Following the auctioneers at Thainstone Mart. Head sheep auctioneer Colin Slessor finds a new home for a bargain-priced orphan lamb.
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Farming is a risky business.
And when it's time to make money, the stakes are high.
Thainstone Mart - one of Europe's biggest livestock markets.
You want perfection, there it is. That is some machine.
Sheep, cattle and machinery
auctioned to the highest bidder, day in, day out.
Farmers spend months getting ready for their big sales day...
-You foul brute.
-..and buyers need nerves of steel to bag the bargains.
Folk can easily get carried away.
It's a bit of an adrenaline thing, bidding.
Fortunes can be made and dreams can be dashed...
..all in the blink of an eye.
Always expect the unexpected, eh?
Welcome to The Mart.
This week at Thainstone...
there's panic at the Mart as bad weather holds up sheep farmer
-Five inches of snow this morning,
which I wasn't expecting.
Husband and wife farmers struggle over the fate of a favourite heifer.
I think it's yet to be decided whether she goes tomorrow.
She would like to keep them all if she could have it, probably.
But it doesn't work like that.
And can auctioneer Colin Slessor find a home for an orphaned lamb?
£2, quickly, or we'll pass it by.
£2, surely. £2 for a pet lamb?
Bargain of the day.
Lying deep in the heart of Aberdeenshire, Thainstone Mart,
the largest farmer-owned livestock co-op in Britain.
Hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle are bought and sold at
auction here every year.
Spring is one of the busiest times in the farming calendar...
Need four lambs yet.
..and head sheep auctioneer Colin Slessor has his hands full,
sizing up today's lambs.
There's a lamb here.
With 23 years in the auction game,
there's not much he doesn't know about sheep.
Which lamb there?
And new recruit Scott Chapman has a lot to learn from the master.
You don't get many like that.
Scott left a career in the oil industry to begin
training as an auctioneer two months ago.
I wouldn't say I'm learning fast but I'd like to think
that if he tells me something I'll remember it.
He is listening and learning quite quickly, I would say.
Keen to work, as well. That's a good sign.
I don't like people leaning on gates.
I like them with a wee bit of zoof about them.
And Scott will need all the zoof he can muster to sort the sheep for
today's auction. They need to pair up each lamb with its own mother.
They're all numbered and got marks on them.
If you sell them wrong, it's a complete, you know, mess up,
so we've got to get it right.
34, 34, 34.
The numbers are a bit faded.
There are a bit like my memory. They're sort of quite distant.
I mean, that's obviously number... how-yah-how-yah-hah!
-You can tell.
I can see it easily.
But there's more to this game than good eyesight.
Helps when you've got wee short legs and a wide body.
You sort of act as a gate at the same time.
You're a physical barrier.
All right there. Scott nearly got a doof on the nose with a lamb.
It's all right. It wouldn't have been a disaster.
He's not the best looking lad, anyway. I wouldn't worry.
-You can't get the staff.
-Bit of a problem
if it happens to somebody like me, but...
If Scott can handle Colin's banter,
then frisky lambs should pose no problem.
Sorting sheep for sale starts on the farm
and, like any job, is easier when the weather is fine.
But it's been a long, harsh winter for Scotland's farmers and,
at Tealing, near Dundee,
sheep farmer Willie Miller is dealing with late spring snow.
It's come at the worst time of year, lambing.
People who are lambing outside in this last ten days
wouldn't have been too clever.
Cold winds chill a lamb as soon as it's born, get hypothermia.
There has been deaths.
Livestock do better when the sun's on their back.
With more snow forecast,
Willie is anxious to get his ewes and lambs off the hill as soon as
possible. The late spring means he doesn't have enough grass
on his 750 acres to feed all of his livestock,
so his flock is destined for the Mart.
The more lives I have to sell, the more money I make, basically.
The protective new mums can be feisty,
so Willie has had to call in his niece, Isla, to help sheepdog Jack.
They'll often charge the dog.
