“I used to go to my local butchers when I was nine with my mum to get our meat,” Yorkshire butcher Will Spurr tells me. “I said to the bloke that ran the shop ‘I am going to work here when I am older’.”
It was a statement that was borne out to be true – and sooner than he may have expected. Aged 14, he was offered a Saturday job in the store, predominantly a cleaning and tidying role, but one that paved the way to a butchery apprenticeship.
Nearly a decade on, Will, now 23, has recently opened a shop of his own in his hometown of Ossett and, despite a drop in the number of UK butchers by 9,000 since the 1990s, he believes they still firmly have their place in the food industry.
“I think when supermarkets tried to push their meat side the high street butchers took a bit of a hit, but I feel like now it is coming back.
“People are wanting to get behind local businesses and they want to know where their meat has come from. They want advice from people selling it. They want that personal touch... They want a nice product.
“They want quality and they will come out and source it. As long as you are selling quality products, you will get people through the door.”
There were 15,000 butchers in the UK in 1990, according to the 2015 report Securing the future of our independent butchers’ sector, produced by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX).
This fell by 60 per cent to around 6,000 by 2015, according to a butchers database held by EBLEX, now rebranded as AHDB Beef and Lamb.
Though much of that period was one of decline, the four years prior to the report’s publication saw the number of independent butchers stabilise, a trend that was attributed to a change in customer preferences and shopping patterns.
A survey of consumer attitudes in 2014 highlighted an increase in the percentage of people saying that they frequently shopped in smaller local outlets, “indicating a growing desire to connect with their community and local supply chain”, the report states.
And more than 50 per cent of respondents emphasised the importance of quality assurance schemes, placing value on provenance, quality produce, animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
The latest figures, those from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show that, as of March 10 last year, there were 5,830 butchers in the UK.
“I think the meat industry on the whole has seen a little bit of a tougher time,” says David Lishman, the national chairman of the Q Guild of Butchers.
“But on the whole, good independent butchers seem to keep going forward.”
“The stores that are around now are doing slightly better because of the difference in offerings,” Karl Pendlebury, the senior manager for quality schemes at AHDB, tells me.
The customer experience is important. “Some of the stores have moved into farm shops and garden centres where there’s a ready-made audience – people are already going there.”
Karl, as well as Will and David, talk of a change in consumer demands, a movement towards “kitchen-ready” meals, that can be cooked easily within a certain time frame to fit around work, family and social activities.
Marinated meats and ready-to-cook dishes such as curries prove popular, whilst cold counters with cooked meats appeal to those wanting ready-to-eat food on the go.
“I think things have changed dramatically in the last three to five years - eating habits and lifestyle,” says David, who grew up on a farm and has run Lishman’s of Ilkley for 33 years.
“Those butchers, particularly the Q Guild, that share knowledge and experience, I think there’s a very good future for them. We are proactive and move with the times and introduce new things that are required.”
“The butchers that are on the high street now are there for the duration on the whole,” he adds.
Though the men are positive about how butchers are faring, there are some signs the road ahead may be a bumpy one, particularly when it comes to the country’s meat consumption.
Just last week, a report by scientists from across the globe - for the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health – said a “planetary health diet” requiring a shift from meat to vegetable consumption was needed to protect the wellbeing of future generations and the planet.
According to the think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs, complying with the diet would mean the UK would have to cut meat consumption by 80 per cent.
Campaigns such as Meat-Free Monday and Veganuary are also encouraging people to reduce their meat intake and have gained traction recently.
The latter grew by 183 per cent in 2018, and, says The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Great Britain last year stood at around 600,000, a four-fold increase since 2014, though still only a tiny minority (1.16 per cent) of the population.
According to research by supermarket Waitrose, published in its 2018 Food and Drink Report, a third of Brits now eat meat-free or meat-reduced diets, with almost 13 per cent vegetarian or vegan and a further 21 per cent identifying as ‘flexitarian’ (semi-vegetarian).
The top three reasons people gave for becoming vegan or vegetarian were animal welfare concerns, health benefits and fears about the environmental impact of eating meat.
The AHDB says there is little evidence of meat sales being affected though. A spokesperson told The Yorkshire Post: “Total meat retail sales were 3,016,808 tonnes in the 52 weeks to 2 December 2018 and worth £18.3bn
“This represents growth, of 0.7 per cent in volume and 1.6 per cent in spend, compared to the same period in the previous year.
“The percentage of households buying into the category was unchanged, which suggests that veganism and reduced meat diets have not had an impact on retail sales of meat.
“Underlying this is a decline in sales of fresh/frozen red meat, an increase in processed meat and an increase in the sales of fresh/frozen poultry.”
People are more concerned about where their meat is coming from and how it is farmed, David tells me. “And the independent butchers are the ones who can and will provide customers with what they want.”
They remain in competition with supermarkets though, which continue to have convenience as a selling point.
The challenge now for butchers is to offer something different, the AHDB says, “with personal service, quality, product range and local, home produced specialities.
“The butchers who are changing with the times are doing very well.”
‘Setting up is a big outlay’
Though the ONS records the net change in the number of butcher businesses between one year and the next, it does not have figures on the number of shops that have opened and closed. But Will, who launched Spurr’s Quality Butchers in October, believes as a young butcher setting up shop, he’s in a minority.
“Unless they’ve been an established name for a long time, there’s not many people like myself willing to get into it [and open a new shop],” he says, describing his job as a “24/7 lifestyle”. “It’s such a big outlay. You have to know that’s where you want to go. You have to get a lot of stock behind you, a lot of equipment behind you and meet all the rules and regulations. You have a lot of overheads before you open that door so it’s a huge risk.”