The popularity of the annual Melton Mowbray Traditional and Native Breed Sale amongst so many RBST members and native breed farmers brings home just how important livestock markets are. And Melton Mowbray Market has been providing a focus for livestock keepers for a long time; its history goes back a long way, to at least 1077, before the Domesday Book was written.

It’s not just about livestock either as the site provides a home to a whole range of other businesses, including land and estate agents, farm insurance brokers, animal feed stores and farm equipment sellers. On top of those, there’s a social side with its bar and banqueting suite. Melton Market is not just a place to buy and sell animals, it’s a rural business and social hub.

At RBST we recognise the vital role that markets play in promoting and conserving our native breeds. They provide a transparent, fair and competitive open market for the livestock trade. Perhaps most importantly, they act as a pricing mechanism, without which the value of the livestock may fall, detrimentally affecting breeders and keepers and potentially having a knock-on effect on the breed itself. This is why RBST has its own network of Approved Shows and Sales held at auction marts across the country, details of which can be seen on the website.

The current state

But whilst Melton Market may have survived and continues to prosper, that’s not been the case for many. A recent report by Exeter University entitled “More Than A Mart” and funded by the Prince’s Countryside Fund sets out the current state of our auction marts.

The fall in numbers over the last half century has been significant. In the early 1960s there were 939 livestock markets but by 2021 numbers had declined to around 142, a loss of around 80%.

This should not just be a matter of concern for those who recognise the importance of a healthy trade in livestock - there are also significant social impacts. The social value of auction marts has long been recognised, not least by those who go to Melton and RBST’s other approved shows and sales.

However, there has been little work on the role of auction marts in maintaining the wider wellbeing of farmers and rural communities. While markets are, of course, principally businesses, the increasing levels of social isolation and associated problems faced by rural communities have rightly encouraged many marts to explore their potential as bases from which other services can be provided to help improve their customers’ wellbeing.

Important for the breeds

For many, particularly those in the rare breed world, auction marts have another important function. They provide an occasion for showing animals. Showing, particularly when winning is so closely tied into sale prices, is so important both for the future of the breeds themselves and for the wider network of breeders and keepers. Alongside providing opportunities to showcase particular breeds and reward good husbandry and stockmanship, auction mart shows encourage healthy competition amongst breeds and stimulate social interactions. And they give a further reason for attending the mart.

The reasons for the decline in markets are not that surprising. The Prince’s Countryside Fund report found that, in the opinion of market operators, the most significant challenge they face is the general decline in livestock numbers nationwide and the resulting decline in the numbers passing through the markets.

Their second greatest challenge is business rates, one of many costs referred to by auction mart operators and a common complaint from the rural businesses upon which farmers depend.

The third biggest challenge results from the increase in deadweight selling and the use of collection centres, one of many examples of the supermarkets’ ability to dictate prices to the livestock sector that creates additional challenges for auction markets. Both farmers and auction operators expressed frustration over the issue, mainly because without livestock markets setting prices, nobody can be sure of a fair trade.

Other challenges, in order of importance, include competition from other marts, bovine TB control requirements, a decline in abattoir numbers, effluent disposal costs, bad debt, a decline in the number of farms, animal welfare issues, compliance pressures, health and safety legislation and what was described as an ‘anti-auction agenda’ from supermarket chains and large abattoirs.


In their report, the Exeter team set out a number of ways to improve the auction mart network. Unsurprisingly most are aimed at auction mart operators. The report recommends that they should: • Implement best practice and pursue business diversification.

  • In England, engage with their Local Enterprise Partnership to ensure that they are part of local initiatives which will be benefit from the Prosperity Fund.
  • Engage with existing industry events to showcase how mart activities can benefit the local community.
  • Look to bring younger farmers into auction marts through targeted activity.
  • Proactively seek relationships with town councils, local authorities and other similar bodies, as well as farm support organisations in the local area.
  • Ensure staff are supported to deal with mental health challenges, both their own and for mart attendees, through appropriate training such as suicide awareness or mental health first aid schemes.

Inevitably, central and local government have a role to play too. In particular, they both need to make use of auction marts as essential centres of learning to engage with the farming community on, for example, agri-environment schemes and other policy changes.

Farmers themselves also need to step up. The report urges farmers to:

  • Engage with support services and social activities at their mart.
  • Take advantage of events, training, discussion groups, networks and other business support offered by livestock markets to better inform both personal and business decisions.

Auction marts are more than simply places in which commodities are traded, they are institutions performing a whole range of functions that are essential for the future of the rural economy in general and the conservation of native livestock breeds in particular. The technology may have changed over the years, but the actual processes of the sale remain much the same.

Looking forward, markets have the potential to do so much more, not just as venues for buying and selling animals but becoming hubs for rural businesses and the centre of social networks for their customers and wider networks.

They give their customers and others so many opportunities, for competing in shows, meeting up with old friends over a drink or a meal or learning something new.

There is no silver bullet to secure the future of auction marts. But two things are clear: markets need to diversify, looking for new ways to meet the needs of their existing and potential customers and - as importantly - livestock breeders and farmers need to make use of them.

Jan 2022