Andrew O’Shea has only been smallholding since 2011, but he’s already packed more than most into those few years. Debbie Kingsley checked out what’s been happening on his Lincolnshire holding
I first met Andrew O’Shea when he attended one of our Introduction to Smallholding courses; he was an avid listener and question asker, serious about his learning and wanting to put it into practice swiftly. “At that time me and my family: (wife Kathleen a teacher and children Joe 13, Keira, 12, and Freya 10) lived in a suburban house in Kent with a long garden and an allotment. I’d been inspired by the early episodes of River Cottage where Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was trying things that I wanted to have a go at myself,” Andrew said.
Livestock seemed entirely necessary to achieving this, so after a quick online check of local chicken breeders, the family found themselves with a new coop and some birds. It wasn’t long before Andrew was hatching his own chickens and rearing them for the table.
“The driving force then and now has been to produce our own quality meat,” he said. “We even investigated having a pig in the back garden, but it just wasn’t practical, so we bought meat direct from small scale farmers and could really tell the difference in the quality and taste from supermarket offerings. We did try a couple of pygmy goats, but in the space available it wasn’t ideal and we sold them on.”
As a busy teacher, Kathleen left most of the livestock chores to Andrew, but seeing that his passion for the life was growing, and having a yearning for a more rural existence for the family, she suggested they move before their oldest son started secondary school.
“We had two constraints,” she recalls. “It had to be in reasonable commuting distance to London, as I have to get to my employer’s offices a few times a month, although I’m mostly based at home – and of course it had to suit our budget.”
Lincolnshire seemed to fit both requirements, and in 2011 they moved into a smallholding with 2.75 acres of neatly fenced paddocks and a barn big enough to accommodate a tractor. The smallholding is on prime agricultural land, surrounded by vegetable farms, a sure sign of quality soil.
They took 50 birds with them, including turkeys, one of which was earmarked for Christmas dinner. Determined not to waste any time, their first new inhabitants were the much wanted pigs, three Gloucestershire Old Spots weaners, shortly followed by some commercial store lambs.
Andrew said: “Not long after the pigs and sheep arrived, I bought two in-milk British Toggenburg goats, using the milk for the house and for raising the cade lambs which thrived. The younger goat has since had two sets of triplets, providing meat for the family and a source of income as we sell the surplus kids to other keepers. I enjoy the characters of the goats and having them around the holding for fun – these days there’s enough to do without twice daily milking and the kids get to keep all of their mother’s milk.”
Poultry was always a big thing for Andrew and he increased his stock to 25 different breeds, selling hatching eggs, chicks and point of lay birds, but this didn’t produce a good financial return.
“Now we focus on six breeds including Owlbeards, Frizzle Pekins, Cream Legbars and English Game, and for the table, buy in day-old commercial strains like Hubbards and Norfolk Blacks” he informs.
You can do a great deal on 2.75 acres, and with full-time jobs that might be more than enough. Andrew and Kathleen had no thoughts of expanding until they met an acquaintance who was looking to rent out a five-acre plot.
“To graze the extra land we chose a small flock of Hebridean sheep,” said Andrew. “They are light on the grazing and locally there are plenty of rams and breeding stock to build the flock.”
You might think things would have stopped at this point, but no; the extra ground has meant that the O’Shea’s can rear their own beef. Their first cattle purchase was a beautiful Dexter steer from a fellow member of the Lincolnshire Smallholders Club, and Andrew had a chance to do some of his much enjoyed carpentry and built a cattle crush for the required bovine TB test. The steer became a favourite on the holding and it was quite an emotional experience, finally taking it off to the butcher.
“Being a first timer, I felt I was taking a bit of a punt with the steer, but the butcher who cut it up wanted to buy half, as he was so impressed by the carcase. We resisted the offer, kept the meat for ourselves, and then bought a Simmental steer which runs with a friend’s herd on the local marshes.”
Andrew is very intrigued to see how the beef will compare to that of the Dexter, which was excellent. And the cattle enterprise hasn’t stopped there: “We’ve just taken on two Dexter cows, the mother of our first steer, and another one that arrived in calf.”
Each year the whole family has made a small amount of hay by hand – an absolute labour of love and blisters, but very rewarding.
“What has suffered through lack of time has been the growing of vegetables, and this year the polytunnel has run away from us without the attention it needed,” said Kathleen. “But this being Lincolnshire we haven’t run short of great fresh veg; we barter eggs for vegetables with local farmers and often come home to find a parcel of vegetables on our doorstep.”
Are the children as passionate about the smallholding life as their father? “The youngest, Freya, is fascinated by everything on the smallholding, and, when she isn’t at school she follows me around, helping me out with all my chores,” said Andrew. “The eldest, Joe, helps out whenever asked to, with never a word of complaint, while Keira is keenest on the cooking. What we all love is the freedom to get out and about and enjoy the outside space our new home affords us.”
Kathleen loves the baby animals but her teaching schedule and studies to become a special educational needs co-ordinator don’t give her much free time. Andrew laughs and says: “The animal pens are tidier than the house – we are all too busy to worry about the house, which is just as it should be. We save the big animal chores for the weekends when many family hands are around to help.”
I can’t imagine what further ambitions this family could possibly have – they seem to be doing a bit of everything and have taken on a lot of new things very quickly. The only thing Andrew wants to do next is develop the Hebridean flock in size and quality. His words of wisdom for others starting out are: “Do your research, go on a course, get a feel for what it’s really like and get some experience before you take on something like lambing.”
Debbie’s Introduction to Smallholding course: www.smallholdertraining.co.uk/Intro.html
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