This dog, although 90% of the time he's very good,
he's not powerful enough to stand up to a sheep that does that to him.
At this stage, it's not easy working with sheep and lambs
when the dog's not up to it.
Willie lambed his first ewe at the age of eight,
and knows when to step in
as the sheep give Jack and Isla the run-around.
Isla, go to the side, Isla.
Once rounded up, they have to be sorted in batches for the auction.
Not as easy as it sounds.
We just need to wait five, ten minutes now,
till each ewe finds its own few lambs again.
But there's always a few escapees.
And with Willie hoping to average £57 per head at the sale,
he can't afford to let them get away.
It can get exasperating, but you just work away at it.
You get there.
With mums and lambs reunited, there's one more crucial task -
We're going to mark the mothers the same colour.
So if there's any mix-ups on the lorry,
we know which batch they're from, basically.
Each batch will be done a different colour.
This is probably the most important part.
If you go to the market and buy a batch of ewes and lambs and there's
one or two lambs in the wrong pen or gone missing, you've obviously...
They're not going to survive without their mother.
There's worse jobs you could be doing.
It's all part of the job that we do.
We breed ewes, we sell the wee lambs, hopefully get good prices.
That's the enjoyable part. The important thing is that the guy who
buys them has to make a profit as well.
You know, we all have to get a bit...a cut of the cake.
Helping farmers to get their cut of the cake is senior Mart auctioneer
John Angus, a man who loves this time of year.
It's coming to turn out time with the stock, when spring arrives,
so we get busier with the sales and that's when we get the bulk
of the spring cattle coming out.
So it's busy and you know fine it's going to fly in.
In Kildrummy, Aberdeenshire,
Charles Webster is expecting a visit from John
before his cattle go to auction.
I like my beasts and they like me.
They don't speak back and they're always pleased to see you.
Charles too has had a tough winter.
He's relieved that spring has finally come.
It's been a long winter, this time.
If the weather had been more amicable with us,
as you would put it, we'd have definitely been further on, like.
Ideally, Charles's cattle would have been out to pasture
at least three weeks ago.
Previous years I was letting them out, outside,
prior to the sale so that they're acclimatised for the next buyer.
But this last couple of years,
winters have been poor so they've been inside up till sale day.
And that's meant taking a big financial hit
for extra feed and bedding.
Oh, straw bales can...
Two, three lorry loads extra.
But when you love farming as much as Charles,
you take a £2,000 overspend on straw in your stride.
It's my job, it's my hobby, it's just...
-It's my life.
-Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
His wife, Alison, is every bit as
passionate as he is about their cattle.
-They can have it as well?
-I think so.
They're preparing for the most important sale of the year,
and selecting the best of the three-year-old heifers
to sell with their recently-born calves.
So I've seen them since day one.
So hopefully they'll go to good homes.
Where's that calf, Alison?
Last year, the Websters did really well at the sale
but the market has recently slumped.
A lot of it is down to cash flow this year.
There just seems to be a general lack of it circulating,
and when farmers have money, they spend money.
This is going to be one of the difficult years
for selling, I think.
Nervous wouldn't be the right word.
Apprehensive might be more like it, like, ken?
And it's not just losing money that Alison's worried about.
This is one of my favourites. This is 726.
I think it's yet to be decided whether she goes tomorrow.
She's really quiet.
She'll lie in the field with you
and you can sit down with her and she's very docile.
She would like to keep them all if she could have it, probably.
But it doesn't work like that.
You have to just look at it as a business sort of type of thing.
They're here for a purpose, to be sold.
Well, how are you doing today?
It's fine to see the sun shining, isn't it?
It is much, much better.
Auctioneer John Angus will be selling the cattle.
Are you happy with them this year?
-I am, aye.
-I'm happy with them.
And they're strong. Tremendous beast...
-But they're in first.
-Well, she's a good one to start with.
This is what we've been working on for the last three years.
-For three years, yes, aye.
This is when the payday is, tomorrow, then,
for the three years' work.
