Animal instincts

Amanda Owen lives on a remote hill farm on the Yorkshire-Cumbria border but has nearly 30,000 Twitter followers and a book deal

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It’s an eight-mile climb into the North Yorkshire moors from Kirkby Stephen to Ravenseat, the hill farm that’s home to Amanda Owen, her flock of 900 Swaledale sheep and her brood of nine. It’s a precarious drive, up exposed hillsides, mostly without crash barriers. We pass few vehicles but are forced to mount the foot of a hill to make way for Amanda’s husband Clive, on his way to Hawes Auction Mart in his four-by-four and trailer, carrying four cows to sell. He’s been told to bring back petrol, dog food and other essentials. Snow is forecast and no one will be leaving the farm if it does.

“It becomes a no man’s land – our road end is just packed with snow,” Owen explains from her farmhouse living room, warmed by the range she uses for hot water, cooking and a refuge from the harsh moorland of her 2,000 acre farm. Gathered around the fender are three-year-old Annas, one-year-old Clementine and pet terriers Pippin and Chalky –  the only animals on the farm allowed indoors. She watches over them from the sofa while nursing the newest addition to her clutch, six-month-old Nancy.

Farming has been traditionally male but Owen is laid-back about being in the minority

Platitudes about the weather may be the hallmark of any British introduction but for Owen it’s a subject posing genuine threats to her daily routine, which is meticulous. Ravenseat is in Yorkshire but on the fringes of both Cumbria and Durham. “You think a county boundary is just a sign, but actually it makes a great deal of difference when it comes to things like the roads. Yorkshire don’t clear it to Cumbria and Cumbria don’t clear it to Yorkshire – so you’re marooned.”

Owen and her family – then four fewer – featured on popular ITV documentary series The Dales in 2011 and she subsequently made her name as the Yorkshire Shepherdess on Twitter, her accomplished photos of the dramatic landscape and unusual lifestyle bringing her a flock of 27,000 followers.

Owen’s town-to-country tale has captured the imagination of thousands of urbanites with dreams of greener pastures. Like many farmers, she has been forced to diversify for economic reasons, serving cream teas and homemade cakes to visitors and offering accommodation. But the tourists bring something in return.

“I feel like we’re giving a good service but we’re getting something back too,” she says. “There’s this countryside-urban divide – maybe more than there’s ever been – and I feel that anything that brings those two things together is good, because that’s where my roots are.

“If you talk to people, even people with really good jobs, a lot of them have aspirations to move to the countryside. So I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to tap into something.”

She tapped into it in 2014 with her first book, The Yorkshire Shepherdess, telling how she left a conventional urban life in Huddersfield to raise a family, and a flock, on a remote Dales farm. She’s since featured in Ben Fogle’s series New Lives in the Wild and written a second book.

Amanda Owen
In the Ravenseat living room, Amanda Owen’s three-year-old daughter Annas tells her mother that she’s already brought the wood in for the fire. Photos: @catsdogphoto

“I do feel like I’ve become a bit of a tourist attraction sometimes. Clive says he’s going to get a cardboard cut-out of me but they’re really expensive,” she says, laughing.

“I feel like I live in two different worlds. The other world is quite a long way away from here and I choose to let it in as and when it suits me. I had somebody come up from London the other day and I thought, they’re getting on at King’s Cross – massively busy – and getting off at Garsdale – field of donkeys walk across the line

“But it keeps your feet on the ground. As long as people keep knocking on the door and there’s a little post-it note on there saying ‘Sorry, I’m on the tractor’ then I feel like I’m forgiven. If I put ‘Sorry, I’m on the sunbed in Mauritius’ it doesn’t kind of cut it.”

Since they had broadband installed at Ravenseat Owen says she feels less remote because the world has come to her.

“If I go back to 2001, foot and mouth year, that was a time when you felt at your most isolated here. You were reliant more on word of mouth or the telephone and you really closed yourself off from everything.”

As Annas totters around in slightly too-big cowgirl boots on the hardwood floor, her mother explains they were one of her first internet buys from eBay, and they’ve been loved by every child since. Raven, her eldest – born in that lonely year foot and mouth struck – used to sleep in them. “I got the internet in for the most boring reason ever – for cattle movements. But then I discovered social media and it’s a good way of keeping in touch. I find there’s a lot of farmers on there because it can be quite isolating. This time of year I don’t see anybody.”

With aspirations to become the next James Herriot – the famous vet and writer – Owen began helping out on farms in her late teens while studying veterinary nursing. Her first lambing season was a baptism of fire but shepherding became a preferable prospect to years of studying. After a couple of years as a contract shepherd, 21 and dreadlocked, she was sent to Ravenseat for a job and met Clive, then twice her age and divorced with two children. Like her, Clive was an “offcumden” – originally hailing from Doncaster. The pair will have lived together at the farm 21 years in March.

Having nine children – and not ruling out more – was never part of the plan. “This place moulds you, subconsciously. Without you even knowing, it rubs off on you. So you come here vaguely normal and then as time goes on it makes you the person you are. I’m not saying a big family is for everyone, I’m saying I’ve found the right place and the right fella to be able to do that.”

Owen’s free-range approach to childrearing has inspired mothers across the land. She tends her flock with a baby strapped to her back and a few others in tow, and the story of Annas’s birth – one push, alone in front of her fire, while the other nine family members slept none the wiser – is confounding to every woman who has ever been at the wrong end of an epidural needle.

