The number of independent butcher shops in Ireland fell by 65% over an almost 30-year period, according to the coordinators of a butchery apprenticeship programme.
There were around 2,300 independent butcher shops in Ireland in 1990, but by 2019 that figure had fallen to about 800.
It is estimated that between 20 and 30 shops closed their doors annually over the past five to six years.
According to the 2016 Census, there were approximately 6,300 butchers working in Ireland across the entire meat industry.
In early 2016, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim Education and Training Board (MSLETB) and the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland (ACBI) joined forces to develop the National Craft Butchery Apprenticeship.
National programme manager, Julie Cahill, said that the course was established to meet the employee and skills shortage and market developments in the Irish butchery and food retail sector.
The two-year programme was validated by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) in September 2018, with the first class beginning at the Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre in Co. Dublin the following month.
Around 60 apprentice butchers have enrolled in the course every year, with training also provided by MSLETB, Cork Education and Training Board (ETB) and Galway and Roscommon ETB.
The participants spend 86% of their apprenticeship doing on-the-job training with a SOLAS-approved employer and the remainder at their nearest training centre.
Among the skills apprentices learn are practical meat cutting, food safety and hygiene and animal welfare.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that teaching the apprentices moved online.
Along with making the course more accessible, remote learning gave tutors more of an opportunity to engage and support the apprentices.
However, the course coordinators said that it is anticipated that the bulk of training on this “practical course” will continue in the dedicated training centres into the future.
The challenges and pressures facing retailers, particularly during the first year of the pandemic, made practical on-the-job learning more difficult.
Despite the pandemic, recruitment for the programme continued, with 52 apprentices registered between October 2020 and last September.
Butchery is traditionally a seen as a male-dominated industry, but of the current 79 apprentices, eight are women.
Edita Bilkova, who is in the second year of her apprenticeship with James Whelan Butchers at Dunnes Stores, Cornelscourt, Co.Dublin, enjoys the practical aspect of the programme the most.
“I really enjoy learning the traditional skills of the craft; breaking beef, lamb and pork. I enjoy getting to know the different cuts and preparing products for retail display and sale.
“It’s an exciting journey, and I am fully supported along the way by my tutors, classmates and work colleagues,” Edita said.
This year, it is anticipated that 84 people will join the programme, with female participation expected to increase further.
Coordinators of the course also said it is progressive and welcome that apprenticeships will be placed on par with other educational options from next year on the Central Applications Office (CAO) online application facility.