Meet Amanda Owen, The Yorkshire Shepherdess
After leaving her life in Huddersfield to become a sheep farmer in the Dales, Amanda Owen has appeared on TV and become an author, while also raising eight children. We asked the only question there is: how?
‘I feel like I’m skiving,’ she says at the start of our interview. ‘There is loads to do outside. I’m just putting off the inevitable – going and chasing sheep around the field. It’s tupping time, and yesterday we were turning the tups out. Usually it’s a question of holding onto the tup, trying to blatter him up with rud before he goes off to make mad passionate love to all his ewes, but yesterday they wouldn’t come out of the stable – they didn’t fancy it.’
For those unfamiliar with farming terms (Amanda helped Living North out), tupping is the time of year when the rams are sent to impregnate the ewes; and rud is a kind of paint which rubs off on any ewes the ram mates with. While figuring out how to get her rams in the mood, Amanda is also looking after her youngest children (the older ones are at school) and finishing off her second memoir.
‘I was saying to Clive, “Oh, there’s so much to do,” because I’m writing to midnight now, and he said, “Maybe next week things will calm down.” I said, “No, they won’t,” and he said, “No, actually, they won’t.” You just do one job and it makes another one.’
Clive is Amanda’s husband, and together they run a farm, Ravenseat, at the head of the River Swale, deep in the Dales, about an hour’s walk west of Keld. The farm specialises in Swaledale sheep, but they also have cows, hens, dogs, a shepherd’s hut (for guests to stay in – the farm is on the Coast-to-Coast walking route, so Amanda also offers cream teas during summer), and not forgetting Clive and Amanda’s eight children.
If you haven’t heard how Amanda ended up here, on the edge of chaos, it’s a good story. Born in Huddersfield in 1974, her dad was an engineer at the David Brown factory, which made tractors and tanks, and her mum was a typist at David Brown (and a part-time model). Amanda says her childhood was ‘normal’, being raised in a suburban semi-detached, but she dreamed of being a farm vet, inspired by All Creatures Great and Small.
‘I loved that programme,’ she says. ‘Me and a million other people, I know. For me, the books and then watching it brought it all to life. It was just the scenery, the characters, and I, like many other people I suppose, thought, “Well, that’s all well and good, but that way of life is gone now.”’
She started taking the family dog for long walks, up to the moors, and when she was on the cusp of becoming a teenager, she got a bike, which she rode on the moors – she loved the countryside. She took down her posters of Madonna and Bros, and replaced them with pictures of a cow, sheep and horse, annotated with possible ailments. After A Levels she enrolled on an NVQ in Veterinary Nursing, and became fixated on a book.
The book was called Hill Shepherd, by John and Eliza Forder, and it’s full of photographs of shepherds and their flocks in the Dales and Lake District. She borrowed it from Huddersfield Library, then borrowed it again and again, until a letter from the library said she couldn’t borrow it anymore – ‘That book was what made me think, “Oh my god, that’s the life that I want, I want to be there, amongst those people, doing that job.”’
As part of her course she did lambing work on a farm, casual work in a livery yard, worked at a milking parlour, and spent time on a small farm with cows, sheep, horses and pigs. After finishing her NVQ, a tutor put her in touch with a farmer who was looking for a farmhand. That farmer was Clive. She became his farmhand, they got married, and years later she discovered he was in one of the photographs in the Hill Shepherd book. See? Great story.
‘It’s a very strange thing,’ admits the 41-year-old, ‘and if anyone asks how it happened, there’s no set way. It’s almost like, I don’t know, people talk about fate, and that might sound a bit weird and New Age, but I do feel there is some truth in that. I feel like I’ve almost gone full circle – I’m living here now at a place where they filmed James Herriot, married to one of the men who’s actually pictured within the Hill Shepherd book.’
Living North are not the first to show interest in this great story. Far too remote for a broadband connection, Amanda arranged to have a satellite installed at the farm, which enabled her to start tweeting. She discovered a network of farmers, who were sharing information and socialising, then non-farmers started to follow her. She began tweeting about life on the farm, the rough and the smooth, uploading photographs of her farm and family.
Next, the family became regular characters on The Dales television programme, which was presented by Ade Edmondson. The audience was enchanted; Amanda is joyful and funny; she has a pleasant Yorkshire accent; and she’s clearly smart. Unsurprisingly, she also appealed to a literary agent, who invited Amanda to London (‘I hadn’t been to London before and I was pregnant because I always am’). A publishing bidding war ensued.
‘The scary bit happened, where basically I got a contract that says 80,000 words in six months,’ she gasps. ‘Yeah, that was... oh my God. What have I let myself in for?’
But she got it written, and the result is her memoir, The Yorkshire Shepherdess, which was published in 2014. Now she’s just finishing writing her second book, which is a follow-up that’s once again about her life at Ravenseat. She says none of it has been planned – opportunities just come along.
‘You don’t know who’s going to ring, you don’t know who’s going to knock at your door,’ she says. ‘That’s very Ravenseat. There’s a certain unpredictability with life here, and that’s what I like. Everyone assumes you’ve got eight children, you’ve got a farm, you’re writing a book, so you must be so organised. Are you kidding? Yesterday my son went to school and forgot his trumpet, the children went in the wrong trousers the other day – one small child had big trousers, one big child had small trousers – and the washing can stay on the line for three days until it blows off and goes to Keld.’
She adds, emphatically: ‘I’m no domestic goddess. I make no plans for anything. I’m one of those people who go with the flow. I don’t stress about anything. Opportunities come my way, and I tend to take them without thinking about whether it’s humanly possible to do it.’
It seems to be working so far.