Never a dull moment

It barely seems possible that we only moved in just 4 weeks ago given that there has not been a dull moment in that whole time. We have no problem in coming up with plans for things to be done but there is a definite lack of spare time to get on with things at the moment

Despite it being such a short period of time we’ve very quickly come to appreciate the whole “circle of life” thing having had both unexpected deaths and births either on or around our land. Here is a brief summary:

Chicken numbers

Sadly we lost Amy, one of the original “pet” chickens, who was discovered lying dead but at least she looked strangely peaceful lying in the long grass when we found her.


My suspicions are that the trouble was related to egg laying as she has had occasional problems in that department but it came totally out of the blue and she was fine earlier that day when seen foraging with the other 2 pet hens.

It's not all bad news
It’s not all bad news

Within a few days of this sad episode, we spotted some better news with the broody hem who had been sitting on some eggs when we moved in.

As noted in an earlier post, two of the eggs had hatched and with 5 other eggs still in place under her there are hopes for more in the near future.

While not exactly part of the original plan, having left her sitting on the eggs all this time I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that some (or perhaps all) of them may hatch in the end!

We may have read up on chickens (and many other subjects) in preparation for this big adventure but a few books or videos have nothing on actually learning through practical experience.

Unconnected deaths

Luckily (if that’s the right word) another of the deceased animals was a wild rabbit which my grand-daughter found – fortunately with no blood or guts on display. However, rather than being upset by the episode, she was most impressed by how soft the fur was and was happy for us to move it somewhere out of the way so that nature could take it’s course.

Within the first week or so of living here, we also came across a dead ewe in an adjoining field along with her lamb which was looking a little confused. However  a couple of quick phone calls to the neighbouring farmers eventually tracked down the owner and everything eventually worked out well – for the lamb at least.

Not so noisy guests

Our paddocks at the back have been set aside for another neighbour to use for his sheep but after 2 week delay in their arrival we can see very clearly how things can get out of control at this time of year. The grass has grown at an impressive rate but now that the sheep have arrived things can return to normal.


The visitors are looking slightly surprised and very pleased to find themselves with so much good food around them. Perhaps this is why they seem to be very quiet with little noise other than the satisfied munching of grass?

I’m told these are “teenagers” which is a little worrying because we’ve already been through that phase some time ago with the children so I hope these new guests will be less troublesome.

What next?

So far there has been everything we hoped and a whole lot more that we hadn’t quite appreciated – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for much more like this in the future too! Perhaps with slightly fewer deaths though?

I’m certainly happy to get this sort of view while travelling back from work at the end of the day:

View of the North Pennines
I can see my house from here!

Some new additions already

So much for taking time to assess everything slowly before making any changes and our plan for starting into the smallholding life slowly over time…

Soon after moving in we had spotted 7 eggs in an old chicken run with a hen sitting on them most of the time. My first reaction was to ignore it as we were busy with the move and didn’t want to face up to the likely consequences. Besides I thought I had 3 weeks or more before I needed to worry about any eggs hatching so I could comfortably put off making any decision really.

Apparently having decided to leave the eggs where they were, the rest of the decision was not one for me to make anyway.

Eventually a couple of the eggs hatched last Sunday (despite my scepticism) so I was obviously wrong to prejudge natures abilities. With no intervention on our part everything has so far gone exactly as we should have realised it would. Hopefully our beginners attempts at helping things along in the future will not cause any problems.

This picture shows one healthy looking chick and one which we initially thought wasn’t looking so good but which we eventually realised must have only recently hatched. Luckily I spotted that it was breathing rather than immediately removing it in order to keep the nest area free of any dead ones.


The next day there were 2 confirmed chicks looking very healthy although its not easy to get both for a picture at the same time. Luckily the feed shop was open this morning so we were able to get some chick crumb so at least we can now provide some decent food. Hopefully the mother knows better than we do and can take charge…


Understanding “free range”

Free range chickens... or not?
Free range chickens… or not?

