Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen on life during lockdown and the success of Our Yorkshire Farm
Amanda Owen is trying to have two conversations at once.
“I’m trying to mobilise the troops,” she tells me apologetically down the line. The troops in question are her children – she and her husband, Clive, have nine – and she’s getting them to muck in.
It’s a busy time at Ravenseat, their remote hill farm deep in Upper Swaledale. At least it should be, but the good old British weather is up to its usual tricks and the forecasters aren’t in Amanda’s good books. “The weather’s a bit crummy. It’s not what they said it was going to be. I thought we were going to have sunshine and be out haying and instead it’s just damp and cold.”
The weather has played havoc with their grass, too. “It’s a light crop and it got rather parched in the spring. The weather was perfect for lambing but it got so dry it stopped everything from growing and it’s not really recovered.”
But then some summers, she says, are just harder work than others. It has, in truth, been a tough, disorientating year for everyone, though Amanda says little changed initially when the lockdown was imposed.
“It was lambing time when it all kicked off and our focus was on the sheep, so we were okay and what troubled other people didn’t bother us too much because of the way we live. We’re pretty self reliant and we’ve got produce on our own doorstep so that was fine. It was after lambing that was different. Normally we get tourists coming back only they didn’t come back and they still haven’t.”
Amanda and Clive run the 2,000-acre tenant farm, managing their flock of around 1,000 sheep, plus an assortment of other animals, while simultaneously raising their children (the eldest, Raven, is now at university).
They also run a B&B on the farm and do afternoon teas, popular with many passers by tackling the Coast to Coast walk. Though not this year.
“It has impacted on us but because we’ve got a lot of fingers in a lot of pies it hasn’t hurt us as critically as it has done some businesses.”
She’s aware, too, that their location has been a blessing in recent months – social distancing isn’t an issue when your neighbour lives a mile-and-a-half away. “We’re lucky. For a lot of people childcare and working from home can be difficult but because of all the space we have it doesn’t create the same issues.”
The lockdown also meant a chance for her to take a breath and recalibrate. “We’ve always had ground-nesting birds and hay meadows with the flowers but I have seen and I have learned so much this spring, because normally I don’t have time to stop and look at these things.
"I’ve seen owlets and I’ve seen curlews hatching and in a way the compensation of not talking to people has meant I’ve been out with my camera and I’ve been out with the children. We’ve swum and ridden more and in some respects we’ve connected more deeply with where we live.”
It’s been five years since The Yorkshire Shepherdess was published, catapulting Amanda into the limelight. It spawned a hit TV series, Our Yorkshire Farm which returned to Channel 5 this month. She also has three books to her name and is in the process of writing another. The TV show follows family life on the farm and has proved hugely popular pulling in 2.2 million viewers.
“I think people appreciate the normality of it and the honesty of it,” she says. “I came downstairs and the kids were watching it the other night and all I could see was a long, lingering shot in the living room with some peeled off wallpaper. And when I looked at it the piece of wallpaper was still there, so I pulled it off.”
The family’s authenticity is the key to the show’s success, something Amanda recognises. “So much in the world today is about putting people on a pedestal and reality TV where everything’s perfect and it’s an unachievable dream. But with us it’s a case of what you see is what you get.”
But any notion viewers may have that Clive and Amanda are leading some idyllic dream, like Tom and Barbara from The Good Life, is quickly dispelled. “They’re going to get to see what it’s like here in the winter, the storms and incessant floods and they’re going to see us struggling to keep things alive and then seeing them die. This is what it’s like for a lot of people, life is a struggle at times and you don’t always win.”
The TV crew followed the family capturing their everyday life – the excitement and banality, the triumphs and tragedies - with each hour-long episode requiring eight full days of filming. “With anything relating to a farm where you’ve got weather, kids and animals you can pretty much guarantee that nothing ever goes to plan. So they just followed us and if we were shearing sheep they filmed that,” says Amanda.
“Throughout the programme you’re explaining what you’re doing and you have to be careful because some viewers are farmers and country folk so you can’t dumb things down too much, but neither can you assume that people know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. So you’re trying to keep both groups of people on board and if you can keep Yorkshire farmers happy, as well as the general public and someone living in London who barely knows one end of a sheep from another, then you haven’t done so bad, have you?”
The crew hadn’t finished filming when lockdown began at the end of March and Amanda and her family were asked if they would film the last episode themselves. “Channel 5 said if they sent us cameras and sound gear, could we do the filming? And we said yes, because we were doing the work anyway.”
They were trained how to use the equipment online and they all chipped in, downloading the footage and sending it back to London. “The credits on the last episode really should say, ‘filmed, directed, sound and everything, by the Owens at Ravenseat.’ We did it all – it’s a bit like the Blair Witch Project with wobbly cameras and everything.”
The fact they were willing to give it a ago encapsulates the family’s spirit. “If there’s one thing people get to see it’s that sometimes you fail and it doesn’t work. Even with all your best efforts sometimes you will end up with wet hay, or losing a calf,” says Amanda.
“I think people connect with us and the countryside and what we’re doing. We don’t think we’re anything special, we just do what we do and we’re good at what we do, but that’s it. The minute you start thinking you’re somebody that’s it, it’s over. We’re just very average, very normal people getting on with things.”
Our Yorkshire Farm, Channel 5, Tuesdays at 9pm.