THE company which has transformed business at Masham auction mart since the foot-and-mouth crisis has attacked "misleading" claims by planning consultants who have suggested that the site could be earmarked for housing.

More support for retention of the mart, which opened in Leyburn Road almost a century ago for the benefit of the community, has come from farmers who claim that closure would have a serious effect on other businesses in the area.

Farmers were assured last week that it is still business as usual at the mart even though the new use was suggested by consultants preparing a planning blueprint for Masham as part of a new local development framework being prepared by Harrogate Borough Council.

The consultants said they had identified the site because it was previously developed land in the urban area, was not an employment site and was grossly under-used, it was within walking distance of the town centre and public transport and redevelopment would enhance the conservation area.

The mart lease was taken over in 2002 after the foot-and-mouth crisis by the Skipton-based Craven Cattle Marts, and trading at the 84-year-old site resumed in April that year.

Jeremy Eaton, of CCM, the general manager at Masham, said: "The move effectively ensured the future of the well-known mart, which has a long and distinguished history and forms an integral part of Masham and the wider district in general.

"It also represented a significant expansion of CCM's livestock sales activities. We remain fully committed to the future continuance and development of Masham."

Mr Eaton said: "To suggest that the site does not provide employment and is under-used is both incorrect and misleading.

"We employ more than a dozen full and part-time people on main sale days and we hold two livestock sales every week, plus special monthly sales of store cattle and high-profile seasonal sales.

"These include sales of the renowned Masham sheep breed, both gimmer lambs and shearlings.

"The area is noted for its high -quality breeding and store stock and the mart is one of only two locations in the entire country where Masham sheep can be purchased."

Masham sheep farmer Willis Graham, who managed the mart when it was run by local people, said: "The mart was set up by our grandfathers for us and future generations to use and CCM are doing a very good job. There is a very strong feeling among local farmers.

"Masham is a market town that revolves around agriculture and local farm-orientated businesses like local vets and the two animal feed firms would be very badly hit by closure of the mart. The jobs of so many people could depend on it."

A spokesman for Masham Farmers' Livestock Auction Mart stressed that at this stage it had no intention of applying for alternative planning permission for the site.

Options were simply being kept open in case it was eventually found that the mart was no longer economically viable because of any changes imposed on the farming industry by Defra after foot-and-mouth.