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Shepherdess lives out dream with family on the Yorkshire moors

City girl Amanda Owen was inspired after James Herriot turned from goth to a Yorkshire shepherdess farming the Yorkshire Moors with her husband, Clive and seven children. 


Arriving at the foot of the packhorse bridge at Ravenseat Farm is something of a relief. After embarking on an eight-mile isolated climb from Kirkby Stephen heading across the border of Cumbria and Yorkshire into Swaledale, the prospect of seeing anything let alone anyone was becoming increasingly suspect.


The only clue punctuating the vast hillside of the moors on either side of the narrow road were the clusters of Swaledale sheep grazing alongside it. And following them, they eventually lead to seven children running around the farmyard, laughing and playing in their padded jumpsuits, bar the youngest one who looks on from her pram.


“Are you the lady from Farmers Guardian?” one asks confidently. “I’ll get my mum; she’s with the sheep,” before dashing off to find her.

Looking around, the view is bleak but beautiful; it is a remote and timeless location, unspoilt, with an incredible backdrop.


Turning the corner, Amanda Owen commands quite a presence. At six foot three, dressed in her traditional green shepherdess cloak, her broad Yorkshire accent booms through as she beckons back to the sheep pens to introduce her husband Clive.


Soon after, coffee is made in the farmhouse where it appears time has stood still. Unchanged in its centuries, the huge cast-iron fire is heating the water, baking the bread, warming the house and drying the rucks of children’s clothes which hang from the low ceiling’s maiden.


The scenes confirm why the 39-year-old hit the headlines last year after being approached to write her first book telling the story of her decision to leave city life and raise a family - and a flock - on the Yorkshire Moors.


Hailing from Huddersfield - her father was an engineer and her mother, a model and administrator - Amanda always wanted to work with animals having spent hours watching James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.




After her A-levels, she studied an NVQ in veterinary nursing, discovering a book which was to become a pivotal part of her long-term dream, inspiring her to pursue an alternative career with animals.


She says: “I was always in and out of Huddersfield library, borrowing books about animals and farming, when I found The Hill Shepherd by John and Eliza Forder.


“Even at first glance, flicking through the pages it captivated me - beautiful, evocative photography of shepherds and their flocks and a narrative which told of the seasons in their lives.


“I borrowed it three times in succession then received a letter from the library informing me I couldn’t keep renewing it any longer and I would be fined if I didn’t return it.”


After various voluntary work placements and casual farm jobs, she spotted an advert for shepherding and lambing on the Salisbury Plain. No experience was required and she was hired for an immediate start.


“When I arrived, the farmer wasn’t there. I was told he had gone water-skiing in America which I instantly thought was odd. It was just me and another girl, who was a vet student, and a couple of cowmen.


“The way my absent boss made money was by wintering hoggs. Although he had a lot of sheep, it was halfway through my first February there when I learned they had not had a shepherd since Christmas.


“What I was met with on the plain was horrific. The sheep were there but the ground was bare. They were starving to death; some were tangled in the electric fence, some were hung up on wires by their horns.


“I rescued what I could but the farmer had not left a number, although there was one for his ex-wife. It came as no surprise when the RSPCA and Trading Standards intervened.


“One thing I learned very early on, was there are good farmers and bad farmers as with every other walk of life, I suppose.


“Working for bad farmers may not have been a great experience but it taught me how things should not be done. It gave me a clearer idea of the sort of farming I wanted to do.”


What came next was a new plan. Having talked to the Lake District farmers who were wintering their sheep at the farm, she was told she was simply looking in the wrong area.


“One of them said to me, ‘You’re in the wrong spot. If you want to see how proper shepherding is done then yer need to be heading up to our country’.”


She was put in touch with a farmer in Penrith who was looking for help lambing and who had a spare caravan for her to move into. When lambing dried up she learned how to clip with a group of shearers who had come over from New Zealand to help a neighbouring farmer.


To maintain wages and develop her skills, she turned her hand to most things - lambing, clipping, dipping, chopping logs, cutting Christmas trees, relief milking - anything which would get her through the farming calender as she found her feet in the Lake District.


“I never advertised my services. I wouldn’t have dared, I felt I was bluffing as I was still learning, so I got my jobs through word of mouth.”


Her arrival at Ravenseat was unexpected. She started by helping another farmer who, unbeknown to her, lent Clive a tup each autumn to run with his flock. This particular year, she was asked to fetch the tup back.


“There was no feeling I’d met my destiny; no instant romantic attraction. I was just relieved to have made it to the farm in one piece and was in need of a cup of tea - anxious to get on with the hair-raising return journey.


“But looking back, with a marriage and seven children to our credit, I see it was the defining moment in my life. After collecting the tup, I never really left.”


Clive started at the farm in 1980, after securing a lifetime tenancy with the owner of the Gunnerside Estate.


