2,000 acres, over 1,000 breeding ewes, 50 cattle, nine children (yes, nine), numerous dogs, hens … oh, and one husband. Carolyn Nicoll caught up with the super stylish shepherdess Amanda Owen (even in wellies, how does she do it?), to find out more about her flock and family, filming the latest series of Our Yorkshire Farm and life in lockdown.
Growing up in Huddersfield, I had a typical suburban childhood, but I was always interested in the countryside. When friends were heading into town I’d go the other way and get on my bike for a cycle out to the open landscape above Holmfirth, then on to Saddleworth Moor and Castle Hill with its ancient monument. That’s the beauty of so many towns and cities in Yorkshire, they’re surrounded by stunning fields, moorland and woods, with amazing views to enjoy.
When I left school I knew I wanted to become a shepherdess but it wasn’t the sort of thing offered for study at college. So off I went to work on local farms to get some hands-on experience, milking cows, driving tractors picking up as much practical knowledge as I could. I knew I didn’t want to be a general farm worker but it was all stuff to put on my CV, as well as picking up shifts in a newsagents, a fancy pottery shop in a Huddersfield arcade and working in a factory at night, to earn some money. All done to get me heading in the right career direction to be a hill shepherd. I was a free spirit trying to get to where I wanted to be. There’s certainly no hard and fast way to becoming a shepherdess. I had to learn on the job.
Luckily I got my big break when I replied to an ad for a shepherd vacancy. It was down in Wiltshire, so off I headed with a Border collie and a lot of enthusiasm for the opportunity ahead. A stint at a farm in Cumbria followed and is how I met Clive (Amanda’s husband and father to their 9 children).
It wasn’t the most romantic of starts, I went to borrow a tup (male sheep). I’d travelled from the place I was working at over in the Lake District, to Ravenseat, Clive’s Yorkshire farm (now my home), all very businesslike. That was back in 1995 when I was 21, we were just friends to start with, but things developed, as they do, and we got married in 2000.
Ravenseat in Swaledale became my home and it’s a very different part of Yorkshire to where I started off in life. But in a way I think that’s put me in good stead, because I wasn’t born and bred in the countryside, I think I appreciate it even more. It’s such a different way of life. And what’s not to love about it! It sounds cheesy, I know, and I’ve said this a million times but imagine the one thing I grew up absolutely loving and being obsessed with … James Herriot books. I adored them, I read every single one and watched All Creatures Great and Small, the TV series based on the books about the life of a Yorkshire vet. And what great news that they’re making a new series this year. For me it was all so magical, the fantastic tales that were all true stories about real experiences in the Yorkshire Dales with the stunning dales as a backdrop. My now home of Swaledale was used as the setting for so many of those farms, in a time that has almost stood still and continues to, to some degree. I say that in a positive way, as the farming techniques have almost come back into fashion, with its hay meadows, heritage roots and a more traditional way of farming. Forget intensive farming, fertiliser and flattening everything, this is nature and farming at its best. So even though the original All Creatures Great and Small was filmed back in the ‘80s, you can watch it now and see it hasn’t changed. It’s got magnificent moorland, big skies, it’s extreme and it’s exhilarating and that’s where I live. Amazing!
I desperately wanted to go on a school trip with the fantastic Yorkshire artist Ashley Jackson when I was at school to paint the moors with him. I’ve always been drawn to the hills and the open land and I distinctly remember the kids in my class who excelled at art would regularly get chosen to accompany this amazing artist with his swishy hair, as a treat, to create fantastic countryside scenes. I was never top of the class, so didn’t get picked once, but boy did I want to go. The good thing is I now get to live in a place that could be an Ashley Jackson painting, amid rolling dales farms, drystone walls, beautiful recognisable Yorkshire countryside. I’ve never told him that story. I’d hate for him to think I was some sort of mad stalker. (laughs)
The brand new series of Our Yorkshire Farm is just more of the same (laughs) … what’s going to change?! We’re still battling with the elements and all sorts of weather. It’s very simple really in its format and I think the normality of it all is what viewers like. It isn’t rushed or polished, the fact that we don’t always win and things don’t always go right seems to really appeal to people, because that’s real life isn’t it. You watch some popular programmes about life in the country and it’s all very nice, but ours is more gritty. You get the mud, you get the floods, you get to see everything. If you’re invited into our home you’re not going to get perfection, you’re not going to get a page out of Country Living magazine, you’re going to get odd wellies and felt-tip on the walls. For a lot of people it’s a trip down memory lane, a bit of nostalgia. Homeliness, it’s basically normal TV that may teach people something, and I don’t mean that in a highfalutin kind of way, more of a what you see out of the window makes us all understand what’s going on … with the sheep at tupping time and fields that are ready for that push to make the hay.
