Over the past few months, a few of our hens have decided it was their time to go. While we don’t have a problem with foxes in our immediate area(which is a relief), some of the hens still seem to reach a certain point and just give up.
It often happens that they look a little under the weather one day and then the next day a corpse is found curled up in the nest box having apparently died peacefully overnight.
During the first part of this year we lost one of the hens we bought less than 3 years ago but the others from that batch are still happily laying. There seems no reason for one to die and another to carry on but we just continue to do our best for them
It only took a quick trip to Durham Hens last weekend and we now have two ginger hens (always decent egg layers and usually seem to do fairly well) plus 2 other hens just for their looks or egg colours (one a Crested Blue for coloured eggs and the other a Pied Suffolk just for her feather colouring)
For the record, these have been named following the now standard approach with our choices of female singers but this time with the initial letter “D”
After a couple of weeks in a separate pen while they acclimatise, the new girls – Debbie, Dolores, Dionne and Doris – will be joining the main flock. Colin our adopted cockerel already seems very eager to meet them but he’ll just have to wait!
After an extended period with no egg production from our chickens, last week we finally got some more eggs out of them. Despite our regular supply of layers pellets and plenty of corn for the long, cold winters nights they had obviously decided to close the egg production down until the days start getting longer.
As a result we’ve not had our own eggs for many weeks and eventually had to buy some which was a real novelty after all this time. The pleasure of eating eggs from our own hens was becoming a fond but distant memory.
In the past we have bought a few new point of lay hens in early Autumn with the idea that they might produce some eggs during the winter months when out older birds have stopped. This worked well for the last couple of years but unfortunately we never got around to buying more hens last autumn and we took the opportunity to adopt some locally as their owners were emigrating to New Zealand.
The adopted chickens – Colin the cockerel plus his 3 hens – settled in very well and fairly quickly integrated into our existing flock with very little trouble. They all share the same hen-house now without any problems although some seem to prefer the next boxes over night and don’t want to join the rest on the roosting bars which are higher up.
Perhaps they’re too tired to flap up to them at night or maybe they’re just scared of heights?
Having reached the 5th anniversary of our move from suburbia to a North Pennines smallholding, it’s clearly a good time to review the current situation and take stock of our progress so far. Not least of which is where did all those years go!
The first task for me was to look back at my older blog posts from previous anniversaries and they were surprisingly informative. A little naive in places perhaps but that’s to be expected with hindsight and I’m sure that some of my more recent updates will look much same when I review them in the future.
Step by step
Apparently after just one week in our new 15 acre home we were already thinking of options and making plans. However reading that post though again now, some aspects don’t match the actual events so that’s a good illustration of how plans will change as you go along!
The one constant from our initial arrival is the collection of white chickens (breed uncertain) that we agreed to keep on from the previous owners. Although the cockerel has long since gone, the remaining hens still occasionally disappear off in random places to sit on some eggs until we can track them down.
The 2nd anniversary was marked by the dramatic events when the Dexter cattle made their big entrance before eventually settling down. At the time a real low point for me but now I’m not sure I would want to be without the Dexters plus the beef is absolutely amazing!
Around this same time, we also decided to convert one of the stone barns into a 2 bed self catering holiday let and this has turned out to be very popular. There’s a bit more work involved in running this than we might have original expected but it’s still very rewarding and we’ve had a constant stream of lovely guests staying.
Now that the 5 year mark is here you can tell we’re getting more confident or perhaps that should be over-confident.
Despite our carefully thought out plans for managing the workload, we’ve decided to try keeping a few orphan lambs this year but at least these are just for meat with no intention for long-term breeding. This approach was certainly underlined for me when they decided to invade my raised beds and caused all sorts of havoc.
In general this is a nice way to try keeping a different type of animal for a few months but it’s not cheap with milk/feed costs and I’m still not convinced that I’d keep any sheep as a longer term activity.
Assessing our progress
It’s been a huge learning experience and immensely enjoyable most of the time with just the occasional negative moments. Even during the bad times though, I only need to take a wander around our fields and woods or just sit with the animals for a while.