The cattle are looking really well, the heifers and calves.
They're big, strong. The calves have a bit of power about them.
I think it will be between £2,000 and £2,500...I think.
But there's still the question of heifer 726.
It's which of these do we keep, which of these do we sell.
Charles decides to let sentiment get the better of him.
-Pick her out.
-No, no, she'll be our cow.
Oh, you're spoiled. Oh, lass, you'll have to come out of here.
Decision made, it's time to say goodbye
to the chosen heifers and their calves.
I'm being quite honest.
No, I didn't enjoy seeing them going in a lorry to go away.
It's not an enjoyable experience, selling beasts.
Because you're at the mercy of the buyers.
They dictate what your income is.
At the Mart, Colin Slessor and his team are preparing
for a sheep auction.
There is some tremendous lambs in there.
There is a lamb there with a tremendous back end.
About as wide as me, which is fairly wide!
Behind the scenes...
..George Donald is in charge of the team who ensure
the sheep are at the right place at the right time.
They're always watching for things that can go wrong,
rather than enjoying the moment.
It's a bit stressful, but, at the end of the day, when things go well,
you think, "Well, that was a job well done."
George has spent all of his working life with sheep
and even he is astonished by the scale of the operation at the Mart.
The busiest day we had last year was just about the first week I started.
It was about 8,500 that day.
We were quite busy that day.
With 21 loading bays, over 500 pens and a site covering 30 acres...
..George and his staff walk miles every day.
I average about 13.
On sales days, that can double.
You have to pace yourself.
You can't go flat out all day.
Amongst the thousands of sheep and lambs here today,
there are a few without a mother.
Well, what we've got here is a couple of orphan lambs.
You know, some of the breeds,
the ewes are very prolific and they'll have triplets,
so what they do is they sometimes remove one of the triplet lambs,
just to leave the ewe with two.
She'll make a good job of the two lambs
and there won't be a runty wee lamb left behind.
If a foster mum can't be found, they can end up with Colin.
You know, they can make just £2 or £3, £4, £5.
A strong lamb can make a bit more.
I would say these lambs will sell fine.
It's a specialist job.
At a starting price of just £5, lot three is still a tough sell,
even for Colin.
Lot number three. What do you say for that? Pet lamb.
Five. Two. £2. £2 quickly or we'll pass it by.
Two bid. Lady's bid. Two. £2 for a pet lamb?
Bargain of the day.
At £2, it's going to be sold.
Lot three's new owner is farmer's daughter Lorna Edward.
She only came to the Mart to watch her dad sell his cattle,
but wandered into the sheep ring for a wee look.
Very much an impulse purchase, yes.
They're always best purchases, as you say.
Thanks very much.
It just came in the ring and it looked like a bit of a bargain,
so I thought, "There's a few at home,
"so it could just come and join some at home," so...
It was cute. You couldn't let it go past.
Cute it may be, but when Lorna gets home,
she'll have some explaining to do.
In the pens, another youngster has just arrived at the Mart.
-Dad, I can see them, look.
Young Jack Thompson is here all the way from Orkney
to sell his best friend.
This is my calf. His name's Toofey.
When we were cleaning out the cows, I used to hug him.
And when I was cold,
I used to cuddle up to him and he warmed me up.
It's nine-year-old Jack's first time at a sale
and he hasn't acquired an older former's business instinct yet.
Whatever he makes, I'll be happy with it.
However, he does want Toofey to go for more
than any of dad Hamish's cattle.
He's here to sell eight of his herd
and doesn't want to be bested by his nine-year-old.
50, 60, 70. 75...
What was it?
£770, a respectable figure.
And it gets better for dad Hamish as
the highest price for his stock comes in at £850.
It's now down to Toofey to help Jack beat it.
And it doesn't take long. How high can Toofey go?
885. Nine. 910.
What was it? 910.
That's right. 910.
Well done, Toofey. That's one in the eye for dad.
My cow made the most out of all of them.
For Jack, it's his first paycheque as a farmer.