Lockdown started towards the end of filming the six episodes of the new series of Our Yorkshire Farm and filming at that point proved to be quite difficult. We couldn’t have a crew so had to self-shoot everything. There were all sorts of different cameras and sound equipment to learn how to use. It was a great opportunity though, positioning cameras high up to get shots of birds in their nests. The production company have since put it all together in the edit and I’m really proud of what we all managed to achieve, giving viewers a real insight into what was going on at Ravenseat and the upside of lockdown. I feel quite humbled by how much the past TV series have touched viewers. People saying I feel like I know you. They don’t but they feel like they do, which is good.
We’ve got nine children, all that open space, a huge amount to do throughout the year … and so there’s always going to be some chaos and nothing can ever be choreographed. The crew just film whatever happens, believe me, we never know what that might be, best-laid plans and all that (laughs). Things live, things die, so it’s not all dreamy, skipping through flower-filled meadows and everything comes out alright. I don’t want to sound depressing but it’s all about actual reality on the farm and real experiences, good and bad.
The coronavirus crisis has impacted so many in different ways. When it all started it was almost like a ‘novelty experience’ kicking off & no one was sure how it would affect them personally. It was the beginning of lambing for us and what we have to fully concentrate on, being at the back end of a sheep for over a month. We’re really busy and not always fully aware of what’s going on elsewhere. But after lambing time the enormity of it hit home and the news was just horrible. For us, the end of lambing is when the weather starts to pick up and we see tourists and welcome visitors, but not this year. I mean we are remote, cut off and isolated at the best of times, but there was such a strange feeling in the air, you just knew that things weren’t right. The kids were at home because it was Easter, but now they’ve all been at home for such a long period of time. Thankfully they’re all happy to muck in and help out on the farm.
Lockdown logistics of trying to feed 11 mouths has been a tricky one. Supermarkets were limiting the amount of food that could be bought which was a real problem. People would think I was bulk buying and hoarding things. You could only buy two milks and I was going shopping once a week, for not only my family, but also for neighbours who were shielding.
Luckily we’re in a farm situation so can rely on self-sufficiency to a certain extent but it’s been a giant learning curve. We’ve had eggs from the chickens, we’ve made bread, used the dairy, picked rhubarb, looked at what we’ve got on the farm and tried to make the most of the situation. There are jobs that the children have that I don’t even think about. Morning and night, Eden sorts out the pet lambs, Violet is on with the calves and she knows what she has to do, Miles is sorting out the chickens, Sidney’s on with the dogs. It wouldn’t work if everybody didn’t chip in and pull their weight.
The benefits have been taking the time to slow down and to really take note of nature and what’s going on under our noses. Usually there’s not enough time with so much rushing about, trying get to here, got to do this and get back for that! We’ve watched curlew eggs hatch and I’ve been able to ride my horse anywhere I want to because there’s been no traffic. Wonderful! Of course, we know we’re fortunate to have a big space and yes, I’ve got nine children which probably sounds like a nightmare in lockdown, but we’re not stuck inside without a garden, the weather has been great most of the time, so I’ve opened the door and off they’d go. I’d often only see them when they were injured or hungry.