This whole adventure has only been made possible through the help of our neighbours and the many new friends we’ve made since we started this journey. I’d be the first to admit that without that help and support we would not be where we are today.
There are always difficulties associated with having a full-time job along side running a smallholding but that’s not impossible, it’s only hard work and a desire to live that life. The subject of time management is always uppermost in my mind but cutting corners to fit things in would not always suit me You just have to plan out the workload for the time available and keep on going…
With the Christmas and New Year period very quickly becoming a distant memory, it seemed a good time to post a quick update as a stock check for the coming year. Things have a habit of creeping up on me and getting out of hand if I’m not careful so it’s probably best if I have this summary to look back on before that happens.
As it’s a quiet time for the barn conversion holiday let at the moment, I took the opportunity to put the cows out in the front fields last weekend if only for a short time.
This helps to rest the back fields which are their normal winter home from time to time. Plus they love the change of scenery and the open space.
They can’t stay there too long though because we need to keep them away from guests cars. Apparently some people don’t like having their car windows and tyres licked clean by a cow.
With farrowing getting ever closer, last weekend was also the best time to bring the pigs into the shed closer to the house. It will be Esther who farrows first this time but we bring them both in together as a way to ease the change of surroundings.
As always they happily followed me across the fields without any problems and after a night together in the shed, it was no bother to move Sissy back out again to a new pen in the woods.
It’s been a very slow start for the newest egg layers that we bought back in October last year but over Christmas one of them finally started laying. On a good day we can now get up to 3 eggs a day and it won’t be long before the others join in as well.
When they all get started I’ll have to work on my quiche recipe but there will always be some to leave for arriving guests in the holiday let. Of course I don’t really mind it when the inevitable egg glut happens because that means that spring is get closer too!
The white chickens are the last remnants of the original flock that we inherited when we bought this place back in 2013. As far as I can tell these must be the last 3 from the eggs that were hatched during our first summer here and they’re given special dispensation from egg laying – I hope they’re enjoying their retirement.
After having such a busy past few weeks, the blog updates inevitably had to suffer. There have been far too many things going on (both cows calving, piglets weaned/sold etc.) as well as our popular holiday let not to mention the full-time day job and there are only so many hours in the day.
It’s definitely time for some updates on the other aspects of life on our North Pennines smallholding.
Our 2 egg laying hens are doing us proud lately with regular egg production and also looking pretty good while they stroll leisurely around the place as if they owned it.
For the record, they are named Birdy and Babs after female singers. Babs (on the right in the photo) is a Columbine and she lays blue eggs with an occasional double-yokers for good measure.
After a slow start to the growing season, things are now looking a little more respectable but there are still a couple of empty patches due to earlier failures or poor growth. These will be filled very soon with something else so that we at least get something out of each raised bed
The current pride and joy is the middle raised bed which this year holds a selection of vegetables, all of which seem to be doing very well.
From left to right – lettuce, leeks, chard (recently harvested and very tasty), carrots, swede, more carrots and finally some rather unimpressive peas (luckily just out of shot)
Last year was not such a good year for the fruit trees, mostly I think because we have a large number of jackdaws and other birds in the general area who must have been hungry!
Hopefully I can get more organised this year and protect the fruit before the birds start attacking them.
As for the pears, it might not seem like much to others but last year we had no sign of any pears. This year one of the two trees actually has some fruit – although to be honest, I shouldn’t use the term “some fruit” when there’s only a single pear!
Surprisingly, today marks the 4th anniversary of the move to our smallholding in the North Pennines. This is hard to believe partly because it’s just 4 years since we left the suburban semi-detached house but also because it feels longer than 4 years given that so much has happened in that time.
The ups and downs along the way have been both educational and humbling in equal measure but the overwhelming feeling is that we have been extremely lucky and we should continue trying to make the most of the opportunity.
We have been helped along the way by far too many people to mention but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate all the help and advice provided though. We still have a lot to learn though and without the knowledge and experience of others we definitely wouldn’t have made it this far.