That's my one.
But there's more to life than just money.
-Are you happy?
Back in the pens, there's time for one last goodbye.
Where's my cow, where's my cow?
Toofey! Hi, boy.
It's goodbye to Toofey.
But, sadly, not to winter.
Just when everyone thought spring has arrived,
the weather has turned again.
It's 10.20 at the Mart and there's a panic on.
Willie Miller's sheep sale begins in ten minutes
and he's only just arrived.
Five inches of snow this morning, which I wasn't expecting.
The heavy snow held him up.
That's them coming in, Willie, aye?
-And Colin still has to separate his sheep into lots.
-Divide into four.
OK. Just two lots to split.
Green neck and red rump.
There's two lots gone.
Just this one. That's all right, all right. Get down.
Willie's hoping for at least £57 per head,
but he's concerned the bad weather will put off customers.
I very nearly cancelled because I thought
the buyers won't be in a positive mood for bidding.
I could have just cancelled and brought them next week.
You never know. You only sell them once.
They may be dearer next week, cheaper next week, so...
They're here anyway, it would suit me to sell them today.
Willie's attention to detail with the spray paint
means the sheep are easy to split.
I'll see you up there, Willie. See you up there, OK?
But Colin's got to get a move on if he wants to start the sale on time.
No, we're fine. We'll make it.
OK, good morning, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
We start with the ewes and lambs.
All sold so much per head.
OK? Mr Miller's here.
He had a wee bit of a rush to get here this morning.
-The snow was on, you said?
The lambs and their mothers are sorted in the nick of time,
but will anyone be interested?
Willie wants well over £55 for each of the animals in the ring.
50. 40 bid.
£40. 41. Two.
Three. Four. 44.
Five. 46. 47. 48.
49. 49 bid.
Come on, spend them up here. £49.
You want to get good lambs? 50.
£50 bid. £50 bid.
£50 bid. Anybody else?
I'll sell them. At £50, away now.
51. 52. Three. 53. 53.
They're away. 53.
£53 each, way below what Willie wanted.
He'll have to do better with his mother and twin lambs.
Two. Four. Six.
Eight. 50. Two.
Who's going now? Six.
57. 58. 59. 60.
61. 61. 62.
I'll tempt you back. They're going to be sold.
62. They're away, sir.
62. Away at 62. 62. Singer.
£62 a head.
And when Colin secures prices in the 60s for the remaining lots,
it makes Willie's snowy trip worthwhile.
-Thank you very much, Colin.
-That's all you've got.
Thank you, sir. OK, Mr Miller, thank you indeed.
We move on. Who have we got now?
I think I got on quite well, to be fair.
The ewes, the single lambs are a wee bit less.
Don't know why, really.
But there was only 19 lambs there,
but I had more than 100 of the other, of twins.
So I was making £60, £62.
It gives you a wee lift to keep going
and keep farming and keep carrying on, you know.
It's somebody else's responsibility to make money out of them now.
Willie's ewes and lambs sold for a grand total of £11,500.
Averaged 59.50, which was £2, £3 more than expected, so, very good.
The work never stops at Thainstone and with a new day comes a new sale.
Shut that to prevent breakaways.
Yard supervisor Robbie Cruickshank is preparing
for today's cattle auction and with 3,000 gates to deal with...
..he's up and about early doors.
You're better to get going in the morning.
And hour in the morning is worth two at night.
But this morning there's a problem with one of the gates.
A broken hinge, like, so, it'll be
fixed before I can get cattle in here.
We don't want beasts breaking away the day of the sale.
We'll get the boys onto the job. Always expect the unexpected.
And as far as Robbie's concerned, one broken hinge is one too many.
Can make a difference between stock
being in the right place and the wrong place
or somebody getting hurt or cattle getting hurt, as well.
It was a cow that did the damage in the first place.
It was just a fat beast from yesterday
just happened to stand on the gate and it broke a hinge.
-The sale can go on.
