AFTER much deliberation my wife, Karen and I made the decision to sell our house in Derbyshire and purchase a smallholding. Fortunately, being self-employed photographers and photo-journalists means that we can relocate just about anywhere and we were therefore not restricted to buying land in expensive areas.

We put our house on the market and spent hours on the internet looking at dozens of properties in the Scottish Highlands and Wales before selecting a shortlist for viewing. We finally settled on a 30- acre smallholding in Mid-Wales. Our offer was accepted - subject to selling our own property - so what do we do whilst we're waiting?

We already knew what livestock we intended to keep - our existing hens, ducks and Angora rabbits and a herd of Angora goats for starters. But with 20 plus acres of gently sloping pasture and six acres of steeply sloping woodland what sort of tractor was going to be suitable? Whilst this would be the first time I had purchased a tractor for farming purposes I have a little previous experience with tractors. Over the last 26 years I have driven numerous tractors on friends farms ranging from a 1970 MF135 to a 2006 Case and years ago when I worked in forestry I had even owned a Fordson Super Major. The seat cushion was a sack filled with bracken, the hand brake didn't work and it had to be bump started down the hill but it was a good runner and would haul timber all day. The questions were which tractor would be the better investment for our new smallholding: Vintage or modern? New or secondhand?

The recommendation of friends was a 4x4 tractor so a modern tractor appeared to be more suitable, the question being which one? Living on the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border two tractor manufacturers - JCB and Shire - were on my doorstep so I decided to ask them.

Les Waterfall, the managing director of Shire Tractors, lives on a steeply sloping 36-acre smallholding near Matlock in the Peak District. Les has been in the automotive industry for years and his hobbies include rallying and his smallholding. Four years ago, after selling one of his car dealerships, Les was looking for a compact tractor for his smallholding. In his words "I'd bought a 100hp New Holland and so I went to look at their compact - they wanted nearly as much as I'd paid for the full size tractor. A friend told me to look at the Chinese tractors - the price was right but the build quality looked like it could be improved. So I decided to improve it." After some research Les received an interesting invitation to meet with a man in Wales who it turned out was about three months ahead of him and had set up a company called Shire Tractors. Les initially bought 50% of the new company and later purchased the other 50%. Today Les has two business partners and an expanding network of dealers covering not only the UK but also Hungary and South Africa. Enquiries for dealership franchises in Ireland, Spain, Holland and France are also being evaluated.

So how does Les describe a Shire Tractor? "Essentially it's a sensibly priced hairy-chested little tractor that can be left outside all year. The parts come in from China and from our UK suppliers and are assembled at Carmarthen in South Wales. After individual testing the tractors are then delivered to our dealers where they undergo another full PDI check before being delivered to the end user. We keep a stock of all spares and our dealers sign an undertaking to provide service to a customer within 24 hours of being notified of a fault. In addition we have two flying mechanics' with spare tractors covering the whole of the UK from Lands End to John O'Groats. If a customer has a problem with a tractor that the local dealer can't rectify we will send a factory engineer who can if necessary leave the customer with a replacement tractor."

Is this cost-effective? "Overall, yes. Customer service is paramount. You have to remember we're the new kids on the block. It's absolutely no use having a reasonably priced tractor if it breaks down and the dealer can't look at it for four days or can't get essential parts. I've been in the automotive industry for a long time but I've always had a reputation for excellent customer service."

The Shire Tractor range was launched three years ago and the 2006 range consists of 4 tractors, the Foal (20HP), the 330 & 330C (30HP) and the 440 (40HP) all of which are four-wheel drive, fully road legal and HSE, CE and CAB compliant. The Foal at 3088mm length, 1360mm width and 1960mm to the top of the exhaust is designed for use in confined areas such as stables and indoor menages whilst the 330 and 440 are built on a slightly larger chassis - 3440mm length, 1500mm width and 2040mm to the top of the exhaust. The 330 C is the 30HP engine on the shorter chassis. All have a high/low range gearbox providing eight forward and two reverse gears, differential lock, power steering, a hand and foot throttle and split braking. The clutch is dual stage. Their GRP bodywork is British Racing Green - not just on the surface but throughout the plastic. "How strong are the GRP wheel arches compared to steel?" Les answers by jumping from his seat to stand on them. "That strong and they don't rust!" All black painted paintwork is Hammerite. As you look around the tractor the alterations that have been made to the original Chinese tractor are easily noticeable. The droopy nose to improve forward vision, the Varta battery to improve starting, the lower battery position to improve engine cooling, two gas struts to support the bonnet when raised - even in stormy British weather - beefier hydraulics, full lighting including amber beacon, folding rollover bar and a proper waterproof dash. A Cat 1 three-point linkage, dual speed PTO, draw bar and seven-pin trailer electrics connector permit the towing/carrying of a range of implements which Shire also sell ranging from the wood chipper pictured to balers, hedge cutters, mowers and trailers. Front weights, wheel weights and a choice of wide turf or agricultural tyres complete the package. With a full 12 months parts and labour warranty, a proper service manual to assist owners wishing to carry out their own servicing, a Managing Director out to secure the number one slot in the reliability and customer service tables and prices (ex. VAT) from £3,995 to £6,995 the Shire Tractor range are definitely impressive.

As for our requirements "The 330 will do the job for you but if you can afford the extra grand then the 440 just has that extra bit of punch if you should ever need it," Les advises us. I certainly found the Shire 330 demonstrator easy to drive and I don't think my wife would have any difficulty driving it either. All controls including the hydraulics are all easily accessible from the driving seat and have a solid feel to them which suggests that they won't just break after a little use. The folding rollbar will give the necessary protection - should it ever be required - whilst not preventing access to older low roofed buildings and being able to carry out most servicing ourselves would mean we were not going to incur major servicing costs. Personally I think that when we get our smallholding the Shire 440 at £6,995 plus VAT will be on the short list for further consideration. In a future article, I'll let you know my thoughts about the JCB compact tractor range.