Efforts to revolutionise meat production in the isles have taken a major step forward with planning permission being granted for a £370,000 new slaughterhouse beside the Marts north of Lerwick.
It means work on the local authority-funded building, which will be kitted out to kill cattle, pigs and sheep, should be able to start in the first half of the year, a move which many – but not all – in the agriculture community believe could usher in a new era for locally-produced meat.
Shetland Abattoir Co-operative Ltd (SACL) member and supporter Ronnie Eunson said yesterday he was “delighted” to be heading into 2010 with a more optimistic outlook than has been the case for quite some time.
There is particular relief about the swiftness with which consent has been given because the grant, from the council’s economic development unit, is only valid until December 2010 under EU “de minimis” regulations governing state aid. The money was able to be granted under emergency rules put in place by Brussels to try and avert the collapse of ailing businesses in the wake of the global financial crisis.
It means the building has to be completed within 12 months for the grant to be valid and Mr Eunson said he understood SACL was planning to have a contractor in place in the first few weeks of the new year. The abattoir is to include a lairage, slaughter hall, two chills and a butchering and preparation area.
“Hopefully they will be able to get on site fairly quickly and we’ll be able to see some kind of building going up through the spring,” he said. “We chose a site up at the marts that was in close proximity to the existing industrial services that are there so it meant that we were quite close to being in line with planning policy.
“It’s a much better feeling to enter a new year with a degree of optimism that we’ve not had for quite some time. What it will do initially is it will give access to local markets that up to now have been difficult to break into. It should mean that, for instance, Shetland-produced beef will become much more widely available, and pork.”
Mr Eunson said the prospect of being able to have carcasses matured for special customers would be opened up, while he believes SACL would be very interested in trying to provide Shetland meat for various public services and to Lerwick’s two supermarkets.
“The question of the SIC’s food procurement contract will come into play because I think the co-operative would be very interested in the SIC being able to buy locally-produced lamb, beef and pork to put into the schools and old folks’ homes; the same with the NHS.”
The co-operative is also to purchase the smaller Laxfirth slaughterhouse and hopes to kill 5,500 sheep and 150 cattle in the first year of operation, with the numbers rising by 18 per cent a year for sheep and 10 per cent for cattle.
John Holden of the planning department said officers were able to approve the plans under delegated authority because the development did not significantly contravene the SIC’s planning policy. He said it would be situated on land already allocated for industrial use, was not in close proximity to housing and, as no objections were received, the matter did not need to be put before the planning board.
He said the only minor issue was a slight shortfall in parking provision, and a condition has been attached to the application that SACL has to provide a plan showing how existing parking will be maintained on the site.
Earlier this year, Shetland Livestock Marketing Group (SLMG) was also given a £407,000 council grant towards upgrading the existing Marts, to buy equipment and to run a marketing office, after councillors decided to invest heavily in agriculture having been criticised for neglecting it in favour of the fishing industry.
The grants, totalling £845,000, were awarded to the industry after a controversial few months in the council chamber with Shetland South councillor Allison Duncan in particular singling SLMG out for some pretty savage criticism.
Pouring state funds into the cooperative group was a contentious matter for some because a private company, Pure Shetland Lamb, already runs a slaughterhouse at Boddam. It was given £450,000 in June to upgrade its abattoir, contingent on its owners being able to settle a host of outstanding debts to crofters.