It occurred to me the other day that I had no clear understanding of the term “free range” or even if there was a commonly agreed and legally binding definition.

Although we do occasionally have a few more eggs than we can easily use at the moment, we definitely aren’t at a stage yet where we have eggs to sell. However this could happen in the near future so I thought I ought to find out whether “free range” can sensibly be used to describe our poultry system and the egg production.

As with most things these days, you can always start by checking on Wikipedia which has a definition for free range. At first glance this seems to be quite authoritative but in reality is just a dictionary definition of the term rather than an explanation of the requirements.

Reading further through this article soon becomes confusing as it deals with different international terminology and varying requirements for free range in different jurisdictions.

Luckily for UK poultry keepers,  DEFRA has a handy booklet on the subject with the snappy title of The welfare of hens in free range systems but as with many government websites there seems to be many different places to get information rather than a single point with ALL the information you would need.

For example, the DEFRA site has the following text about “free range” in a section on Poultry Housing:

If you do not keep your flock in a building (and let them range), you should make sure, where necessary and possible, that birds have protection from adverse weather conditions, predators and risks to their health. They should also have access to a well-drained lying area all the time.

Your flock must have continuous daytime access to open runs, mainly covered with vegetation, which have a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare.

Birds should be encouraged to use the outdoor area by the provision of adequate, suitable, properly managed vegetation, outdoor scratch whole grain feeding, a fresh water supply and overhead cover, all sufficiently far from the house to encourage birds to range.


This is all very well but it seems to be mostly aimed at the larger poultry farming operations and is still not a particularly concise definition for an amateur poultry keeper like me. I can barely comprehend the idea of having 2,500 birds on any amount of land never mind that number per hectare!

Interestingly, the RSPCA has a Science, ethics and animals resource which also provides some useful information but I was surprised to see the following statement included:

Legal definitions of free-range do not exist for all animal products


I had somehow expected to find that all animals have some sort of clear understanding for what I had always considered to be a generic term that implied good treatment for the animal concerned.

According to the RSPCA page this is the legal definition of FREE RANGE when discussing poultry:

For meat chickens:

  • there should be no more than 13 chickens per square metre
  • chickens must be 56 days old before they are slaughtered
  • they must have continuous daytime access to open-air runs, comprising an area mainly covered by vegetation, for at least half their lifetime.

For egg-laying hens:

  • each bird should have at least 250cm2 of litter
  • there should be no more than nine hens per square metre
  • birds must have perches, allowing 15cm of perch per hen
  • there must be at least 10cm of feeder for each bird and at least one drinker for every 10 birds
  • there must be one nest for every seven birds, or 1m2 of nest space for every 120 birds
  • water and feeding troughs must be raised so food is not scattered.

That seems to be about the most concise and readable definition of free range that I have found so far. At least it’s reassuring to work out that our relatively small flock of 13 laying hens and a rooster can quite definitely be termed “free range”.

If you know of a more concise or clearer practical definition for “free range” as it relates to poultry then please let me know via the comments below.

Slow and steady progress with the vegetables

Main vegetable growing area
Main vegetable growing area

There are a couple of areas that have obviously been set aside for vegetables in the past The main veg bed must have previously been a set of raised beds but now the framing has gone so I decided to level off the soil and convert it back into a single bed divided by paths.

As can be seen in the picture, the existing rhubarb (at the back) has been brought back into line with the huge flowers removed and many of the older, chunkier leaves taken off. this will be followed by a good mulching so hopefully in future this will continue to be productive.

I’ve decided to keep our original rhubarb in the pots where I planted them earlier this year. Maybe I’ll move them early next year perhaps but they probably need to get established where they are this year.

While on a recent trip to buy some machinery (a heavy duty strimmer), we popped into a nearby garden centre and I couldn’t resist getting a couple of trays of cabbage seedlings – one labelled as January King and the other Ruby Red I think.

