Looking back over our first 5 years as smallholders

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.

Hidden chicken
Hidden chicken

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.

Living area and patio
Living area and patio

By the 3 year smallholding anniversary it was becoming clear that we were doing more with livestock than I’d originally anticipated. Along with the obligatory chickens for eggs, we also had 2 Tamworth sows for breeding plus the Dexter cattle were happily calving unaided each year.

Daisy and Garry
Daisy and Garry


Piglets at the trough
Piglets at the trough

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.

Some unwanted help with the veg beds
Some unwanted help with the veg beds

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…

Lamb update – 2 weeks in

Just over 2 weeks into our first attempts with keeping sheep and so far they’ve lived up to my perception that this is a fairly high-maintenance animal. I’ve tried to keep an open mind on the subject but with 2 lambs suffering from health problems in just 2 weeks it’s not been easy.

There has been slow progress with No. 9 (aka Limpy) and he still doesn’t put much weight on his left front leg. After a check from the vet last week then some further care and attention over the last few days he seems to be improving – just very slowly.

He’s always pleased to see me though but that might be because he knows that I’ll protect him from the chaos of the other 8 lambs while he feeds from the semi-automatic feeder. Life can be tough when you’re the smallest of the bunch and there’s a rush on at the food.

On a brighter note, Limpy was the first one to show any interest in our Dexter cattle and even went over to see them for a chat through the gate. I’m not sure who was more surprised by the meeting but they seemed to get on okay despite the size difference.

Limpy meets the neighbours
Limpy meets the neighbours

The most recent medical issue for the lambs was a swollen eye on No. 3 (aka Pus-Eye) who was also checked by the vet just to be on the safe side. As this is our first time keeping lambs it seems wise to get good advice when we’re not sure of something even though it’s not the most cost-effective way to raise livestock.

As you might expect this turned out to be a fairly simple infection with lots of pus (hence the name) and now that it has been treated everything is starting heal very nicely.

We’ve now become fairly well practised in administering injections on the lambs which at first was a little like trying to nail jelly to the ceiling. We soon got to grips with the best ways that worked for us and I realised that this is the first time we have ever needed to use antibiotics on any of our livestock – our pigs and cattle are apparently much more hardy and healthy animals

Swollen eye on No. 3
Swollen eye on No. 3

Now that the lambs are around 3 weeks old and we’re a little more used to keeping them, I can see some of the endearing qualities and the playful character traits. They are quite happy just running and  jumping around like a 4-year-old at the playground and the way they tug at your trousers like a toddler seeking attention is quite funny … but only for the first few times!

However all of this cute lamb behaviour is not so entertaining when it starts to threaten my raised vegetable beds which are just next door to their temporary outdoor run. Some emergency repairs were needed to the small low section of fencing after a number of the lambs decided to lean on and found that it collapsed.

Some unwanted help with the veg beds
Some unwanted help with the veg beds

Despite all the various troubles and uncertainty in just the first 2 weeks, I’m already aware that there’s a certain attachment developing and it’s already quite likely we’d try this again next year. At least that would give us more experience of the work involved and who knows, the next batch might not have any health issues at all – although I certainly doubt that

New arrivals and a new species

In recent months we have spent many hours telling ourselves that we had more than enough to keep us busy here. The pigs, cattle, chickens and our 2 bedroom self catering holiday let (plus my day job) are keeping us busy enough, not to mention the 3 cats making a mess of the house!

We had even developed the mantra “no more species” as a reminder in case we wavered at any point.

Somehow this careful thought all fell by the wayside and we have now taken on some orphan lambs from a neighbouring sheep farmer. This is despite my belief that sheep are too much like hard work and generally seem to be looking for a new way to die.

The idea was to raise a few orphan lambs through the spring and summer months so that we can find out what it’s like keeping sheep without much of the hard work like shearing or lambing – and hopefully none of the various ailments that sheep seem to get on a regular basis.

Only getting 8 so why is there a number 9?
Only getting 8 so why is there a number 9?

