Crisis brings down hammer on old market

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George Lake has been coming to market at King's Lynn for 70 years. Before that, his father joined his grandfather there every Tuesday. But George will not be coming any more.

Yesterday, the 300-year-old market in the small Norfolk town held its final auction - as the BSE crisis forced its closure. Prices of livestock have fallen so low that the market's owner, Barry Hawkins, can no longer afford to stay in business.

At the beginning of the year, Mr Hawkins would regularly auction about 80 cattle for an average of 125p a kilo (57p a pound). Two months later, he was selling 20 animals for 100p a kilo. Not good news for a man who works on commission.

Mr Hawkins blames the closure on the Government's handling of the BSE crisis. "It is a very sad day - it really is the end of an era. I feel very sorry for the small farmers," he said.

More than 100 farmers gathered under the leaden Norfolk sky for the market's last sale. They stood in knots of four and five, shaking their heads and remembering the old days, not so long ago, when the noise from more than 1,000 cattle and sheep would all but drown their conversation.

Mr Lake had no animals to sell yesterday but he wanted to say goodbye. Leaning over a pen and watching the farmers unload their stock, he admitted to feeling nervous about the future.

"I suppose I shall have to find another market, but Lynn was so convenient for me," he said. "The atmosphere here has always been so friendly and I shall miss it. We always looked forward to market day, it's a chance to catch up with friends and have a bit of a chat."

Most of the farmers were resigned to the fact that they would have to travel further to sell their livestock, but they remained philosophical.

Brian Reynolds, a foreman at a large farm in nearby Swaffham, said: "There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness, but there's no point being angry at something we can do nothing about."

Meanwhile, in the auction house, Mr Hawkins was preparing notes for his final sale. "I don't normally bother with any speeches, but today is different, and I want to thank everybody for their loyalty," he said.

By the time he rose to speak, the sale yard was packed. And when he repeated his assertion that the Government was to blame, there were loud cheers. Patricia Parris, for one, who had travelled up from Ongar, Essex, with six head of cattle, agreed with him.

Five years ago she had 500 head. By March of this year she had reduced the numbers to 220, and since the EU ban she has been selling them as fast as she can. "I'm giving up and getting out," she said. "Nobody thought the crisis would last this long but now I can't see an end to it. The whole thing makes me very angry.

"The Government should have been in control of this situation a long time ago."

It took just over an hour for all the cattle to be sold. The buyers stood close to the ring, bidding discreetly with a raised finger or a nod of the head.

The last lot was a Belgian Blue, number 43, weighing in at 595kg. The bidding picked up as two farmers battled to buy the last animal to be sold at King's Lynn, and a hush descended as bidding passed 200p.

The hammer came down at 253p, and King's Lynn supplier John Fowler walked away in triumph, smiling as he joined the farmers shuffling slowly out of the market.