THE strong winter sunlight reflected the mood as the region's farmers marked an important step back to normality with the first cattle auction in the region after the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Hundreds of farmers from across the North-East and North Yorkshire converged on Hexham Mart, in Northumberland.

For the first time since the mart closed on February 23 last year, farmers packed into the main ring at 10am to start bidding for 550 head of store cattle.

Robert Jewitt, of Ebchester, County Durham, said: "Just look at the faces."

Not only was it a chance for business, but for many it was the first time they had socialised in a year.

Mr Jewitt said: "It is good to be back to a situation where we can get the true value for our cattle.

"With the abattoirs it has been a case of take it or leave it. If we are not content with the prices here, at least we can take them home again."

But nobody was taking their cattle home on Friday, with the stock averaging an "encouraging" £485.

Elliott Denehouse, 70, of Morpeth, Northumberland, who experienced the foot-and-mouth outbreaks of 1959 and 1967, said he was just there to see how things were going.

He said: "Everybody has been waiting for this day for a long time. It is an important step forward. We are all looking forward to the future."

Jeff Sunter, of Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, said: "This auction is just we have needed.

"It is not only a chance to make money, but to socialise as well. It is part of our way of life."

But any optimism there may have been was tempered by frustration over a lack of impetus from the country's leaders.

Lol Dixon, of Rothbury, Northumberland, said: "Maybe we are just through this curse, but we still need much clearer direction from the Government about our future."

Prime stock auctioneer Robert Whitelock said: "It has been a good day. Farmers are just pleased to be selling their stock again."