In the south west of England, a chain of family butchers shops is hoping to achieve what many think is impossible. After decades of declining shop numbers, Andrew Maunder is promising a butchers revival.

Maunder led a management buy-out of the chain of 14 Lloyd Maunder butchers shops in July, and renamed them West Country Family Butchers. He is convinced butchers are a vital part of community life and has launched a publicity campaign, claiming shoppers can save money by buying cheaper cuts and using the knowledge of a trained butcher.

Maunder is not the only butcher keen to espouse the virtues of the specialist. Walter Jones, Britain’s largest chain of independent butchers, is another business that is proud of the way it is successfully differentiating itself from the supermarkets. So are we witnessing a renaissance? If we are, it is one that is long overdue.

According to HM Revenue and Customs, the number of butchers shops declined from 9,081 in April 2000 to 7,022 in April this year. That’s more than 20 butchers closing each month. A report published earlier this year by the New Economics Foundation claimed Britain risks becoming a nation of ghost towns as the closure of high-street businesses ‘squeezes the lifeblood out of economies’.

“We are witnessing the slow death of communities’ small independent retailers,” says report co-author Andrew Simms. The reasons are well documented. As supermarkets have steadily grown, so consumers have turned to them as cheaper and more convenient places to buy meat than butchers. The decline really took hold in the 1990s, when BSE rocked the meat industry, and through two outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease this decade.

With people now railing against the power of the supermarkets and looking for something different, the time is ripe for a revival of the specialist butcher, believes Maunder.

“Too many people wrongly assume high-street butchers are expensive,” he says. “We can keep prices competitive because we butcher the whole carcase, and customers can choose their cuts and quantities according to their budgets. We’ve also got the expertise and time to help our shoppers by telling them where their meat comes from, suggesting alternative cuts and flagging up anything that’s particularly good value that week.”

Proactive communication is important, but so is the ability to adapt your offer, says Robert Jones, one of the directors of Walter Smith. Jones joined the chain of 24 shops in and around Birmingham as a Saturday boy and has worked there for 30 years.

“At one time all Walter Smith shops were identical – the same signage, the same product lines – whatever the location,” says Jones. “But over the years I have realised that different locations demand different products. I now have a shop in Birmingham on Soho Road, where the customers are probably 70% Afro-Caribbean and we sell a lot of cows heels, pigs tails, oxtails; lots of meat with the bone in.

"I’ve got another shop in Knowle village, Solihull, which is probably one of the most affluent areas outside London. It is a magnificent shop; all the pigs are free-range, and we get lamb from Lord Litchfield’s estate. I buy my English meat out of Hereford and Bridgenorth local markets, matured for two for three weeks. A lot of businesses lose sight of the fact that the key is giving customers what they want.”

Innovation is also important. Maunder recently teamed up with local farmers, offering them the chance to sell their products in his shops. The proviso was that the farmers had to be based within 30 miles of the shop.

“Our business is based on selling local meats to local people,” says Maunder. “There are many good farmers in the area who are too small to be regular suppliers but have a fantastic product, and we want to find a way to stock it.”

Graham Bidston of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders says innovative butchers such as Maunder can do well, but the biggest threat to such businesses is a lack of trained staff coming through.

“It is not a sexy industry to come into,” he says. “But we need to say to young people it is one of the few skilled trades left and is a multi-faceted job.” Jones has tried to counter this problem by enlisting staff from the Walter Smith training school, and says so far the only problem he has had is when other butchers poach his newly trained recruits.

Another strategy for success, according to Jones, is membership of trade bodies. He has paid for four of his shops to join the Q Guild, an organisation for butchers shops that specialise in premium products. Members meet, swap ideas and are regularly inspected to keep standards up. Jones says the Q Guild has helped him differentiate his business.

“Supermarkets are not competition for us and, let’s be honest, we’re not competition for them. They are multi-billion pound giants trundling along. It is like asking a Savile Row tailor if they feel compromised by Next. It’s a different clientele.”

And as far as the specialist butchers go, an increasingly sizeable one. Jones is certainly upbeat. “We are seeking another two possible openings for shops at the moment,” he says. “I feel very confident in the future of retail butchers.”