This week we interviewed the inspiring farmer’s wife and shepherdess Amanda Owen. Amanda lives alongside her husband Clive and their seven children at Ravenseat, a 2000 acre sheep hill farm at the head of Swaledale in North Yorkshire. Amanda has documented her life in her book ‘The Yorkshire Shepherdess,’ which details how she manages to juggle motherhood with the demands of the livestock in such a rural backwater.
Describe a typical day-in-the-life of Amanda Owen.
I get up usually just before 6am and get the children ready for school, oldest leaves at just after 7am, the winding country roads make the nearly 30 mile journey quite a long one in terms of time. Four of the children go to school, three stay at home with me and my husband.
Dependant upon the time of year is what happens through the day, there is always the usual rounds to do in the yard, feeding, mucking out and bedding up of calves, horses, pet lambs, dogs, chickens, pigs or whatever animals are housed in the buildings. Then the shepherding of our various flocks of sheep; they are divided into lots and graze over 2000 acres so there’s quite a bit of ground to cover. My husband and I split responsibility for the sheep, dependent on how accessible they are depends on how many children I take with me on my travels. If the terrain is too steep and dangerous then they will stay with Clive in the yard but the majority of the time they just dress for the weather and come along too. It really depends upon the time of year as to what our time frames are, lambing time means long days and splitting overnight shifts between us, haytime, clipping time, any jobs that are weather dependent can mean putting in some terribly long hours. every afternoon.
Usually our day will end at 6pm or so, tea and then out with all the children and a range of dogs to either sit by the river or take a walk through the fields. Then everybody is thoroughly scrubbed, if there has been a good fire all day then there will be plenty of hot water to get everybody bathed or showered, then quiet time for reading, writing or just relaxing before bed. the children tend to sleep very well, all the fresh air and physical activity means that they are usually tired. Then just make a few preparations for the next day, sandwich boxes, folding up washing, the usual chores. It’s all really about routine, both for the children and animals.
Your twitter updates have become so popular you‘ve written a book ‘The Yorkshire Shepherdess’. What inspired you to become a shepherdess – was it always your dream?
The books written by James Herriot, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ were made into a TV series and I was absolutely hooked. I envisaged that I could possibly become a vet but academically I wasn’t ever going to achieve the grades needed. It was when I was a teenager that I borrowed a book from Huddersfield library called ‘Hill Shepherd’ by John and Eliza Forder that I realised that the landscapes and people that I had seen on screen were real and still existed. It was at this point that I decided I would love to be a shepherdess, I had a very clear vision of the type of shepherding I wanted to do, I wanted to do the traditional style, dog and stick shepherding in the hills, moods and mountains. I didn’t want to work in the more intensive and industrial farming but in order to climb up the farming ladder I had to gain practical experience wherever I could.
You have a large family of seven children with a ‘Free Range Children‘ sign hung up in your yard. Tell us a bit about your parenting style, and how you keep everybody organised.
I consciously try to prioritise things, decide what exactly is important on a daily basis. If the children are warm, well-fed and happy then I’m not going to sweat over whether I have ironed their school shirts or dusted the living room. Life is too short, they will never look back on their childhood and reminisce about how spotless the living room was or how flat their vests were, they will look back and remember how we kept cold lambs in the range oven or that terriers slept under the settle.
We all eat our meals together at teatime, everyone gets the same, it’s a good time to discuss the day and what has happened, and plans for the week. I write a lot of things down and always try to combine jobs, if I have to go to the auction with a trailer load of sheep then I might try and pick up groceries at the same time. When plans do go awry we just have to go with them, sort it out and not get too stressed about it all. You couldn’t survive here if you didn’t have a laid back attitude to life.
What do you think are the main benefits of growing up on a farm as opposed to a city lifestyle?
Freedom, to let the children see life unfold in front of them, see life and death and everything in between. The ability to not have to enforce growing-up upon them; yes, they have responsibilities on the farm but that is a good lesson to learn. They have jobs to do from a small age, whether it be making paper dogs, gathering sticks or feeding the hens. It is these little things that need doing everyday that are so important within the running of the farm, it means that they feel a part of things and are important in their own right. They socialise with their friends at school and there is a constant stream if visitors to the farm so they are all very outgoing and sociable but they have the freedom on the farm to play without any peer pressures, they don’t need to grow up too fast, can enjoy their childhood and all the excitement that the outside world has to offer is there for them when they are old enough to go and explore them.
You‘ve not always made it to hospital in time to give birth – tell us about your experiences of labour, and what advice would you give to mothers-to-be apprehensive about giving birth?