Over time it’s becoming clear that there will never be a point when we can just sit back and relax. Mostly because there’s always a job that needs to be done or another mad idea to plan and pursue. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
To celebrate this significant milestone, here are a few of my favourite pictures from the past 4 years
The last couple of months have seen a few changes that have been a bit of a distraction from the blog updates but now it’s time for a fresh start with more regular postings. Hopefully now we’re finished with the Christmas and New Year period things can return to something like normal – whatever that is!
A Quick Catch-Up
The recent events that somehow never made it on to a proper blog update before include a few successes but also a number of “failures” which I prefer to consider as lessons learned.
There was a successful AI attempt for the first Tamworth sow – Sissy – and she is expected to farrow sometime on or after 12 January. After enjoying this success for a month or two, it was time for more AI with the second sow – Esther – but sadly I think my timing was wrong on that occasion and it didn’t take.
The second attempt with Esther was almost 3 weeks ago now so I’ll find out in the next few days whether that was successful or not. Immediately after that it’ll be time to move Sissy into the shed nearer the house ready for farrowing partly for her comfort with the weather but also for our convenience as it’s closer to the house. This time we’ll keep sow and piglets in there until the piglets are weaned at about 7-8 weeks old, it’s easier to catch them in a shed rather than chasing them around the woods.
While I’m on the subject of failures, there was an attempt at a TB test for the cows and calves but things didn’t go to plan and a minor escape attempt meant that we had to postpone the test until later this month. In the meantime I have reinforced the defences and, as usual it seems, I’ve learnt a lot more from the problems than the successes.
The cows are doing well with their extra homework when I get a chance to work with them. This mostly involves getting them used to being penned in for a while and being moved one at a time through a cattle crush. I think that they’ll always be able to spot a vet at 50 paces so I need to be sure they’re securely penned in first before they realise what’s happening.
On a brighter note, the third “pet” chicken has started to lay eggs at last. This is the Columbine which lays a different coloured egg so it’s easy to spot when she delivers the goods. Admittedly she’s only laid 2 eggs so far – one on Christmas day and another on New Years Eve – but it’s a start. There are usually 1 or 2 eggs each day now which is as I’d hoped when I bought these 3 chickens a few months back.
When we have enough it’s nice to give some to the guests in the holiday let but the supply is a little unpredictable at times. This will improve with the longer days as spring arrives though so perhaps by then we’ll be back to filling the freezer with quiche…
Updates on the blog have been rather sparse lately but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening behind the scenes. Mostly the time just goes with the amount of work needed during summer but a new day job has taken up some time and the converted barn/holiday let has been pleasantly busy as well so the work on changeover day can mean we’re a bit busy!
Finally, after a couple of false starts with too many other jobs or plans getting in the way, we finally managed to fit in a trip to get some more “pet” chickens. This also involved preparing a small pen nearer our house because these will be the egg producers and I want the eggs to be close at hand!
The adopted flock that we took over when moving here – White Leghorns I think – are only laying intermittently now. However I’ll forgive them for that because we know the youngest of them must be about 3 years old by now.
So here’s a brief introduction to the 3 new arrivals – from left to right: Birdy (a Speckedly), Barbra aka Babs (a Columbine) and Bessie (a Light Sussex):
They are just a few weeks short of point of lay but we have high hopes for some interesting eggs because they should each lay fairly distinctive eggs and we’ll be able to tell which was laid by each hen.
These definitely won’t be the cheapest eggs in the world but I’m not approaching this side of things with a commercial mindset. It’s more important to have our own eggs and to enjoy a spot of chicken watching which is a great relaxation technique after a day in an office!
Even now I occasionally find myself thinking of our smallholding as the “new” place but it’s been 3 years since we moved here so it’s time for the third anniversary blog update.
The various blog updates certainly make for some interesting reading and it’s at times like this when this blog really proves its worth. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the highs and lows, the lessons learned and above all else the enjoyment gained along the way.
Looking back now that seems quite a list to cover in such a short space of time, particularly while also running the smallholding and working full-time so I’m understandably happy to have them out of the way!
