Saturday, April 20, 2024

Ōngarue yards holding on, 107 years later

Neal Wallace
Ruapehu district’s community-owned facility not yet gone the way of so many NZ yards.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Ōngarue saleyards are down to one sale a year, but the chair of the saleyard committee, Ewen Fraser, says it is too early to call time and close the facility as has happened to others around the country.

Opened in the Ruapehu district in 1917, the community-owned saleyard’s heyday is well behind it.

Fraser said the committee has discussed closure for several years as yardings fell from 20,000 in its peak to 5000 adult ewes sold this year.

Demand for the high-quality sheep offered has encouraged the committee to continue hosting sales, he said.

The Kauri cattleyards in Whangārei closed late last year due to deteriorating infrastructure and declining numbers; that followed closures at Addington and Tinwald.

A nationwide reduction in sheep numbers has been accentuated in Ruapehu by farms being sold for forestry, said Fraser, but there is still demand for quality sheep.

“I had people inquiring about what was being offered this year.

“People are struggling to get good lines of cast for age ewes,” he said.

Fraser said he can’t speak for the committee but so long as there are quality stock available for sale and demand for those sheep, the annual sale should continue.

Buyers, sellers and onlookers at the 2024 Ōngarue sale. Photo: John Wilson 

A 2016 publication, 100 years, Ōngarue Saleyards by Lyndsay McMillan and Audrey Walker, traces the saleyard’s origins to a local farmer initiative in 1916.

James Fleming convened a meeting in July 1916 to discuss building a set of saleyards in the district instead of driving sheep several days, as was the case then, to selling venues in Ōtorohanga or Te Kuiti.

“As Ōngarue was the centre of a growing farming district and on the main trunk line, it was considered the most suitable place to erect new yards,” they wrote.

Within six weeks of that initial meeting, design plans had started to be drawn up for new sheep and cattle yards, which were initially owned by the Ōngarue Co-operative Saleyards Company Ltd.

Construction started in the first week of 1917 but WWI meant money was tight.

The first sale, held on February 15 1917, attracted 600 cattle and 350 hoggets, for which the stock firms NZ Loan and Mercantile, Dalgety’s, Farmers Auctioneering Co and Abraham and Williams offered the saleyards company a 0.5% commission.

A further cattle sale was held in November, and for the next 28 years several sales were held each year.

Subsequently, increasing numbers of farmers were defaulting on their shares – due to some having to walk off their land – prompting the committee to consider disposing of the yards.

It survived but struggled financially for the next decade.

Ōngarue Transport driver Des Heayns waiting to load stock. Photo: John Wilson.

Local farmer Sam Knight led committee members to canvass support, selling 55 shares to eight new shareholders, which saved the company from ruin.

With the settlement of returned servicemen following WWII, the advent of aerial topdressing and improved road access enabling stock cartage by truck, by the 1950s the yards were in need of expansion as more sales were held.

The January 1959 sale attracted 12,000 sheep with demand from vendors so great, the decision was made to sell lambs, two-tooth ewes, The cattleyards fell into disrepair, and in 1962 the decision was made to focus on sheep.

In 1983 the yards were rebuilt and, on the back of what was a popular annual ewe fair, they were expanded in 1994 and again in 2004.

By 2000 the annual ewe fair attracted 18,000 sheep, bringing buyers from Hawke’s Bay, Waikato and central North Island.

While numbers at some saleyards are struggling due to land use change such as farms being converted to forestry, tallies in other areas remain relatively stable, PGG Wrightson said.

“Some of the older and smaller saleyards have suffered from a decline in infrastructure standards, specifically in meeting current safety requirements and resource consent, effluent management requirements etcetera,” it said.

PGG Wrightson said it assesses saleyards on a case-by-case basis for compliance purposes and necessary repairs and maintenance.

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