In the 1930s there were said to be 30,000 small abattoirs in the UK, but now there are less than 100. Fighting to keep his business open for some 40 years, William Lloyd Williams is at the centre of this ongoing battle. Hannah Park reports.
When the coronavirus outbreak hit, many local butchers, village stores and farm shops saw queues of new customers out of the door.
Fragile supply chains, coupled with swathes of consumers stockpiling what they could, left many supermarket shelves bare and people were forced into sourcing their food differently.
Small, local businesses in towns and villages were put back on the map, and keeping the wheels turning when it came to meat availability in many cases was, and continues to be, small abattoirs.
But the figures behind their demise make for sobering reading.
In a new report by the All-Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, small abattoirs are recognised as an essential part of the infrastructure for a rural livestock industry.
But look to the figures and, as of April 2020, there are 13 fewer small abattoirs than there were in April 2016 and, over the past decade, a drop of one-third.
Yet since the pandemic began, small abattoirs have proven to be remarkably resilient.
Abattoir and butchers shop owner William Lloyd Williams’ business is among those which has been able to increase its output when larger facilities were slashing production due to social distancing rules in the cutting rooms.
With his abattoir and cutting room less than 500 yards from his butchers shop in Machynlleth, Powys, the family business has been serving customers since the 1950s.
And William personifies the real value that local, small businesses like his can offer.
His shop is the type of place where they remember what you bought last time, ask after your family or, as in lockdown, go that extra mile to source and distribute enough meat for the whole community.
“People talk about selling a story nowadays - we’ve been doing that for decades”
William Lloyd Williams
A larger than life character, he is known for always having a pen lodged behind his ear ready to take orders.
It is so integral to his persona that a pen accompanied him to Buckingham Palace when collecting an MBE for services to the meat industry in 2009; just in case The Queen may have wanted to order a turkey for Christmas.
William has been in this business all his life and while he says retirement was on the cards for a time, it looks to have bypassed him for now.
He says: “It’s funny how if you stick at something long enough, you’ll often see it go full circle. People talk about selling a story nowadays – we’ve been doing that for decades.
“All the buzzwords of today, such as ‘traceability’, ‘low food miles’ and a ‘low carbon footprint’ are what we do every week of the year. And it’s not for show; by default we’re a cog in the wheel which could help to save the planet.”
William explains how back in the 1950s and 1960s, the family business had shops in Tywyn, Aberdyfi, Corris and Machynlleth, alongside the abattoir.
He says: “Of course, everybody ate meat then. I don’t think the word vegan was in the dictionary.
“But then supermarkets opened and, in time, it meant the end for many local butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.
“It’s these that made smaller communities where everyone knows everyone, and it’s sad in a way there isn’t going to be another generation like it. Eventually our other shops went and we stuck with this one.”
Alongside the abattoir and butchers shop, William also has a 16-hectare (40-acre) smallholding, where he keeps a handful of Hereford cows and store lambs, which he will sell through the shop as he needs.
He says: “If you didn’t know I was a slaughterman, you’d never believe it the way I carry on with my animals.”
“I am really proud that during this pandemic, myself and my staff have helped to feed the nation”
William Lloyd Williams
This is perhaps among the many disparities setting William’s business apart from larger facilities.
As he puts it, there will always be those animals which won’t make it to market.
Be it those which fall outside stipulated specifications of larger facilities on type or breed. Or home kills for the growing network of direct sales ventures, meat boxes and so on as farmers are increasingly encouraged to diversify to become more resilient.
William says: “It’s always busy this time of year around Christmas with this sort of thing too. People will bring an animal in for their own freezer which they might share among family and friends.
“In order for these things to happen, there needs to be small abattoirs.”
Yet despite the evidence supporting the value a diverse local abattoir network can bring to farming communities, small establishments have been burdened for years with rising costs, more regulation and, in many cases, a falling income.
William says: “We’ve had our back to the wall many times. That is one of the reasons I think we’ve made a success of our business – we’ve had to fight for it. And when you’re forced to do that, you protect it more.”
From industry crises, such as BSE and foot-and-mouth, to incoming European legalisation, consultations and revised regulations and standards, William portrays an ongoing cycle of audits and paperwork.
All of this needs to be kept on top of, alongside investment to keep buildings and infrastructure like floors, roofs, electrics, chillers and handling pens up to standard.
Keeping the abattoir open ‘has been a devil of a job’, he says, but one he has fought tooth and nail for.
He says: “I didn’t think they [regulatory bodies] had the right with their clipboards to threaten closure to a well-run, long established family business. So I’ve dug my heels in.”
Requirements around new technology and equipment are among more recent regulatory stipulations for small abattoirs, including CCTV.
William says: “It used to be you were innocent until proven guilty, but I feel now that I’m guilty and that I have to prove my innocence.
“In a short food supply chain, you can identify a problem immediately. Regulation does have its place, but so does common sense.”
That said, William is committed to representing businesses like his from a practical perspective and has long sat on numerous committees and boards in a bid to give them a voice.
He says: “When I go to London to speak to the Food Standards Agency and Defra, I’m not just representing small abattoirs, I have one.”
Among other commitments, William is now an executive councillor for and actively involved in the National Craft Butchers network, a trade association supporting independent butchers, farm shops, small abattoirs and meat cutting plants.
Although pressures continue for businesses such as William’s, the latest curveball, in the form of Covid-19, is one no-one could have predicted.
He says: “I am really proud that during this pandemic, myself and my staff have helped to feed the nation.
“The first month was difficult for people to get their heads around; social distancing rules in shops were alien and people started to panic buy. But once we got the message out that there was enough meat to go around, that we were doing deliveries and so on, it eased.
“The best bit though is it has brought us a younger customer base we have been trying to get for years.
“They might say “there’s pork steaks here; how would you cook them?’ We tell them; it is all part of the job, a service you cannot get in supermarkets.
“With what has happened, hopefully more people will start to understand the real value of local services and local food.”
Meat consumption trends might be shifting downward, but William says it is an opportunity to tap into calls for a higher quality, better traceable product which go with it.
He says: “The small abattoir ethos of producing local meat for local people is one everyone likes on paper. But it has to be recognised for what it is and be allowed to operate. Ours is an industry with a future as long as it has support from the right people.”
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