Urgent action is required to attract more youngsters into the butchery profession and to educate the public on where their food originates, according to one of the youngest in the profession – Ryan Briggs, Jedburgh.

Having been in the trade for a decade, he is urging more youngsters to come and join him having recently purchased his own butcher’s shop, Briggs Quality Butcher.

Ryan was brought up in the industry with his grandfather being a butcher. He worked in AJ Learmonth Quality Butchers for 10 years as a washing up boy, before moving on to complete his butcher apprenticeship through Scottish Craft Butchers.

“When I was offered the apprenticeship, I was fed up with school and needed a new challenge. Butchery has always being in my family and it was always going to lead me there,” said Ryan, who throughout these two years attained a Level 3; Apprentice of the Year and was named Scottish under 22 Butcher of the Year which gave him the opportunity to compete with team GB butchers in Belfast, in 2018.

This experience gave Ryan the opportunity to run the shop in 2019 for the owner, Allan Learmonth, who then retired in 2020 when Ryan bought the shop – just 10 days before the first coronavirus lockdown.

“I had just been approved a visa for New Zealand, but I was desperate to run a shop under my own name, and I knew I could not turn down an opportunity like this,” said Ryan, when Briggs Quality Butcher was founded.

“The first lockdown was tough. People were scared to come out and bought in bulk so it was hard to keep up with demand and required long hours. I was lucky I had worked there for a decade before, so I half knew what I was doing and I had worked up a strong customer base and knew the staff well,” added Ryan, who now has a team of nine – one qualified butcher, one apprentice and seven shop assistants.

Staffing is a real struggle, not only for Ryan but the whole butchery profession. “It is not the most glamorous of jobs and does require hard work in the cold. The initial pay does not help as it is not the best compared to other trades, however once you are fully qualified it does make up for it,” said Ryan.

“It is not a desired job and we are really struggling to find any young apprentices to train up. A fully qualified butcher is very hard to find these days, but it is a trade that the industry will always need. Staff shortages are a real worry for the future."

Ryan also works to help consumers understand the sustainability behind farming and to promote the farm to fork policy. “Our biggest challenge to consumers is the convenience of supermarkets, the public like being able to get all their shopping together rather than going out of their way to get a better quality meat. Supermarkets really focus on price cutting but they forget about quality which is what we thrive on.

“Supporting your local butcher is helping the country’s reduce carbon footprint and really is the sustainable way forward. However, consumers choose not to understand this due to affordability.

“The big companies thrive on price. They would prefer to import the product from 5000 miles away than something on their doorstep, if it was slightly cheaper. We want to look after our consumer by giving them the best quality, but it is becoming harder and harder to get that message out,” said Ryan. During the first lockdown, he saw business increase by 60% because people had no other choice but to shop local.

“We really thought it was a change in trend and that consumers would continue shopping at their local butchers but since the easing of lockdown's, more and more people are returning to their old shopping habits,” said Ryan, though his business is still up 20% on the year prior to Covid-19.

Another up and coming talent of his is having an eye to buy the best cattle and sheep from auction markets at St Boswells and Stirling Caledonian, every week. He also purchases a few native cattle privately from local farms, including from Neil Gibson, Willowford, located just four miles away from the shop.

“Before buying the shop, it was never something I had done before but I wanted to be able to add value to our produce and give it that personal touch.

“My No.1 goal is to educate the consumer by being able to tell them exactly where every bit of meat has come from and where I bought it. In doing so, I believe I will be adding value to my product and their knowledge.

“By choosing my own cattle and lambs I know exactly what I am getting and what to expect through the shop. Furthermore, I am saving £200-£300 per week by selecting animals myself,” said Ryan, who tends to buy in two cattle and six to eight lambs a week.

“I have had my fair share of lower quality cattle, but it is all a learning curve to me. I am lucky that St Boswells is such a close community that people are quick to steer you in the direction of quality,” added Ryan, who looks for prime cattle with shape and length at around the 550kg mark. “I like the continental beef breeds, with a Limousin cross being hard to beat as it is a superior breed and yields a lot higher than anything else.

“As for lambs, I look for Beltex cross Texels around the 45-50kg mark again purely for their yields and quality. I like a leaner lamb carcase as I find you can do more with it,” he said.

Having to pay that little bit more for good quality animals at local markets is proving difficult which, along with all the other increased costs associated with staff, fuel and electricity, are proving a real challenge.

“These extra costs have to be paid for at some point, but we also need to stay competitive with the big corporate businesses,” said Ryan. Differentiation is the key to the value-added part of his business and producing ready cooked meals freshly made for customers to pick up is a huge hit, as well as pies which are equally popular with the shop – selling 1200 a week.

If the shop doesn’t keep Ryan busy enough, he has also ventured into his own pedigree Limousin herd run under the Jethart prefix in partnership with a friend. Now home to three in-calf heifers, plus three yearling heifers and a bull calf.

“It is purely a hobby but it has always just been an interest to understand more in my role of producing food. It’s another opportunity which I am excited to see where it goes.

“The aim for the next 10 years is to focus on the one shop I have and make it the perfect shop. I want to expand my customer base and continue to keep my current ones loyal. It is essential we get our name out there and reduce the education gap by promoting farm to fork and supporting local produce,” he concluded.