With a loyal lawn tractor out of action and lumpy paddocks to tame, Roger Field is on the hunt to find a successor. Illustrations by John Bradley

There comes a moment in many a life when a person finally says “Enough.” My mowing ‘enough’ moment came last summer, prompted by our loyal, 20-year-old Westwood sit-on lawn tractor. Having had its annual service, during its second foray into our ever-more lumpy paddocks, it went over yet another hole/bump and, blades screaming in agony as they chewed into something uncuttable, went silent. Something had damaged the array of rubber belts and pulleys that comprise the underside of most sit-on lawn tractors. Add to this breakdown an apparently unfixable battery issue that meant recharging it from the mains to get it started. Then, top all that off with our mower people telling us that we would probably see three changes of home secretary before a repair slot became available. And I said “Enough.” Very quietly, however. My own Montana Don bought that tractor and is mighty possessive of it. I’ll be on the transfer list long before it is.

Time to consult my farming chums – any excuse for a trip to the pub. Their conclusions were as follows. Option one: a little Fergie with a topper. Great but these multipurpose ‘paddock’ tractors are now near vintage. Expect to spend at least £5,000 at auction for a good example (topper extra) but never forget they are ancient and, much like beautifully built old shotguns, even the strongest metal eventually wears thin and fails. Option two, and better: a more modern but still pretty old already, Fergie 135. Expect to pay £7,000 to £8,500 for a good one that, hopefully, will not break down any time soon. The happy news from the Cheffins farm machinery expert was that I wouldn’t go far wrong. As long as I didn’t buy a dud, they are appreciating at about 5% to 10% a year. Nevertheless, I gave up, deeming this financial overkill for a few acres of infuriating grass.

Basic, better, best lawn tractors

Anyway, we’ve long had the rest of the garden – OK, the well-manicured part of it – under control. ‘Basic’ (imagine Fiona Bruce on Antiques Roadshow with ‘Basic, Better, Best’) is our small, pull-start, no-accelerator, push-Honda. It’s a brilliant little machine that I push around the borders and into hard-to-get-to places. It also helps keep me in some sort of fighting trim as I huff and puff behind it. ‘Better’, or maybe ‘best’, is our unlikely ‘stealth’ workhorse: a Husqvarna robot mower. It is one of the cleverest bits of kit I’ve ever come across, something to almost make me fall in love with new technology. It may resemble a black, plastic pancake but it has been haircutting our lawns to perfection for the past decade. Its primitive computer brain directs it around the garden in a seemingly random manner but is smart enough to get it to cut everywhere.

Cartoon of a man sat on top his lawn tractor, blowing kisses

Lawn tractors to fall in love with. Illustration by John Bradley

Even better, with one electrically driven 12in spinning metal disc underneath, with five tiny but sharp cutting blades attached, there is little to go wrong. On-site routine servicing involves making sure those blades have not got clogged with grass or been broken. They only take a minute or three to replace. It’s also remarkably zen. It semi-mesmerises chums as they watch it trundle around our lawns before taking itself off to its house to recharge ahead of setting out again. Visitors to The Game Fair last summer might have noted one coasting around on the front lawn of Ragley Hall. One chum with a more modern one – doubtless with a higher IQ than ours – fixed a camera on top that could ‘speak’ to his smartphone, before heading off to a Caribbean island for the winter, where he succeeded in getting himself locked down in a marina for almost two years. He used to soothe himself on a tedious evening by watching the badgers and rabbits digging up his lawn at night as the robot mower chomped its way around his gardens. 

Too much technology?

But, of course, there are buts. Rather like those electric ‘fences’ that stop dogs from escaping their gardens, there is a command wire that has to be dug in to give the mower its boundaries. This is boring and expensive to install and extremely dull when something breaks the wire, and you have to find said mystery break. Nor is the brain on ours going to beat anybody at chess. It occasionally hari-karis itself up on the boles of trees and runs out of battery as it strains to push them over. The ground needs to be completely clear of twigs, cones, the dog’s toys, small children, badger/rabbit holes and what have you, as the blades are brittle and snap easily. The wheels are only small and will jam in any holes, which is why the Westwood took over from the Husqvarna in the first place as those paddocks became increasingly dug-about and robot-unfriendly. But those downsides aside, it’s brilliant. No petrol, no oil, no issues starting it. Effort-free mowing. In fact, it’s so silent and effortless that we sometimes forget to put it to bed at night.

