As many specialist meat shops face the chop, Kevin Berry reports on how the industry is fighting a recruitment crisis
David Lishman should be feeling happy and satisfied. He has built up a thriving butchery business almost from scratch. In recent years his shop has won titles such as Best Butchers in the North and Best in the UK, and he supplies prize-winning sausages to some of the top restaurants in Yorkshire.
Lishman's shop in well-heeled Ilkley looks as if it has been there for generations, part of the fabric of the town. Yet he cannot find a youngster who wants to train in his shop and become a butcher. There is no interest.
Where the next generation of butchers is coming from is a big worry to Lishman and butchers like him throughout the country.
"Butchers are retiring and no one is replacing them," he says. "I started training one youngster, a few years ago, but he phoned in the next day and said he didn't want to continue. Honestly, I hadn't thrown him in at the deep end. He'd been pressing burgers and making different varieties of sausages."
Lishman admits that there is an image problem. The public still thinks of blood-splattered aprons and cold, austere shops. Then there is the belief that butcher recruits need strong arms and little else.
"My first job as a junior was to skin a sheep's head and I very nearly quit there and then," he admits, with an appropriate grimace. "I was given a bag with 20 heads in and the bag burst. Ugh!
"The shop was always cold and the dish cloth used to freeze on to the counter. But all that has disappeared thanks to new food legislation and changing public tastes. Forgive the pun but the butcher of today needs more brains than brawn."
Lishman uses meat from rare-breed animals and he has his own rare-breed pigs. He is a member of the Guild of Quality Butchers, an elite group founded in the wake of BSE and e-coli scares. Members source their meat from locally-reared herds, which are invariably organically fed and free range. They share Lishman's concern over future recruitment.
"It is very much a creative trade now," Lishman insists. "And it's closely connected to the restaurant trade.
"People are very keen to be chefs, it's much more glamorous, but being a chef is close to what we do. Butchers used to prepare chickens just for roast, for legs and for breast but now there is such variety. We have chicken fillets, pies and drumsticks. Then there are the chicken parcels with apricot and ginger stuffing, chicken stuffed with sun-blushed tomatoes and Gruyere cheese, Wensleydale chicken parcels and so on.
"Chefs are taught to bone out meat when they go to college. And Richard Allen, the head chef at Harvey Nick's (in Leeds ) will ask us to send sirloin on the bone because 'it will do our chefs good to bone it'. Some of our other restaurants asked for meat on the bone and I thought they were butchering it themselves but no, the chefs are doing it."
The Vegetarian Society claims that 2,000 people forsake meat each week.
Lishman is not convinced that such a figure will stand close scrutiny and does not see vegetarians as a threat to his trade. There will always be customers, he believes, who want to eat meat from animals reared in acceptable conditions.
"I have vegetarians who come into the shop and buy meat for their families.
So we must be doing something right," he adds.
The greater threat to the high street butcher's shop is the supermarket.
Twenty years ago there were 21,000 independent butchers and now there are 8,300.
Last year saw 220 shops closing and in the same period supermarkets accounted for 80 per cent of meat sales. Ten years ago the supermarkets were taking 35 per cent of the market.
The Meat and Livestock Commission does, however, see the position stabilising. The independent shops are showing signs of holding their own.
Shops run by members of the Guild of Quality Butchers group are positively thriving. They have diversified by offering such things as oven-ready, restaurant-quality meals and mail-order services. But still there is the nagging problem of recruitment.
"The recruitment crisis is not something specific to the UK," said Graham Bidstone, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders. "It is a serious problem all over Europe.
"We are working with the International Butchers Confederation to draft recruitment measures, and a Europe-wide campaign will be launched in the near future.
"Unfortunately, the Federation is not yet a training provider. We have submitted proposals to the Learning and Skills Council for a national, easy-to-use training scheme that would attract new recruits.
"At the moment training is too fragmented. We want to create a one-stop training shop for butchers at all levels, using national and regional facilities."
"I cannot fault the colleges," David Lishman says. "The new National Vocational Qualifications are excellent.
"They give an insight into the industry. Someone who trains solely with an independent butcher, such as myself, would not get that insight.
"I never actually went to college," he admits. "I was never encouraged. Now I wish that I had. I read lots of books to find out things. The technical side of the trade interests me so I read a lot about that. It would have been nice to have had certain bits of knowledge a few years ago but you never stop learning, do you?"