Outside the Box: Neil Bolton

Hiscox London Market’s Head of Casualty on living the good life in the countryside, coping with vanishing hens and suicidal sheep.

Nearing the end of a three-year stint working for Hiscox in the US, my family and I started to think about living a semi-self-sufficient lifestyle. We'd lived around the Thames Ditton area before going to the US, but I fancied the idea of growing vegetables and keeping some livestock. I also think it's important my kids have an idea of where their food comes from.

So, following our return to the UK, the hunt was on for somewhere we could set up a smallholding. After a two-year search, we found a place in the South Downs National Park. It's a long commute into the City for me (an hour and 45 minutes), but the location is worth it.

I've learnt to shear the sheep with mixed results - they didn't look too smart - and been introduced to the importance of keeping a sheep's backside clean.

Poultry returns

Neil Bolton tending to sheep

Our first attempt to keep livestock didn't quite match the rural idyll. I bought a dozen Orpington chickens, but unfortunately they all began to die one by one until there were only two left, without a single egg laid. Apparently they had contracted a rare avian disease. Undaunted, we tried again with six hens from a more standard breed, but this time a fox paid a visit and did for most of them too.

Sheep also seem to have a suicidal gene. One of them launched itself into the air and rammed its head into a corrugated iron hut while I was cutting its hooves, splitting its face wide open. My wife is a doctor and our first thought was for her to suture the wound, but we didn't have any sutures in the house. A vet was called and 20 minutes later the sheep was stitched up. All well we thought – until the sheep dropped dead in the field two weeks later.

Fortunately, we've had more success with our sheep. This year, we've bought nine Hampshire Down Sheep with the intention of rearing organically sourced lamb for family and friends. I've learnt to shear the sheep with mixed results - they didn't look too smart - and been introduced to the importance of keeping a sheep's backside clean (known as dagging, or clipping off the dried dung) for fear of ‘fly strike’.

I like the variety and I get to pootle about on my own John Deere Tractor - not much wrong with that!

Bringing home the bacon

Sheep

We've also expanded with two pigs, predictably named Pinky and Perky. They're Oxford Sandy and Blacks which are quite sociable animals: they will follow you around, but they can give a nasty little nip if they get too excited.

Having a smallholding involves periods of intense activity, but on a day-to-day basis, the animals can be fed and watered using automatic food hoppers and water troughs. But you can't just leave them to their own devices – I check on them every evening when I get home. It's something that is completely different from my day job: I like the variety and I get to pootle about on my own John Deere Tractor - not much wrong with that!

Grow your own

Next up is our vegetable garden. Our very own Paul Lawrence is something of an expert on growing his own veggies, so I've been taking advice and am looking forward to a good crop this year. But I've become well read on smallholding issues and rarely miss an episode of Country File or Gardeners' World on TV. And who knows? If I’m feeling lucky, I might even try and keep some more chickens in future.

 

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