Tuesday 25 February 2020

Why we need small abattoirs

Smallholders in Suffolk are having a particularly difficult time finding suitable slaughter services because of the continuing closure of small abattoirs. Here, in the west of the county, we are encountering these difficulties ourselves. Just a few weeks ago a small abattoir just over the border in Norfolk has closed its slaughter operations although remains open as a butcher. Unfortunately, this is not a local issue but a national trend and one of concern.

The loss of abattoir businesses has been striking. In 1930 there were over 30,000 abattoirs in the UK. By 2017 this had fallen to 249 (not all of which can be counted as ‘small abattoirs’). 

The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) has been instrumental in drawing the crisis in small abattoirs to Government attention. They highlight the essential importance the role small abattoirs play:-

“Small abattoirs are the unsung linchpins of our local food systems. Without them, we could not have local, traceable meat production. Small-scale, high welfare farming, rearing of rare breeds, organic or pasture fed and the success of local food businesses, including direct sales like meat boxes and farm shops, all depend on the services of small, local abattoirs.”

                                          (Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2018)

Despite their importance, the UK’s smallest abattoirs are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. With high running costs and a food and meat industry increasingly orientated towards centralised, industrial food systems, many of them are losing money and struggling to remain viable.

There are now only 56 small ‘red meat’ abattoirs left in the UK, with a third having closed between 2007 and 2017 according to the SFT.

One reason for the crisis is due to a collapse in the value of hides and skins. There has also been a significant decline in cattle numbers. At the same time, waste disposal costs for most small abattoirs have increased significantly due to consolidation in the rendering industry and higher minimum charges for small quantities. Small abattoirs find it increasingly difficult to compete economically with large meat processing plants.

Small abattoirs are consequently at a major disadvantage compared with the very large slaughter-houses which process animals for multiple retailers. Large slaughterhouses often receive significant amounts of public money in grants and also benefit from economies of scale, but the animals they slaughter generally travel many hundreds of miles at the cost of their welfare and the environment. In contrast, consignments to small abattoirs are typically far fewer in number and in small trailers travelling much shorter distances in their aim of serving local customers or simply supplying the household. The benefits of small abattoirs for animal welfare are being lost.

The concerns about abattoir closures has been picked up by the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Animal Welfare which commenced an investigation and consultation into the matter in March 2019. They were due to report at the end of last year but this has been delayed because of the General Election. It is not yet clear how the regulatory framework for animal welfare, including for abattoirs, following the UK’s departure from the EU is going to impact future policy and provision.

In the meantime, we are now looking for yet another abattoir where we can take our livestock when the time comes.


Ruse was a fine example of a small abattoir with whom we had great trust in them in the way they handled livestock and in their butchery knowledge and skills. Alas, they closed their abattoir a couple of years ago and just recently their famed butcher shop too after 160 years presence in Long Melford.

Saturday 22 February 2020

Fen blow

Another very windy day today and yet more rain is on the way. Storm Ciara, followed by Storm Dennis on successive weekends, both caused us some damage in our rather exposed location. The most serious was Ciara which ripped off the roof of our barn in its entirety, depositing it half way down the bank of the dyke on our rear boundary. This was not good timing in view of lambing starting in a couple of weeks when the barn is most needed.

Here is a photograph looking across the field opposite us on Sunday morning of the 9th of February when Storm Ciara was going full pelt and before the rain came. It shows a Fen Blow when farmland topsoil gets caught in the wind and eventually banks up on the field margins. It is often associated with the Fen peatlands but we also experience it on our light sandy soil. The field, about 40 acres, had not long been sown with onions. I don't know if it needs to be re-sown. Perhaps onions will crop up in odd places during the summer.

A Fen blow caused by Storm Ciara in the field opposite us.

A new roof for the barn has been constructed with a more storm proof design. 

The rain has been unrelenting this winter which for livestock keepers presents a real challenge. The pig paddocks in particular are very muddy and I am thankful we are not on heavy clay which would make conditions far worse. I'm already planning for next year (and subsequent years it looks like) to avoid this winter's pig-keeping difficulties.

Working on the smallholding has been on the irksome side recently. But then again, we have not had our home or business flooded as in the west and north of the country, and our crops and livelihoods have not been devoured by locust swarms as is currently the case in parts of North Africa, nor our house burnt to a cinder from uncontrollable bushfires.

Saturday 8 February 2020

I enjoy silver birch trees

The main task this week has been the annual challenge of trimming our front boundary hedge. I've left it a little later to do than usual but its not yet coming into leaf so too early for a nest site. I did come across two tiny  abandoned (wren?) nests made up mainly of woven wool collected fleece shed by our sheep. 

The hedge is about 200 yards altogether and a little over 6' high, and made up of hawthorn, blackthorn and dogwood. The blackthorn is very spikey and on one occasion one of the thorns penetrated the sole of my wellington boot which was followed by some impulsive hopping around. It takes about two days to complete the job including collecting up the trimmings.

We have several mature birch trees. Not the garden cultivars but ordinary native silver birch, Betula pendula. I say ordinary but they are very attractive trees all the year round. As their name suggests, they have a somewhat weeping habit and the distinctive white bark. In the autumn their leaves turn a stunning yellow and during the winter their thin, black, weeping growth on their extremities make for a fine tracery effect against the sky. 

Our largest birch is right in the corner of our property and during the hedge cutting I looked at it for a while.

Here is a different birch tree nearby but pictured in October.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Preparing for lambing

Four weeks to go before the first lambs are expected to arrive. I have started to give the ewes some additional supplementary feed as it is in the final four weeks of gestation that lambs put on most growth. The ewes need to be in a good condition to cope with giving birth and its aftermath.