No, I have extremely fast labours, I don’t experience the classic signs of labour. I do not get any contractions whatsoever, just a heavy feeling and feeling quite sick.
My first baby was born via Caesarian after a home birth went wrong when the baby was not presented correctly and became stuck, I had a two hour journey in an ambulance, fully dilated with a stuck baby. The paramedics were unable to give me any pain relief as the baby was stressed and could not be monitored. It was painful, agony in fact, but here I am on baby number seven and that has never happened again.
So, if things don’t go to plan the first time round then don’t assume that it won’t the next time. I am certainly not an earth mother or against painkillers or whatever is needed to get a child safely into the world but I am a big believer in the powers of nature and mind over matter. I see the sheep, cows and horses give birth and see the parallels in myself. In the same way that a sheep will find herself somewhere quiet and break away from the flock I don’t particularly relish the idea of company, as far as I’m concerned I certainly don’t need my husband their to see the proceedings. He has an important role to play in looking after the older children.
The only advice I would proffer to mothers-to-be would be not to make any big plans for how it’s all going to be, you will end up disappointed, go to the labour suite with an open mind, the more relaxed you are the better it all will be. Also I would tell people to stay as active as possible, I think that the fact that I remain active right up to due date helps me recover quickly afterwards and also means that I have a sensibly sized baby, six or seven pounds which can come out relatively easy.
Do you all sit down for an evening meal, and how do you prepare meals for 9, what are your tips for feeding a large brood?
Yes, we all sit down and at certain times of the year there can be up to fourteen for tea. I don’t tend to go for anything too adventurous or fancy, just things that I can put in the Range oven whilst we are outside and ignore until it’s teatime.
Properly done jacket potatoes with the lovely crispy skins for lunch, soups, stews… Sounds dull, dull, dull but it needn’t be. I like seasonal vegetables and buy big sacks of carrots and potatoes as they kept well in our stone larder. We will eat some of our meat too, we have pigs, lambs and bullocks, so you need some foolproof recipes and need to be able to supersize everything. Nothing is ever wasted, there is a hierarchy of people and animals that polish off any leftovers or they are incorporated into the next day’s meal. I buy 25 kilo sacks of flour and rice, oats and other staples, as over the wintertime we can be snowed in, so it’s important that I keep the larder well stocked.
What‘s the one baby product you couldn‘t have lived without?
The Bushbaby Backpack means that I can carry on shepherding, perfectly balanced, sits nicely on my hips, lots of straps to alter and make it the perfect fit. There’s plenty of room in the back to stuff in nappies, wipes, balaclava, rubber gloves, baby and shepherding accoutrements.
Do you get time to take the family away on holiday, and typically, where would you go?
No, we sometimes have a day out, to a show or to see friends, but invariably we end up coming back home as this is where we really like being. We have previously camped on the farm, the children like taking the horses up onto the moor and going exploring or spending the day down the river with a picnic, swimming in one of our dubs.
Your farmhouse is situated in a remote area, with a coal fire for heat, and a spring for water. Tell us about the old traditions you uphold?
There are many traditions that we uphold, whether it be the simple baking of a big spiced shearing cake to symbolise and celebrate the end of clipping time, or the horn burning and marking of the sheep with age old marks, the initials of farmers from long ago that have been passed down through the generations.
Many of the traditions that we uphold are not just done for the sake of it, it is just that many of the age old ideas really work and are the best way of doing things. To light a fire and brand initials into the sheeps horns may seem quite basic but it’s a method of identification that really works, a modern plastic eartag will also be applied but in terms of longevity the hornburn will still be in place long after the plastic eartag has been caught up in a wire fence and torn out.
Another more sociable but equally important tradition is tup crowning day, the day when representatives of the Swaledale Sheep breeders association come to all the farms that wish to sell a tup (ram) and check out the animal’s credentials and whether it meets the exact breed standard. A day and a time is allotted and a whole entourage of farmers will appear to study the sheep and talk about all things sheep, tup crowning is a special day in our calendar and has been for a long time as the breeding of the sheep can be traced back nearly a hundred years. Some traditions are done solely for tradition’s sake, nipping out to the stables at midnight to see whether the horses are kneeling is one of the children’s favourites.
How would you sum yourself up in one sentence?
An ordinary person living at an extraordinary place doing what people have always done at Ravenseat, rearing children and animals. Keeping things simple.
Click here to buy Amanda Owen’s ‘The Yorkshire Shepherdess’.