A sausage in time ...

David Nicholson-Lord on the struggle of Britain's oldest family butcher to survive the age of the superstore
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Richard Balson is proud of his wild boar sausages. They're top of the range - £2.50 a pound - and they're fresh, home-made and local: the boar are from a forest near Yeovil. In the face of the multiple scourges afflicting the family butcher - vegetarians, superstores, double-yellow lines - they could prove a trump card. The odds are, they will need to.

Over the last decade, the number of family butcher's shops has halved; there are about 12,000 left. Walk out of Mr Balson's shop in Bridport, Dorset, and one of the first empty shops you will see is a Dewhurst's. But the meat trade is not the only one affected. Nearly 40 small businesses have closed in Bridport in the past five years. Mr Balson says the town is dying.

Since 1984, when RJ Balson & Son issued a challenge in the Meat Trades Journal, it has claimed the title of England's oldest family butcher. Indeed, it may be the oldest family shop of any kind. There has been a Balson performing butchery in Bridport since 1535. Its closest rival is probably Jacka's bakery in Plymouth, established in 1597, which supplied the Pilgrim Fathers.

Bridport ought to be a thriving market town. It has a handsome high street, no big conurbations to compete with. In fact, its shops are cheap and not always cheerful, a mixture of knick-knack emporia, old-fashioned outfitters (T Snook, est. 1896) and charities. Traders, badly hit by recession, are complaining about double-yellow lines, business rates (up by 100 per cent in some cases) and "unfair competition" from charities. And then there is Safeway.

When Safeway opened its superstore outside the town over a year ago, there was a brief flurry of protest - leaflets were handed out, trolleys filled with goods and abandoned - before everyone settled down to the business of one-stop shopping. A decade ago, there was one supermarket in Bridport. Now there are three.

Mr Balson does not believe the town can support three supermarkets but is fighting back. The emphasis is on personal service, quality products, a "niche" market. Hence the sausages - 10 different varieties, one of which (the pork and leek), recently won second place in a West Country sausage championship. Hence also the French chef, Rodolphe, married to his Jane, Mr Balson's sister, who makes the game pies, the "famous faggots", the brawn and Bath chaps (cured pig's face), the five kinds of burger, from lamb and mint to bacon and basil. Not long ago they sold only beefburgers.

Business is holding up, says Mr Balson, "but you are having to do more work for less money every year. The meat is still going out of the shop but in different ways - pies and sausages rather than big joints. Everything is more labour-intensive."

Balson's supports three members of the family but probably only provides enough money for two. Mr Balson worries about Sunday opening - which he reckons would mean an extra day's work but no more income - and the succession: his son, Billy, now 16, wants a Monday-to-Friday job, probably in surveying or accountancy. Mainly, however, he worries about people's shopping habits.

"The young housewife isn't educated about meat. They're only used to buying it in a packet. What they don't realise is that if they bought a joint and had it hot on Sunday, cold on Monday and minced or stewed on Tuesday, it would be far cheaper than buying three ready-made meals.

"But it's not so much price as convenience. Being able to get all your shopping done for the week at one go, that's what's hurting us. Most of our clients are older people, who are prepared to support the independent retailer. As they die off, it's increasingly hard to get youngsters into the shop."

Mr Balson sets much store on research by the Meat and Livestock Commission which suggests that housewives from the age of 40 to 45 tend to forsake the supermarket in favour of the smaller shop. Otherwise, he confesses, "we are going to be in trouble". But he is confident that Balson's will be around in another 500 years. "If we hadn't diversified, we might well be out of business now. As long as you are prepared to keep up with the changes I think you will survive."