Maybe 2 trays of 12 plants will prove to be too many though as they are now taking up much more space than I had planned to use for cabbages! Hopefully I can squeeze in a catch crop before they get too big as I need somewhere to plant out the lettuce seedlings that are coming on so well.

The peas and beetroot seeds at the back are only just starting to show signs of growth but I’m quite happy with that as the seeds have only been in for 2 weeks!

Existing Raised Beds

In an adjacent area there are 4 raised beds left by the previous owners which I have retained but as we’ve not been here long I have no specific plan for them.

Original raised beds
Original raised beds to be kept

On the first weekend we got here I planted some onion, carrots and beetroot but I deliberately left a little space for the moment so I can plant some more seeds once the first batch get going.

These beds also had some existing strawberry plants which are  a new thing for me. In the past I haven’t been bothered about soft fruit but now I’ve got a lot more space I’m starting to think about setting aside an area and investing in a fruit cage or similar. Something for the future I think as there is more than enough to be getting with right now.

Hopefully all I need is to maybe put down a little straw to keep the fruit off the damp soil and then maybe some sort of netting over the top to keep out the birds.

Despite those plans, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for getting fruit from these plants as the wall around this area seems to be populated with field mice. I’ve seen a couple of them but they are hard to spot – I’m sure they’ll be hungry for strawberries at some point.

Chicken Shacks

The chicken shack village is made up a number of “inherited” buildings from the previous owners (in the foreground) which are towering over the low rise chicken house we brought with us when we moved here (just visible near the back).

Chicken shack village
Chicken shack village

There is a main chicken house for the rooster (now known as John) and his ten lady friends – in the centre of the picture – and a couple of storage sheds on the left. One of these has a run attached which is currently home to a broody hen who has been sitting on 7 eggs for a week or two – it was eight eggs when we first got here but we think a stoat must have paid them a visit perhaps?

This is all situated between the paddocks at the back so the hens are not as close to the house as we were used to but now we have a rooster as well this is not such a bad thing in my opinion!

Luckily the two sets of chickens have settled into a truce where each set ignores the other apart from the occasional ruffling of feathers if there is food is involved. If anything I think it helps that our 3 hybrid hens are larger than the existing 10 hens which goes some way to compensate for the greater numbers should any disagreements arise.

Time for a brief technical interlude

So the dust has started to settle from the house move, the boxes have been (mostly) unpacked, outbuildings are filling up with “spare” items that currently have no permanent home and our original 3 hens have been established in their new area which is shared with the rooster and his 10 ladies.

This means I can turn my attention to some other long-standing tasks that have just been waiting for the right moment. None of them were particularly urgent but in my mind at least the list was growing and I needed to at least make a start on one or more of them soon.

First up has been to sort out a “proper” home  for this blog and so finally Small Plot Big Ideas now has a web identity of it’s own! Luckily I have had plenty of web development experience (PHP, MySQL etc) in the past and so I felt able to tackle the whole job on my own.

After some initial web research I came across a handy script from Interconnect IT which deals with the WordPress database changes so in the end the technical aspects behind the scenes were dealt with relatively quickly. It probably took longer to copy all the files to the new location than it did to get the site back up and running!

While the transition to this new domain has (so far at least) been fairly painless, there is always scope for errors to sneak in with this kind of change so please let me know if you have any problems or spot any broken links.

Assessing the first week

Now that we’ve reached the end of our first week here it makes sense to take stock of our (limited) progress so far. There are many things we’d like to do at some point in the future but we can only do a few at a time if we’re going to do them well.


The existing flock of hens and cockerel are settling in to life under the new regime. I’m now being greeted by some of them in the morning when I turn up with some food, obviously I just have to accept that it’s the food they’re pleased to see and not me!

Fruit and Vegetables

After my preparations with planting rhubarb crowns in pots so they can move with us, I find a huge rhubarb plant already in place here. I don’t know how we missed it when viewing the house and land but it is throwing up a couple of large flowers which is something I’ve not seen before. I’ll eventually cut them off and try to bring the plant back into line but it’s nice to see for now.


