Seven years in and loving (nearly) every minute

It’s hard to believe but we’ve now been on our smallholding for 7 years. These days it’s much harder to picture our old suburban house or even the work involved in packing up to move here in May 2013

Hopefully we are becoming better custodians of this place as we go along but there was a lot to learn. Even just understanding the management of the land never mind working with livestock for the first time or adapting to rural life in general.

Our upland hay meadow
Our upland hay meadow in 2013

That’s not to say that this “smallholding journey” has been without problems over that period. There have definitely been moments when I wondered why this seemed to be such a good idea at the start.

Some of the highlights include

What’s not to like about being able to watch as Daisy gives us a healthy new calf just a couple of days ago? Although after the ear tagging this afternoon I’m not sure Isaac is too happy with me now!

Barely 2 days old and pierced ears already

And there have been a few memorable low points along the way including:

Despite those lows, we wouldn’t have missed all this for the world. It’s been a steep learning curve for us as complete beginners. The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is to view any difficulties or setbacks as part of the bigger picture. There has to be both positive and negative aspects to fully experience the smallholding lifestyle so it comes with the package.

Sometimes we reminisce on how our lives used to be, this is usually followed by some laughs at the contrast to our current lives. We’ve been very lucky with this journey so it’s important to me that we continue to move onwards and upwards for the future

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…

Reaching another milestone

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.

From having 3 chickens in our suburban back garden to a 15 acre smallholding with an assortment of chickens, some rare breed Tamworth pigs (plus piglets) and some pedigree Dexter cows (plus calves). It’s been an amazing journey so far even just from a livestock perspective never mind the converted barn for holiday lets.

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


3 years and counting

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.

The major projects undertaken over the last 3 years have included the addition of solar PV panels, switching from oil to a biomass boiler and converting a barn into a self-catering holiday let.

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.

Just a hint of a smile?
Just a hint of a smile?

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.

Weaners eager for breakfast
Weaners eager for breakfast

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!

Spring Update 2016

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!

Morning roll call for the Dexters
Morning roll call for the Dexters

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.

The odd one out
The odd one out

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.

First litter at about 2 months
First litter at about 2 months

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.

Second litter at about 5 weeks
Second litter at about 5 weeks

It’s nice to be back in print again

Okay, so it may not be a major new bestselling novel but it’s always nice to see the results of my efforts in print again. In this months Home Farmer there is a smallholder directory feature based on the smallholder group listings that I maintain on this website.

Extract from Home Farmer, April 2016
Extract from Home Farmer, April 2016

Any non-subscribers to Home Farmer can read the relevant pages by downloading from the North Pennines Smallholders website and you could always subscribe to the magazine anyway because it’s only £40 per year!

It somehow means much more to me that this is something tangible and that might explain why I’ve never really got into the whole e-Reader/Kindle thing.

On a purely technical level I can see the many advantages of electronic publishing and I’ve tried reading a few classic books on a “generic fruit-based device” but in the end the physical book wins for me every time.

Fame and fortune await…

After a busy weekend which culminated in the delivery of the 2 pigs to the abattoir on Sunday morning, it was a pleasant distraction to see that the promised article about our set-up actually made it into the paper.

There was a nice article in the Sunday Sun – a sister paper to the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal – and I thought that overall they really captured the essence of our adventure. Any inaccuracies in there were probably more as a result of my garbled explanations if I’m honest.

Article about Small Plot Big Ideas
Article about Small Plot Big Ideas

I’m now waiting for the phone to ring endlessly with other media enquiries and wondering whether I should get an agent for the book deals that are bound to come along in due course!

Life continues though and the 2 remaining pigs are slowly adjusting to the quieter surroundings in their pen. Mealtimes are certainly much more relaxed when there’s only 2 faces in the trough!

Only two for breakfast this morning
Only two for breakfast this morning

Cutting the hay meadows

It’s that time of year again when the friendly neighbouring farmer comes along to cut the hay meadows. Unlike last year when everything happened while I was out for the day, this year he arrived while I was pottering around the place so I was able to take some pictures.

In our area it seems that hay making has been going on for some time so I had thought ours would be some of the last to get cut. This is not a bad thing with these wildflower hay meadows as it’s good to let the plants set seed before cutting.

