Today (Saturday, January 22) marks a milestone across all sectors of Irish life as many of the Covid-19 restrictions that have been a feature of our society have been removed.

“Spring is coming”, An Taoiseach, Mícheál Martin said as he addressed the nation yesterday (Friday, January 21) and, for the first time in almost two years, it feels like the mood of the nation is lifting alongside those restrictions.

The announcement confirmed that: social-distancing requirements are gone – mingling again at marts, co-ops, pubs and the like is back on; physical distancing in restaurants and other dining settings are no longer to be imposed – more ring-side attendance and canteen banter will return to marts; and that contact details will no longer be sought for contact-tracing purposes – among others.

Out with the ‘new’ and back in with the ‘old’ – but with some exceptions!

Mask-wearing is still required until February 28, at least, “in all settings where it is currently regulated for”, according to the government.

Whether this applies to the mart setting remains to be determined, but it will be a feature at Cootehill Livestock Mart for now, its managing director, Steven Drury, told Agriland.

He described the lifting of restrictions as a “great relief” but added that face masks and sanitisation will continue to be a requirement at Cootehill for now.

“We would still take this very seriously, even though the restrictions have been lifted, because if we have staff that go down with Covid-19, we could be left short-staffed.

“As a business, we still have to be vigilant, and that is the main thing for us.”

BC – before Covid

The Drury family took over and reopened Cootehill Mart in March 2021, so it has operated in the strangest of times since.

“The big thing for us was that when we opened – we are almost 12 months in operation – we had no people coming into the mart, other than to view the cattle and sheep in the yard for the hour before the sale, and then they had to leave.”

Restrictions eased in June 2021 and ring-side attendance was then permitted – under certain criteria.

“So, it hasn’t been as bad as it was [at the start], but we were still having to take names of all the people coming in, and their entry times – people really have Covid fatigue at this stage.”

“The announcement will make things a lot easier now for marts. We were almost treated like the hospitality sector, in a way,” he said.

“If you went into a shop, for example, you didn’t have to give your name, address and phone number. At the mart, we had to do all that, so we were having to do the same as a restaurant or a hotel in that way. It just fell short of us having to ask for a Covid-19 cert.”

No canteen – new canteen
As most mart canteens can now return to normal operating hours and capacity, Cootehill Mart prepares to reopen a “completely overhauled” canteen in March. Since taking over the operation of the mart, the Drurys have not been able to open a canteen but they made sure that farmers were fed and watered every week by the chip van!

Covid-19 positives

Challenge often presents opportunity, however, and faced with the initial stringent restrictions that prevented mart attendance, some outside-the-box thinking was required from the sector.

This came in the form of online mart sales and it was the industry’s saving grace, Steven said.

An online sale at Cootehill Livestock Mart. Image source: Cootehill Livestock Mart Facebook

“If Covid-19 never happened, then the online system wouldn’t either, it would have taken 10 years for it to become reasonably mainstream.

“Only for online sales, marts would have been decimated, that is for sure. Every mart would have been shut for at least 12 months, maybe up to 18 months, and how farming would have worked in that timeframe, we just don’t know.

“Before we even opened [the mart], the online system – Livestock Live – was one of the first things we installed, so that people could buy online,” he said.

As a consequence of Covid-19, online sales have become an exceptionally important aspect of marts’ business currently and, even in light of this ‘back-to-business-as-usual’ news, the online facility is set to remain a feature of the future.

Steven elaborates:

“We are bringing in buyers who, otherwise, would not be there. They might be standing in a mart 50 miles away, but they are still able to buy cattle and sheep in our mart,” he said.

“With sheep, we are seeing two out of every 10 bought online, and with cattle, almost four out of every 10 are online. So, it is hugely important.

“We have no intention of getting rid of that, it is a very good system and easy to use. And this would never have happened only for Covid.”

Hello crowds

As time moves on, Steven said he envisages – and welcomes – a return to the mart of larger numbers, as farmers become a bit more comfortable that Covid-19 is moving on.

It is a small reward for the sacrifices they have made over the last two years.

Related to that, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Martin Heydon told Agriland:

“Farmers have made a huge contribution over the course of this pandemic and the return of more normal economic and social activity is a welcome boost for our rural communities.

“Farming can often be isolating work and many of the normal outlets such as matches, religious services, pubs, and marts have been curtailed in some way since 2020.”

“As we look ahead with optimism to the spring I will be placing special emphasis on, not only farm safety, but also farmer mental health and wellbeing.”

Some things will remain…

While the hand sanitisers and masks might remain – and the online sales facility will continue – they won’t restrict the return to a time when going to the mart was a normal, social, and important, outing for farmers, Steven said.

“My own grandfather, who is 94 tomorrow (Sunday, January 23) would have always gone to a mart but hasn’t been able to because of Covid.

“He hasn’t bought an animal for 25 years but would always have had a huge interest in attending the mart.”

But he will be back ringside again, Steven said, once the weather picks up, and, particularly, in light of yesterday’s announcement.

Now isn’t that a great birthday present to receive in your 94th year?