Together, the pair manage 1,000 Swaledales across 810 hectares (2,000 acres), 50 miles from the nearest large town, 30 miles from their nearest takeaway and 25 miles from the supermarket.


They own a further 120 acres at Kirkby Stephen, run by Clive’s son, where they keep 100 Beef Shorthorns.


Logistics are nothing short of what many would describe as a nightmare, meaning organisation and routine are crucial to their lives.


“There is nothing cutting edge here. We bake our bread in the oven, we have a big dairy which is full of stuff. We rear our own meat and I visit the supermarket once every few weeks.”


Life revolves around the farm and Amanda brings a whole new meaning to multi-tasking. As a mother to Raven, 13; Reuben, 10; Miles, eight; Edith, six; Violet, four; Sydney, three; and one-year-old Annas; she has never taken maternity leave.


Living two hours’ drive from the nearest hospital, she organised scans after dropping sheep at the auction mart and had some extraordinary births including having three of her babies in laybys, one in an Army barracks and one at home - delivered by Clive.


As soon as she returns from hospital, Amanda straps her newborn onto her back in a waterproof papoose and gets back to work.


“They go on my back and stay there until they are old enough to climb the moors under their own steam. It works very well and means I can traverse the hills knowing the baby is safe and sound. I think I have carried a baby for the last 12 years.”


Raven goes to Richmond High School, 30 miles away, while Reuben, Miles and Edith, are taught on their own at Gunnerside school. The school taxi picks them all up and takes them to the pick-up point in town.


“I don’t believe school is the be all and end all. The children learn many things at home - common sense, to be polite and respectful. And many of the basics, such as maths, reading and writing, are better if applied to real life situations.


“Going to the auction teaches them to count, recording pedigrees and filling in forms covers the reading and writing and, as for physical fitness, there’s nothing quite like chasing sheep. Television is a rarity in our house apart from one hour after teatime, before bed in winter.


“If nothing else, Ravenseat teaches you to be self-sufficient and deal with whatever life throws at you. Nothing must faze you.


“It’s not just about physical strength it is about mental strength and a willingness to have a go at anything, whether it is plumbing, building or struggling with the forces of nature and your animals. What could be more exciting and exhilarating for a child?”


But over the years Amanda has faced criticism about how she brings up her children.


“I get my fair share of people who feel they can tell me what I should be doing for my children and it bothered me for a while.


“A walker passing through Ravenseat once said ‘You can’t keep these children cooped up here, this isn’t the real world’.


“I was indignant. Maybe this is not the same world as everyone else’s, but it is just as real. They are having a good childhood, it’s just different; a more old fashioned way of raising children. My great hope is they will look back on their childhood as a happy time.”


Located halfway along the 192-mile Coast to Coast Walk, Amanda also sells cream teas to walkers who stop at her farm.


“For six months we are secluded and it is just the family and our sheep. The rest of the year - between May and October - we welcome people from around the world. On a bad day we will see a dozen and on a glorious day up to 50.


“The children are very helpful with the teas. A basic cream tea is £3 so the children are good at their three times tables.


“Raven can now bake and take control of the whole thing. Reuben will help serve the teas. Miles, on the other hand, rings the bell to say a cream tea is needed and then eats it himself.


“The only official time of year I am closed is during lambing, when I feel visitors requesting cream teas may be put off by the shoulder-length rubber glove.”


Writing a book about life on a hill farm was never on her agenda but came about because of the family’s appearance on ITV’s The Dales. Amanda was approached by an agent who had been talking to the series’ producers.


The proposed book of her life at Ravenseat Farm was then pitched to London agents and it was soon confirmed she had won her first deal.


She says: “It was surreal. Me, writing a book? But I gave it a go and would write mostly at night.


“I would have flashes of inspiration at the auction or on the moor and I would scribble things down as I would often lose my train of thought, so it was difficult.


“They gave it to someone from a non-agricultural background to make sure it could be read by anyone without treating them like idiots.”


The book was released last February and, such was the chord it struck with the public, the Yorkshire Shepherdess reached number four in the Sunday Times Best Seller list before going for a further reprint.


Some suggested having so many children limits what Amanda and Clive can doin life, but they think differently.


“We get such pleasure out of the children and take a pride in bringing them up in a free and natural way,” Amanda says.

“The rhythm of farming life is the rhythm we live by. I don’t look too far into the future.


“Like me and the sheep, the children are hefted to the farm but I will encourage them all in any plans they make. If it means them moving away, then that is how it will be.


“I could never imagine I - the town girl who was engrossed by the James Herriot series, who was transfixed by the photographs in the Hill Shepherd - would one day live and work in the very places in which those images were captured.


“We never forget how lucky we are to be custodians of this unique and special place.”

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