Shepherdess, Alison O'Neill on producing wool from her 'no slaughter' fibre flock

Shepherdess, Alison O’Neill works with her flock of fibre sheep on the hills high above North Yorkshire.

Alison has started to produce 'living rugs' with a felted back made from wool

Born and brought up on the family farm in Sedburgh, Alison took on the 37 acre Shacklabank farm more than 20 years ago, raising her daughter Scarlett as a single parent and building her flock of native breed sheep.

Alison said her flock of Rough fell, Swaledale and Herdwick sheep grew as she looked at how she could diversify to make the small hill farm pay its way.

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“There was only me here so I chose a different direction working with animals I could handle on my own.

Alison has a 'no slaughter' fibre flock which produces wool she turns into tweed and fabrics.

“It was a big decision but since I was six-years-old I have wanted to be a shepherdess. I grew up seeing great flocks of sheep on the hillsides and my grandfather striding across the fields with his pipe.”

Having moved entirely to sheep, around ten years ago Alison made another big decision about her flock, diversifying into a ‘no slaughter’ fibre flock which is used only to produce wool.

Alison then turns the fleeces into clothing, furnishings, dog leads and most recently, living rugs.

“Design and art has always been a part of me and at school I was always sketching animals and nature.

“When I came to the farm one of my first diversification was leading guided walks.

“I used to buy wool tweed to make the skirts I would wear out walking and someone suggested I could use my own wool from my sheep.

“So I did and now I turn it into tweed and fabrics, which I then use to make clothing and furnishings.”

Alison’s designs have a strong following and have featured on the catwalk at the Great Yorkshire Show.

She has also started producing what she describes as ‘living rugs’.

“Rather than using a sheepskin, I have found a way to create a felt backing for a rug, made from fleece so the rug is made entirely from living fleece.”

Keeping the fleeces in good condition while the sheep are still wearing them is vitally important for Alison and she said the way she shepherds her flock helps that.

“I move the sheep frequently to keep the pasture and their fleeces clean,” she said.

“People often comment on how clean my sheep look but the fleeces are really valuable for me so I need to keep them in good condition.”

Working with nature is also an important part of Alison’s ethos.

“When I moved here I made a vow to myself that I would recreate what I grew up with, the meadow pastures, hedging and wildlife habitats.

“When I was moving the sheep across what I call the ‘boggy fields’ bringing them onto new pasture I saw woodcock, snipe, tree creepers and hares. It was beautiful and I love being able to work alongside nature.

At Alison’s side at all times is her beloved sheepdog, Shadow.

“I only have one dog as it is a small flock and they are my constant companion. When my old sheepdog Moss and I felt so alone for six months before I found Shadow.”

While life on the hill farm is not always easy, Alison said she wouldn’t change it.

“I am 57-years-old it is not all fun and adventures it is hard work but it is a labour of love and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”