There has been an urgent spate of seed planting although some are a little later than they should have been so we may not get great results. Beetroot, peas, carrots and onions have all been sown in the existing veg bed plus the longest chitted potatoes in history (March to June) are now also in their own area. Lettuces have also been sown in a seed tray but I’m not sure if they will get to any decent size as our rabbit population may be feeling a bit peckish. Careful though on fencing is needed I think.

Unfortunately it looks like the raspberry canes I transplanted into pots for the move have not taken too kindly to my efforts but there is still time for them to come around so I’ll wait a little longer.

Time will tell how much of a return we will get from all of this but I’m keen to learn about how things grow here and which areas are best for which types of plants. We’ll definitely get something for our efforts but it may be partly a crop and mostly some experience.

Meadows and pasture

The easy bits for us are the meadows which are looking great right now with lots of wildflowers giving a splash of colour. These will eventually get cut for hay around the middle of July and luckily for us a local farmer is happy to deal with that for us.


The pastures at the back of the house are rapidly filling with lush green grass as they have been empty during the period while the house was being sold. Now that we are in and feeling a bit more settled we have arranged for some sheep to be put on there by early next week (courtesy of the local farmer again). Perhaps next year we may consider some of our own but for now we can just watch from afar.


Any plans for the woods are still in the very early stages so its lucky that with trees everything moves at a much slower pace. Eventually maybe some pigs can be rotated through different areas but for now it’s better to sit back and see how things develop.

Potting shed

This will eventually be my pride and joy, a proper space to set up a potting shed with work benches and everything. One of the first tasks in there will be to put up some handy hooks and shelves so I can organise all the tools and equipment.

Enjoying the new environment

After the long build up to this move it has been a relief to have it all behind us. The whole transition has been helped by some wonderfully warm, sunny weather and long may it continue! One highlight has been evening walks through the woods after a final check on the chickens, some great views across the valley and lovely sunsets.

The long days mean more time to get things done but the downside is always the short nights especially when the morning sun shines directly into the bedroom despite the curtains. At least the cockerel is far enough away though…

A few quick introductions

To help set the scene and for reference from future posts, here is a run down of the current animal residents as we start on this adventure…

Neo Posh Paws who is a delicate house cat and he is having to adapt to the new lifestyle very quickly.

Ginger who has now been officially adopted from his previous owners who live round the corner from our old house. He had just about moved in with us anyway so we couldn’t move without him!


Tinker who was a last minute addition to the deal by the previous owners of our new home rather than move her to a strange new place.


The as yet unnamed cockerel and his harem of ten ladies who are most definitely not pets and make it very difficult to get a decent picture

Amy, Adele and Aretha our original trio of back garden pet hens who can’t believe how their lives have changed so much. My dilemma now is when and how to introduce them to the existing resident flock!


Endings and beginnings

I have to start by saying just how lucky I feel right now with our house move completed. After what seems such a long time thinking about the various options, reading up on the subjects and planning for the future, it was almost surreal to turn into the driveway knowing that it belonged to us.

Our time living on the North East coast has been good but after almost 17 years I was ready for a change and with the kids all having left home we didn’t need 5 bedrooms anymore. I’m not sure that moving to a property with 15 acres can really be classified as “downsizing”, it’s not the usual mid-life crisis either but our house should retain its value better than a Maserati though!

We have been extremely lucky to start our life here with some excellent June weather with lots of blue skies and sunshine. The combination of good weather and huge open skies here just emphasise the beauty of the North Pennines – there’s a good reason for the AONB status here!


When we first viewed the place back in February there was a light dusting of snow but at the time the surveyor went to do his report in March there was too much snow so he had to come back again later to finish his job! I definitely prefer the conditions now but we are also aware of what the winter can bring.


So now I can sit outside overlooking the meadow and watch the lapwings, curlews, pheasants and rabbits in the evening sun while updating the blog. Life really doesn’t get much better than this… apart from having no internet connection yet other than via my mobile phone!