This is where I found myself last summer, with our apex lawn tractor broken and no repair in sight. Enter Alastair, our local tractor repair guru, to emergency repair the Westwood. He eventually traced and replaced a number of broken wires. Most lawn tractors, he explained, do not have ‘tractor grade’ wires, meaning they get brittle and perish in time. For the first time in years, it was recharging and restarting as it was meant to. Next, he got the blades whirring. Finally, we inspected our paddocks. “The hint is in the name,” he told me with a naughty smile. “The Westwood is called a lawn tractor because it’s designed to mow lawns. If it were designed to mow this stuff,” he kicked another tussock, “it’d be called a paddock tractor.” We were but one of many, and if we continued to misuse our faithful old friend, then future breakages were guaranteed.

Lawn tractor – the clue is in the title

What to do? A small Fergie or similar would be excessive with our acreage, he reckoned. A mini/compact tractor was the best solution. It would pull a topper, which was what our fields needed, and there would be no rubber belts and pulleys to get damaged. Use a mini/compact for the main grunt work and the Westwood to mow around the hard-to-get-to edges. What’s more, he just happened to have a good old Kubota for sale, topper included. Mine for perhaps £3,000 – or was it £3,500? He wasn’t sure. “Give me first dibs, please,” I said, almost reaching for my wallet. “We’ll come and look at it today.” Only one problem. The gearbox was in bits, although he was planning to fix it when he had a spare moment. But probably not until the autumn. My hopes of instant mowing nirvana subsided like a burst soufflé.

A cartoon lawn tractor chasing wildlife

A lawn tractor on the loose! Illustration by John Bradley

This gave me time to step back and think. We live in a disused quarry. My projects always seem to involve moving large stones and lots of earth; shifting tree trunks to cut up for firewood would be no bad thing, either. Conclusion: what I need is a bucket. And the bigger the bucket the better. Next, I looked at the mini/compact tractors on offer at The Game Fair and reckoned that about £9,000 (plus VAT) would see me with a new, super-smart, mid/smallish lawn tractor. A topper and bucket would probably be extra. But I don’t need a new tractor or want to spend that much. Back to the pub and more sucking of teeth with my chums, who understand these things better than me. Put a bucket on the front of a tractor, one cautioned, and, unless I wanted to be forever taking the bucket on and off, the vehicle would end up far longer and far less manoeuvrable, especially when towing a topper. Also, unless it were a big tractor, the front bucket wasn’t designed to carry the quantities of stone and soil I have in mind for it.

Why not a dumper?

I explained my quandary during a call with an ex-Army, farmer friend. “Buy a good second-hand dumper,” he declared. “They’re far cheaper than lawn tractors. That will give you a big bucket. Then buy a towable, motor-powered flail mower. The dumper will pull that around all day.” Eureka! Used, independently motorised, towable flail mowers start at around £1,000 on eBay. New ones, entry level circa £2,500. Doable. I shared this solution with my builder” “I thought you would have bought one years ago.” Then again, he’s been wheelbarrowing everything around for years; had I bought a dumper when we first moved here, I’d have paid for it by now on the hours of labour saved. That said, I almost did at a farm auction about five years ago; an ancient, Perkins-powered, crank-start, no-hydraulics, little yellow dumper. I stopped at £220 as I knew it had starting issues. “It would have been the death of you,” said Alastair, the tractor man, when I told him.

Hold the starting handle incorrectly as I cranked and, if the elderly engine kicked into life, I would risk a broken wrist. Trying to start it as it refused to play, as they tend to on damp mornings, and I was inviting probable heart failure or a certain hernia. Men my age, he told me, need starter motors and good hydraulics. Ono the internet I finally found a beauty not too far away. It is a Thwaites three-tonner (meaning it carries three tons) of indeterminate age. It started first time from genuine cold. Its hydraulics work. It drives well. It is going to muller my tasks. We shook hands at £3,000. However – why is there always a however? – the seller first has to fix the handbrake cable. He doesn’t want to sell it, and I don’t want to buy it, without one. Although whether it ever gets mended, I am beginning to wonder. Whatever. By this spring, with luck, I’ll be welcoming a motorised, flail-pulling dumper into my life.

If you enjoyed reading this article, check out our round-up of the best UTVs for rural estates.