Hopefully we can start to enjoy the fruits of all this hard work just a little although I’ve already learnt that there’s no time for a quiet, restful day on a smallholding. There are always more jobs to be done and plenty of future plans to be made.
Just a year ago was one of the lowest points in our time here when the cows arrived and promptly jumped 2 stone walls before disappearing into our neighbours field. It was around 2 weeks before they finally decided to come home and settle down.
One year on from the relative disaster of their arrival, our efforts are really paying off and the cows actually seem to like us. Their calves are completely calm with us and sometimes even happy to get a scratch or to give us a friendly lick. More recently the sight of a hose filling up their water is enough to bring them over to “help” as we fill their bucket.
We have to remember that getting beef is a longer term plan because Dexters are a slow-growing native breed which develops over about 30 months. That’s quite a wait for a steak or a beef burger but I’m hoping that they’ll be the best I’ve ever tasted.
Over the course of our 3 years here we’ve gone from novice pig keepers raising our first ever weaners to produce pork for our own consumption through to becoming fully fledged pedigree Tamworth breeders raising our first 2 litters.
After a few false starts it looks like the majority of the piglets from our first 2 litters will now be sold and should leave in the next week or two. I’ll be sorry to see them go but happy to cut the number of trips to buy pig feed.
Currently the plan is to rest the sows (and the land) a little through this year before the process starts again in autumn ready for weaners to be available early next year.
Despite our best efforts, the white chickens that we inherited on moving here continue to thrive while laying just enough eggs to convince us to keep them on. Over the course of recent months our last remaining “pet” chicken – Adele – and the 3 rescue hens that we took on a couple of years ago have gone to meet their maker but I like to think that they all enjoyed their free-ranging outdoor life with us.
Eventually we’ll have to restock and at that point we can consider getting some Cream Legbars or similar so we have different coloured eggs just for some variety.
Has it been worth it?
The journey thus far has been everything I’d hoped for but at the same time it has involved a lot more expense than originally expected. The plan was always to spend the early years setting things up for the longer term so it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
There have been a constant stream of new experiences – some better than others – and much there was a lot to learn along the way. Of course, that was the whole point of taking this on in the first place and I’m not really interested in a quiet life.
The initial work inevitably means that there would be a steady stream of sizable bills while we get everything just how we want it but there’s a good reason why you never see a wealthy smallholder!
Now that the weather seems to have settled down a little I can safely think about doing a “Spring” update here. We’ve had a bit of everything from the weather over the last week or so – snow, hail, rain, sun, cloud – but the forecast for the week ahead seems to show a more appropriate rise in temperatures coming.
After the novel experience of calving over the winter, the routine for the cattle has settled back into something more normal. We still need to book a visit from the vet in due course to deal with the castration of the second calf. It just wasn’t possible to do this as we had planned at about 1 month old but on the plus side this calf was born without horn buds so there was no disbudding needed!
They are now getting a little fed up with the feed we give them and are eager for any scraps of fresh grass they can get at. A couple of bags of lawn grass cuttings were happily munched last week but I’m told by others that this is not a good idea because the cows will start noisily demanding more even when we aren’t cutting the lawn!
Yet again we’re already well into the “egg hunting” season with one or more of the white chickens deciding to sneak off and find a quiet spot to lay in the woods. It can be frustrating to search high and low but find nothing and then suddenly find a clutch of 8-10 eggs under a well hidden hen.
As for chicken numbers, we have 10 white ones (including a cockerel) that were mostly hatched in our first year here. We also have just remaining one brown chicken – an ex-battery hen – who seems unphased by being the odd one out and is usually happiest wandering around with a single white chicken for company.
The pigs seem to be really enjoying their time in the woods and our two sows have done an excellent job of raising their respective litters. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience to have this many mouths to feed and to see how quickly they can get through the pig feed.
A definite plan for the future is to look into other alternative sources of feed for the pigs. We can get occasional waste fruit and vegetables from a local shop but this number of pigs get through a lot of feed and we need to keep up a good balanced diet to sustain decent growth rates and to maintain their general good health.