Wednesday morning, 6.45: a few men and one woman stand around in the drizzle on the village High Street waiting for the old wooden gates to open. Behind them, defiantly wedged between the butcher’s shop and the country residences of the affluent, is one of the last of its kind – a small independent abattoir. It’s not long before its owner, Cliff Pearce, also small, independent and defiant, swings open the gate, says a cheery “good morning” and gets the ball rolling.
Sam goes first. His farm, inherited from his parents, is a stone’s throw away and he is a regular here on a Wednesday morning, bringing in a few lambs each week. He’s one of the butcher shop’s local suppliers. Despite this, he only just avoids clipping the wall of the cottage opposite with the front of his vehicle as he negotiates the tricky manoeuvre into the yard, swearing under his breath as he backs in.
While we’re waiting, the rest of us compare notes. One man has travelled 25 miles, drawn by Pearce’s reputation, having been put off a nearer abattoir by rumours that it’s not always the meat from a farmer’s own livestock that is returned. This is something of great importance to all producers who pride themselves on being able to give customers complete assurance on how and where their meat was reared.
Another man is a newbie smallholder, with two sheep in a trailer that is small enough to unhitch and pull in by hand. He is anxious about doing this for the first time, of messing things up and looking foolish, of being seen to be soft about killing his own sheep. “Don’t worry,” I tell him, “Cliff’ll sort you out.”
When it’s my turn I forgo the pleasure of jack-knifing our single wheelbase trailer in the narrow street as the commuter traffic builds up and, selling out on the sisterhood, let a man do it. Inside the gates, all is calm. The cobbled yard is clean and tidy, the holding pens under the clay tiled lean-to are spread with fresh sawdust. I feel a brief pang of guilt at what seems like the ultimate betrayal, and remember my neighbour’s comment – “You have to have a heart of stone.” The six yearling rams don’t seem too bothered though. The pens could be in any farmyard and they are relaxed as they go in. The slaughterman, already in his white overalls, is patient and quiet around the animals.
I follow Cliff down the passage between the slaughterhouse and the shop to the small office where we sort out the paperwork. It takes a bit of time, but Cliff says the day that electronic records become compulsory is the day he’ll pack it in. We exchange news – his holiday, a mutual friend’s health – and discuss how I want the meat cut. In a couple of weeks, I’ll get a phone call to say my lambs are ready and ‘big Alan’ will instruct me to park by the side door while my boxes are brought out. Then I’ll go around to the shop to pay, have a chat and annoy the driver of the Co-op lorry who thinks the side lane belongs to him.
This is how it has been here for as long as anyone can remember. Cliff’s father’s name is still on the sign above the door. The shop, spotless, sells far more than meat and is the social hub of the village.
But things are becoming difficult for Pearce the butcher and, in turn, for me and other producers like me. Small traditional abattoirs are increasingly in danger of being swept aside by the relentless dominance of the supermarkets and their impersonal killing factories. They are hit unjustifiably hard by legislation designed for bigger abattoirs and struggle with the cost of complying with regulations. For those of us aiming at what has become a niche market, regulations mean there are some particular difficulties to juggle.
Back in the day when meat was a by-product of the wool industry, it made no sense to kill sheep before they were shorn, so most were grown on into hogget (1-2 years old) or mutton (over 2 years old). Skins were tanned and sheep manure was as valued as the meat. Hogget and mutton are, again, becoming more popular amongst consumers tired of homogenised supermarket meat, as is the taste of traditionally reared and regional breeds of sheep.
But the stringent regulations regarding older sheep force butchers like Cliff Pearce to turn business away. Since the BSE crisis in the 1990s, it has been compulsory to remove the spinal cord of sheep over a year old by splitting the carcase. (For further information on this, read “TSEs: The case for the relaxation of sheep controls.”) This slows the whole process down, devalues the carcase and increases the cost to both abattoir and farmer. For the very small abattoir it is becoming unviable.
So where does that leave a small producer who wants to farm in a sustainable way, utilising all of the sheep, providing her customers with a variety of products and supporting her local traditional butcher?
I’m lucky in that a few miles on from Pearce’s is the University of Bristol’s veterinary school at Langford. The abattoir, though larger, is still relatively small and they are prepared to take ‘splitters’.
It’s lucky for me that I have a choice; it’s one that very few small farmers now have. But it is still a choice between sending my sheep to the abattoir sooner than I would like to, or driving past my local abattoir in favour of one twice as far away.
In the past the connections between field, farm, community and consumer were links in an unbroken chain. The farming community still needs to have the choice to remain local, and the consumer still expects to be able to purchase locally produced food. But once the chain of localism begins to fragment the links get harder and harder to repair. How long will it be before none of us have any choice at all?