There are 400 livestock auctions at the Mart every year
and auctioneer John Angus is gearing up
for one of his biggest sales of the season.
This is really the main breeding sale of the spring.
This is the first. This is the cream of the stock today.
It's also the most crucial sale
of Charles and Alison Webster's farming year
and the stress is beginning to show.
Oh, she's in the pen in the corner.
With the sale due to start in little over an hour,
they're anxious to get their animals looking as good as they can.
Right, that's OK.
Just clean the worst dirt off.
I like to see them looking their best.
It's been a lot of work to get them to this stage.
The sale's the most important bit.
This is just to show our wares.
Charles and Alison are aiming for an average of 2,500.
But the market for cattle has recently been in the doldrums.
Prices have baulked from last year.
I just hope it's enough to pay the bills
and meet the rent, which is due.
Prices are less good than we were expecting, like,
so a wee bit of nerves.
It's time for Charles to sell
and even John Angus has his reservations.
What am I going for today?
Well, I'd like them at 2,500, but I can't see
-me getting it today.
And as predicted, things get off to a slow start.
2,000. To start with.
At 2,000. 2,250. 2,250 bid.
Mr Fraser, Wester Clune.
That's 100 less than the Websters need and not enough to cover all
that extra straw bought in because of the long winter.
And with the next pair, things get even worse.
At 2,350 bid. 2,350 to Maggie Dalton.
That's poor, as well.
But things finally start to get better...
-26. Mr Bunsen.
-Oh, very good.
2,657. 27. 27. 27 to Maggie.
2,800. 800. Maggie Whiteside.
Not quite as bad as we thought it would be, is it?
And it's smiles all round for Charles now.
That concludes it. Thank you very much.
His heifers have averaged £2,530 each for their efforts.
A great result.
Good price. I couldn't actually tell you. I had to look at the ticket.
It was the same buyer. If they're buying the beasts...
Repeat buyer, so it's a good thing. So they must...
You're dealing with folk coming back, needing them again.
I'm happy. I'd better go and find Alison, see if she is pleased, like.
Alison's already in the Mart office,
working out what to do with the money.
I'll only get a passing glance at the money
because there are so many bills we have to pay,
so I see it with this hand
and it goes with this hand to the next person.
Start again for next year.
Now, that's fine. Thank you very much.
40 miles from the Mart at the family farm near Keith,
a sheepish Lorna Edward is
explaining her latest purchase to her mum, Dorothy.
£4 for an orphan lamb?
This is my friend that I bought at the Mart.
-And you bought it because?
-I felt sorry for it.
It needed a home.
And it was quite cute looking. Got in for a wee cute lamb.
Mum's reaction was, "Oh, for goodness' sake, Lorna."
So nothing new there really, just the usual.
-And what did Mother say? Probably I'll feed it.
Well, Mum's at home more often than I am.
So, what's one more when there's three, you know?
It was an impulse buy, you know, just a spur of the moment thing.
And then you think about it after.
It's a bit of an adrenaline thing.
Once you start, you know, it's when to stop.
Folk can easily get carried away.
I think she's happy in her new home.
They're never as happy as what they are with their mothers.
At least she's got company now and she's not just herself.
Next time on The Mart -
the Spring Rare Breed Sale, with all creatures great and small...
in the ring...
and in the car park?
Rare breeds, there's always some escapes, I'm afraid,
and it looks like it's goats this year.
Trainee auctioneer Scott steps into the box for his big break.
Eggs for sale today, boys.
And cattle buyer Jim bidding big bucks on some beautiful backsides.
A nice sort of shape about them.
A nice back end. I've had a look at them.
But so has everybody else, that's the problem.
Head sheep auctioneer Colin Slessor finds a new home for a bargain-priced orphan lamb. Charles and Alison Webster need auctioneer John Angus to sell their heifers and calves for enough money to pay their bills. And there's a panic on as sheep farmer Willie Millar battles a late spring snowfall to get his lambs to auction.
Narrated by Grant Stott.