To meet the demands, both of today’s market place and historically, a highly specialist red meat chain has grown up in Scotland. Essentially this chain stretches from field to fork, from the farmer to the consumer, via various links including abattoirs, high street butchers and restaurants.
Supermarkets are the biggest buyers of produce from Scottish farms and take in the largest share of the food spend of consumers.
The purchasing power of supermarket procurement teams – a direct result of their dominant market share – is particularly evident in meat procurement and translates into a system whereby it is very much the buyer who dictates the price to the abattoir/meat processor, who in turn dictates to the farmer how much he or she will be paid for prime stock.
This buyer pressure, coupled with a change in the way government support is targeted, has led to an unfortunate reduction in the numbers of livestock kept on Scottish farms, as in recent years beef and sheep farm profits have been scarce.
Thankfully, Scottish agriculture has two trump cards to play. Firstly, the PGI (protected geographical indication) status, granted by the EU, which guarantees the provenance of quality assured Scotch beef and Scotch lamb and, secondly, the fact that we maintain a thriving auction market sector.
Auction marts are a much fairer way to manage the relationship between buyer and producer. A buyer at auction must compete with a number of other potential purchasers, and between them, their bids will settle on the true value of the sale item, be it a prime beef animal or a prize piano at the drop of the hammer.
The system of livestock auctioneering in Scotland grew out of the droving tradition, which reached its peak in the 18th and early 19th centuries but stretches back much further.
Essentially the drovers took large herds of cattle from their pastures in the hills and glens, to trysts – meeting places – much nearer to population centres. There, buyers would haggle with the drovers over the price of the cattle, with the haggling often becoming a long drawn out process, often to the benefit of local inns!
In the mid-1800s, firms of auctioneers began to ply their trade at the trysts, which were held on long established sites – such as at Stenhousemuir, Falkirk and Crieff.
Drovers and farmers, for at this time in the 19th century the droving system was coming to an end and farmers were beginning to arrange livestock transport themselves via the new railway network, quickly took to the use of auctioneers as a way of exposing stock to a great many potential buyers at one time. The buyers’ bids replaced the haggling and the stock was sold at precisely what the value was deemed to be on that day.
Many of the old auction marts have gone from their traditional town centre sites and many auctioneering firms have disappeared. Stirling is now the only town in Great Britain with two competing auction marts.
However, that should be no surprise, given the location of Stirling on the edge of the great stock rearing ranges and with easy motorway links. The central location of our own mart, The Caledonian Mart, is just as suitable today as were the tryst sites of old, situated as they were on the first dry piece of ground after Stirling Bridge – in those days Scotland was belted across the middle by rivers and bog lands, with Stirling as the main crossing point between north and south.
But, the purpose of this piece is not to offer a history lesson. Auctioneering firms, like The Caley, have diversified and now offer expert valuation and sales services to a wide variety of clients from local authorities to vehicle dealers.
Alongside this, we are proud of the role we continue to play in the red meat chain, helping to ensure a better deal for the producers of our world-renowned Scotch quality beef and lamb and the significant contribution they make to our £17 billion food and drink success story.
Whatever emerges from the political wrangling around Brexit, I would urge politicians and the public to continue to support Scotland’s livestock sector and its valuable PGI designations,
John Kyle is managing director of Caledonian Marts Ltd.