracting interest from the UK and beyond, we received great praise for creating a highly efficient and effective platform for people to market their pedigree livestock.

With digital trading becoming, for many, the new norm, and following on from the success of our virtual livestock sales, we used this medium for our machinery sales. Not only have we seen these sales go from strength to strength, we have attracted new and international buyers, and have traded over £2.16m of farm machinery, tools, and equipment over the 14 online sales that have been held since April.

As both numbers and values regained momentum and, in many cases, exceeded previous year’s results, I would describe June as our “Bounce-Back Month”

It was announced in July that the Annual Kelso Ram Sales had become a victim of the Pandemic and could not take place on their usual turf. Rams had to be traded – so immediately we had to start identifying opportunities to replace this hugely important fixture in the sales calendar.

Sales were restructured and scheduled across four of the H&H Centres – firstly, at St Boswells Mart, with the Unregistered Suffolk and Texel Shearlings as well as Cross Rams and North Country Cheviots; secondly, at Carlisle for the MV Suffolk Shearlings and Lambs; then to Lockerbie for the Border Leicesters, Lleyns and Berrichons; and, finally, to Carlisle for the Beltex, Crosses, and Dutch Texel Rams.

The result was 19% fewer rams sold than at Kelso the previous year, but with sale total only 10% less – an excellent outcome considering that at one point it looked unlikely that we would be able to conduct sales of this nature at all.

Although we knew it would be difficult to recreate the Kelso Tup Sale environment, the sales went extremely well – however, of course, the one major thing that was missing was something which is so important to so many people – the crack and the camaraderie.

At Borderway, to meet social distancing regulations and allow sufficient space for over 100 customers, we created a news sales ring in the Exhibition Hall.

Early summer brought with it the early commercial breeding sheep sales, which got off to a flying start and really set the scene for the remainder of the year, with values well ahead of the previous year.

In the Pedigree Sheep sector, to comply with Covid-19 conditions once again we had to split the Annual Beltex sale in August over 3 days. This was a tremendous sale, with an outstanding average between £250 and £450 up on the year.

Kirkby Stephen continues to draw huge numbers of prime lambs from and far and wide, and the Annual Swaledale Ram Sales proved once again to be an excellent 3 days, resulting in a £1.7m turnover with a top price of £60,000.

In the Dairy Sector, Borderway Mart has firmly positioned itself as the leading venue for dairy sales in the north of the UK. This year we have held 14 Dispersal and Reduction Sales, along with our regular Club Sales and Monthly Dairy sales. For many, one of the highlights in the Dairy Sales Calendar is December’s renowned Black & White Sale. It did not disappoint. The sale was a huge success, resulting in an overall average of £4410,  topping at 16000 Guineas, with a 94% clearance.

The years pedigree sheep calendar has drawn to a close with the usual fantastic selection of pedigree in lamb sheep, with sales covering a multitude of different breeds.

Values have been out of this world with Texels topping at £20,000 and £18,000, and Suffolks reaching £17,000 Guineas.

As we end the year, restrictions in some areas are lifted, while social distancing guidelines are still in place, and our online sales of pedigree cattle, sheep and machinery continue to be extremely well supported. Trade at Carlisle continues to thrive, with our weekly Monday and Wednesday sales continuing to grow, and although lacking the usual “Borderway Buzz”, new buyers have been attracted by the consistently large numbers of cattle and sheep available on both days.

Here at Harrison & Hetherington Ltd we are always very keen to support and give opportunities to our younger team members, and this year it has been great to see our junior auctioneers, Joe Bowman, Joel McGarva and Paul Gardner acquit themselves well and gain more experience in the rostrum.

So, I would just like to conclude by reaffirming that we can look back on this year with some positivity, and I personally would like to thank everyone for their support through the year. That is all teams of staff across our nine livestock centres, and all of our customers.  I would like to wish you all a very merry Christmas, and my own personal hope is that we can all meet face-to-face again in 2021. So in the meantime, please stay safe and healthy and enjoy a festive time with your family.