A typical day? There isn’t one. It’s always very much about the weather, from sheep shearing to making hay to clipping hogs (young sheep), at the moment I’ve got another 800 to do, which will keep me out of mischief for a bit. It’s like a keep-fit regime and it can actually be quite back-breaking. There’s always something happening on a farm and if you’re not working, then you’re ignoring something. There are gaps in the walls to rebuild, cattle need moving, it’s a constant ongoing thing. There’s never a quiet time and the washing machine is ALWAYS going.
Lots of projects away from the farm have had to be put on hold and are all stacking up. Usually throughout the summer months I’m out and about talking at events about what happens on the farm, what it’s like to be a shepherdess, the sheep, the countryside, nature and the environment. There’s a real appetite for it. I spend months travelling here there and everywhere, including going to literary festivals, not somewhere I’d usually hang out. Can you imagine? Me, a lass from Huddersfield who got an E in my GCSE English. I wouldn’t be going to a literary festival. However, the point is, it’s about what inspires you, what inspires me … which was always to be a shepherdess and in a roundabout way I’ve managed to do what I set out to achieve. Hopefully inspiring other people to follow their dreams too.
It’s a year of two halves at Ravenseat. Usually throughout the cooler, wintry months I’m out with the sheep and it’s quite an isolating experience. Then there are six months, when the weather picks up and I’m meeting and chatting with people who visit the farm and those I see at events. That’s what I’m really looking forward to when things start to get back to normal, the contact with lots of different people again.
Homeschooling has been interesting … in more ways than one. I can’t say the children have logged on to their homework as often as they perhaps should have done, but do you know what, they’ve learnt so much in many other ways. I spoke to the school staff last week about what the kids have done and what they haven’t done. They are good teachers who appreciate just what the children have learnt and experienced over the last few weeks, from finding out all sorts of things about the world outside, where food comes from, and lots of PE has been happening, including running, horse riding and swimming. We’ve been fascinated by the night skies with no aeroplanes flying over and have witnessed shooting stars and spotted constellations. The children have really benefitted in so many ways. Although I’m not saying they’ve got any better at their German or reached grade 6 in piano, but they have learnt a lot. It’s such a hard time for so many parents with home tutoring, that I think if you come out of lockdown sane, then you’ve done your job well.
When it comes to filming Our Yorkshire Farm, I let the kids go with the flow. If they want to be part of it on the day, they film, if they don’t, then that’s fine too. You can’t force a child to perform, they’ve got to want to do it. The children often go off with the crew and it’s not until I watch the series on TV that I see what they’ve been up to. Some people say ‘I can’t believe your child picked up a wild rabbit’ and I think, I didn’t know they’d picked up a wild rabbit.
It’s been a great opportunity for some of them to be part of other exciting projects too. Raven (eldest) has modelled for the designer fashion brand Burberry and Eden has been involved with Newsround.
The whole TV experience has been completely accidental and something I’ve never chased. It’s certainly made me busier. I can’t sing, I can’t dance and I guess I’ve always been a bit of a slacker, but the whole experience is so enjoyable, if not a little hectic. I’m a bit of an opportunist, if something comes along I’ll give it a go. It started with regional TV and a report from broadcaster Luke Casey, then Adrian Edmondson visited Ravenseat Farm as part of ITV’s The Dales programme. I was then asked to write a book, that led to writing three bestselling books and I’m currently on with the fourth, although I’ve only written one chapter so far. The publisher thought lockdown would be a great time for me to crack on with it, but it’s not that easy to concentrate with nine kids at home and a zillion sheep!
I’m the worst person to ask about a perfect Yorkshire day out, as I don’t really do days out. But I do love eating fish and chips by the beach, looking out to sea in Whitby. York is a beautiful city too with its magnificent minster. Raven is at university there, we lowered the tone last week when I dropped her off, we had a moped on the back of the truck with a giant stuffed toy strapped to it. There is one place on my wish list I’d like to visit though, which I can’t believe I’ve not been to yet … and that’s The World of James Herriot museum in Thirsk … back to James Herriot again!
Our Yorkshire Farm – Tuesdays 9pm on Channel 5.
This article was originally written for This Is Y magazine digital edition – July 2020. To view the full magazine, click here