I have also noticed that there are still a number of fields dotted around locally which have not been cut yet so we can hold our heads up high. It may not be a competition but there is a part of me that’s glad we’re not the last to get cut!

view from ground level before cutting
view from ground level before cutting

View from higher up during cutting
View from higher up during cutting

All finished!
All finished!


Now would seem a good time for me to make some plans for the future maintenance or even improvements to these fields. In the future we may need to consider taking on this work ourselves so it would be very helpful to know a little more on the subject.

Luckily the North Pennines AONB Meadow Management workshop listed on the North Pennines Smallholders website is coming up soon so that’s probably a good place to start!

Small Plot Big Ideas in print again!

Home Farmer - Aug 2014
Home Farmer – Aug 2014

The blog posts here may have been much less frequent in recent weeks due to work commitments but they can’t compete with my “regularly” published articles in Home Farmer magazine.

The first article was in the May 2013 issue and the latest has just been published in the August 2014 issue. Obviously an article every year or so may not be considered prolific by most people and I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon as a result.

However I’m happy to think that technically speaking I’m a published writer and it’s rewarding to see my efforts on the page when they finally make it into print.

Hopefully this has helped to counteract what in my opinion seems to be a bias towards Wales and South West England in the smallholding magazines. There are plenty of smallholders in other parts of the country as well.

I hope the wider reading public feel that their boundless patience after my original article has been amply rewarded by this latest article.

If you don’t already subscribe to Home Farmer then you’ll need to buy a copy if you want to read the article. However I can highly recommend the informative and wide-ranging content in each issue so, in my opinion at least, a subscription is worth every penny!

Unfortunately this particular series of articles has probably reached a natural conclusion but I’m very happy to consider any other ideas for future articles.


How quickly time passes

It’s hard to believe that we have already passed the first anniversary of our move. Most days it feels like the intervening months have flashed past so quickly it can’t have been a year already. Sometimes though it feels like we have lived here for longer than that as everything seems so settled.

All things considered I think both of those must be a good sign!

The blog has actually been running for well over 2 years now – first post was on 12 Feb 2012 – because it dates back to the early days almost before our property searches.

I wouldn’t have missed the many highs and lows along the way but the journey has been a real education for all of us. Hopefully there will be many more learning experiences ahead as well.

Big lessons learned

The common advice from a variety of sources is always to take the first year to get a picture of the situation. I can recommend that from personal experience but I can also suggest that it can be ignored if you exercise a little caution.

Fruit Trees

Fruit trees are a good example where perhaps waiting a full year might have helped a little. It turns out that 1 or 2 of the new trees have been planted in an area which gets waterlogged after any extended periods of rain.

The drainage is just not good enough in those areas and I’d rather not take on a major civil engineering project to deal with that. At the moment most of them are holding their own but I’ve recently been forced to move one to a better spot as the new growth was starting to die off.


On the other hand, I’m really glad that we didn’t wait a year before getting pigs. Most of the equipment needed was already in place when we arrived so only minor rearrangements were needed.

Our first weaners were hugely entertaining while they were with us and with just 2 of them it was no problem learning as we went along. Now I can’t imagine not having pigs in future but I have put off the idea of breeding just yet and instead taken on 3 more weaners this year.

Raised Beds

It soon became clear that with too much grass to cut and not enough veg growing space the answer was to make some new raised beds. As much by luck as through judgement these have proved a great idea particularly since raised beds mean we avoid many of the waterlogging problems that could have come up.

Future plans

Having underestimated the importance of machinery I can now work on drawing up my extensive shopping list of “boys toys”. I may not be able to afford everything but I can slowly work my way down that list as our finances permit.

The second-hand quad bike is probably first up for replacement but that may soon be followed by a compact tractor. Perhaps I’ll skip the replacement quad and just buy a nicer tractor to deal with all the heavy lifting and transporting around the place!

Livestock plans are on hold for the moment due to work commitments but there is still plenty to learn from having our neighbours sheep on the fields in the meantime.

It has become clear now that land management is a major topic but bit by bit I’m getting an idea of what’s involved. The field drains were one aspect that I had not given much consideration to in the past but through the winter it became clear that action was needed.

Luckily our neighbour also had similar problems and was willing to help with ours while he had a digger on hire. There is still plenty more work for me to do though as the existing stone field drains that were uncovered are completely blocked and must be well over 100 years old!

If anything the number of possibilities and jobs to be done can be overwhelming at times but now we’re here I certainly couldn’t give it up!

Worth it in the end!
Worth it in the end!