“The more you work with nature the more you realise that the more you break away from it, the more trouble you give yourself. I just go with it, and I don’t find that worrying about stuff too much helps. What happens to plans? They always go tits up!”

But it’s not all skipping through fields with lambs, or sliding down snowy moors on tea trays for the children – though that happens plenty too.

“They have responsibilities and there’s nowt wrong with that,” says Owen, who occasionally slips into thick dialect – usually when imitating her husband. “There’s always something to do on the farm and once they get bigger they’re more help, but even when they’re little they do little jobs.”

Turning to the biggest of the three girls around her she says: “You bring some wood up sometimes for the wood box, don’t you?”

“Yes,” says Annas before astutely pointing out: “It’s full now.”

The elder six children are at school, but the youngest three won’t be going until they have to – the term after they turn five. Living on the farm is an education in itself.

“They get to see it all. Birth and death. You don’t have to have the birds and the bees conversation – they come and help at tupping time and watch the tups mating with the yows [ewes] and it doesn’t raise an eyebrow. We rear pet lambs and pet pigs and then eat them. There’s an acceptance that that’s how it is, so you have that realism there, but that’s not to say that you become hardened to it. The minute you become hardened to losing summat then you’re no good at your job anymore.”

Having nine children – and not ruling out more – was never part of the plan

Getting to school is a slog in itself: a two-hour, 30-mile commute to Richmond including a taxi and a bus ride for the older ones, and a 17-mile trip to Reeth for those of primary age. This morning Owen has received a phone call telling her five-year-old Sydney had been sick on the bus. School wanted to send him home but the no-nonsense mother told them to change his clothes and give him something to eat because he’d be hungry now. “I have told them he’s travel sick and it’s crap that that’s part of living here – you take the rough with the smooth.

“What used to happen up here was that kids from these farms boarded but there aren’t so many in the way of boarding schools now. We did look at it for Raven, but she said she’d miss her horse too much – not me.” She’s considered home schooling too, she says, but believes it’s important for the children to mix with others. Yet Owen says her parenting still comes under fire.

“People say: ‘They won’t know how to talk, them kids, they won’t know how to deal with people.’ But it’s the total opposite because we have new people coming through every day. They used to be like: ‘Uh, what do you want?’ Now it’s like: ‘How can I help you?’”

Owen herself is a confident, witty and vivacious 6ft 2in with bum-length hair she can’t ever remember cutting. It’s an occupational hazard. “If I don’t wash my hair every night then it actually has real shit in it.”

But she still likes feminine trappings and is determined not to become a caricature that the media might want her to be. “I might wear blokey wellies and snot-green waterproofs but I’m going to put my waterproof make-up on every morning. If I got run over and they had to cut my waterproofs off I’d have something half decent on underneath,” she laughs with mock outrage. They might also find, she admits, a tattoo of a Swaledale tup on her arse. “Clive says: ‘It looks like sign out of National Park and, speaking of which, your arse is about the size of National Park.’

“I might live here and I might see no one other than the kids and the sheep but it’s not necessarily for other people. It’s for myself. I’m not ashamed of it.

“When a certain programme asked if it would be possible to bring some shepherding accoutrements along with me, I refused. I’m not sitting on a sofa anywhere with a stick because it will look contrived, so I am determined I am going to go with a dress with a zip up the back and they will not expect that. I won’t be what they want me to be.”

Farming has been traditionally male for centuries but Owen is laid-back about being in the minority.

“You can’t always pull the sexism card and from my experience I’ve always found this industry to be very inclusive. If you can do the job then it doesn’t matter who you are.”

She would be happy for any of her six girls to get into farming. “There are some jobs that I fear we can do even better. That maternal thing – sometimes when I’ve watched Clive milking a yow, he’s going ‘Stand still you so-and-so’ and he’s yanking at her tit. I say: ‘Well, you know what? She’s not going to stand still, Clive. You’re pulling her pap!’

“There are quite a few women in farming, but there’s always been that image of the farmer’s wife. It can be downgraded to polishing the Aga and feeding the hens – they don’t realise that a lot of the time, especially on family farms, she’ll be pulling her weight just the same. There’s no bigger wind-up than having a feed rep come into the yard and shout to you while you’re feeding your calves ‘Where’s boss at?’ – because you’re most likely talking to her.”

Nor are the farmers at the auction mart ring phased by her breastfeeding baby while waiting for her lot. “It’s nature. It doesn’t even make my sheep a better price!”

Owen is currently writing a third book in which the focus will move away from Ravenseat. The uncertainty of Brexit means land trade is good, she says, and the Owens have bought an additional property nearby. The book will concentrate on the property’s history and their experience of doing it up.

Balancing farmhouse renovations, working the land and her livestock and raising her children, Owen writes at night. She’s grateful that her quad bike has gone in for new tyres today so there’s not a lot of work she can do, she says, her face burrowed into Annas’s hair. Kitted out in her coat and wellies now, the three year old has tired of waiting to go for a ride on little Joe – the Shetland pony – and followed the lead of her two younger sisters, now napping, and drifted off on her mother’s lap. Tomorrow though, Owen will need to gather in her flock from the hills before the snow descends.

“I always have this conversation with my editor when she’s saying: ‘Oh, we’re going to have to extend your deadline.’ And I’ll say: ‘You know what? If I employ a farm manager to look after the farm and an au pair to look after the kids then I’ll meet your deadline, but I won’t have much to write about.’

“I suppose it sounds like I want it all,” she adds wryly. “Why not?”

A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen is out on 26 January (£7.99, Pan Macmillan). Photos: Cat Race

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