It was originally supposed to be just 8 lambs but when we went to collect them my better half had already picked out 10 as being suitable – presumably this was payback for my “mistake” when allowed out to buy pigs on my own a few years ago.

The deciding factor for me was that everyone else in this area keeps sheep so I should really try it myself to see what’s involved. Of course, it’ll be nice to have some home-grown lamb at the end of it as well!

We currently have 9 lambs penned in a barn with a semi-automatic feeder setup which will mean that we don’t need to bottle feed them at regular intervals. Number 10 was not quite strong enough yet so he’ll turn up later on. I’m just hoping that he doesn’t bring a couple more friends with him.

Happily suckling the feeder
Happily suckling the feeder

So far so good and they’ve managed to survive over 24 hours in the hands of two completely inexperienced beginners. Luckily the neighbour is fairly close by and will be able to help with some advice or assistance if that becomes necessary.

Feeding time

At 7am on a beautiful sunny morning I set off on the newly extended round of feeding.

First up and most vocal was the neighbours tups. Another 9 of them arrived yesterday to make it 11 in total and all were very pleased to see me. In some cases they were a little too eager to get at the food but I managed to escape unscathed.

Heads in the trough
Heads in the trough

Next it was the chickens and they were less keen to emerge. Eventually a few emerged to peck at the food I’d delivered and appear in this picture – maybe the others were having a bad hair day?

Not many early risers here
Not many early risers here

Finally it was the turn of the newly arrived pigs but when I got to their area in the woods there was no sign of them. A quick check in their ark showed why – They had decided to have a lie in after the stress of moving house yesterday!

Breakfast? Maybe later...
Breakfast? Maybe later…

A change of scene

After a month or more of grazing the limited grass in a nearby paddock, today seemed a good time to move our guests to a new spot. We’re only looking after the neighbours tups while he is busy with lambing but it’s been interesting to see them at such close quarters.

Somewhere with an untouched lush growth of grass was the order of the day and not hard to achieve as it’s only 100 yards away from their previous home for the last few weeks.

I’m sure they’ll love the fresh grass on offer but I’m doubt whether they will fully appreciate the glorious view of a North Pennines valley in spring time as well!

Fresh grass and a lovely view
Fresh grass and a lovely view

Who’s the daddy?

It’s definitely lambing time at the moment and the BBC Lambing Live programme gives a good insight into this busy time of year for sheep farmers. However our neighbour decided that his tups are just getting in the way so he was keen to shift them elsewhere for a few weeks.

Meal time for Butch and Sundance
Meal time for Butch and Sundance

They only need to be fed their ration once a day and that’s no problem as I also need to deal with the chickens who are right next door. It also helps that they will do their bit to keep the grass down in that paddock.

Obviously these two boys have nothing much to do now until next October/November so it’s quite a life for them. They don’t look it but I expect they could be a little nervous about the lambs due any day now because that cushy life through the summer could easily change if the lambs aren’t as good as expected!

Two guests for a few weeks
Two guests for a few weeks

The visitors have settled in

The latest batch of ovine visitors arrived almost a week ago and have made themselves at home already.  Our agreement with a local farmer for him to use the front meadows is rather vague about timings and so we never quite know when he will put some sheep on there.

The last batch of just a few sheep were only there for a few days before they were moved on to an adjacent field owned by someone else.

Within a few days of the latest batch arriving (about 70 in total) we quickly realised that it’s best to keep the gate closed much of the time. They might be what are known as gimmers, or maybe shearlings or perhaps just plain ewes (or even yows) but I just call them sheep because they all look the same to my untrained eye

Sheep At The Gate
Sheep At The Gate

Hot News

Just the other day we noticed that the farmer has put a tup (see below) in there with them as well and nature is doing what comes naturally. I wonder whether we’ll have the time next year to take a few orphaned lambs from him to raise ourselves?

I think now is probably a good time for my handy link to some common sheep terminology definitions

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!