Shepherding her flock
It’s not that I envy Amanda Owen’s office – I crave it. Her workplace is 2,000 acres of the reason why we both love Yorkshire so deeply. The breathtaking landscape of streams, rolling hills, pasture and stone walls is home for her and husband Clive and is where they have raised nine children – from Raven, who is 15, to eight-month-old Nancy – and hundreds of sheep.
Like my own back garden just an hour’s drive away, it is both beautiful and challenging but, while I think I’ve earned a beer after getting a nice clean edge to the lawn, Owen has fought to make a living at Ravenseat; at the head of the River Swale, about an hour’s walk west of Keld, the halfway point on the coast-to-coast footpath.
As well as looking after the sheep, she now has a shepherd’s hut where hardy travellers can lay their heads, she runs The Firs, a nearby rural retreat that can accommodate another big family, she offers cream teas – if she’s in, best to check beforehand – and the very way she lives her life has led to two books with a third already planned.
“When we were first starting out here, people were always telling me, ‘Make sure you specialise… you have to concentrate on one thing if it’s going to work’, but that just wasn’t going to work with what we were doing because farming is so up and down, so hit and miss,” explains Owen, in-between herding her children as they shout back to the farmhouse from their chores outside.
“You can go to the auction mart with whatever your product is that day and it depends what another farmer is prepared to pay for it and that can vary so much from week to week, and even day to day, that a single approach does not work.
“You have to hedge your bets. To look at it in a very simple way, not taking all your products to the mart on one day. Doing it gradually means you can take the rough with the smooth and never need to take too hard a hit.”
This 42-year-old entrepreneur has changed, just slightly but noticeably, over the years. The strong woman is still there, and growing stronger with each additional direction her life takes her, but her business sense is a bigger part of her than before. It has had to be, as the idea of making a living for 11 people only from sheep was never going to happen and the ideas needed to start coming fast.
She says she struggles with her book and newspaper deadlines because she is so busy doing the things that provide the copy for them, but that writing has also helped her build her presentation skills for speeches and interviews and a growing awareness of the lessons she can pass on about making the most of your products.
“I am a shepherdess, and we are a very hard farm and our job is to breed animals,” she tells me. “We get the sheep here and we get the cattle here and we sell them on.
“It wouldn’t make any sense to sow anything because we don’t have any arable, so we just grow grass. And as far as the other farms are concerned, we are at the very top of the scale, so if the trade for meat is bad, then they don’t want to pay us for the breeding stock.”
There is some help from the likes of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which gives payments to farms in England that protect and improve their environment. Owen, Clive and their children build walls, dig ponds and clear ditches to keep the land productive at the same time as securing its long-term future as a landscape that has international importance, a home for animals you might only see in the wild a few times in your life, and also a place that walkers and visitors will come to for a glimpse of what their country is really made of.
“The fact that Ravenseat is a very traditional and very commutable hill farm, set in that wild landscape with the hills and moorlands, means we get a lot of tourists here, especially in the summer,” says Owen. “We capitalise on that by providing accommodation from a cheap-and-cheerful shepherd’s hut for walkers passing through or lovebirds who want to go there to do who knows what – what happens in the hut stays in the hut – and a holiday house as well to cater for the family. I’m also thinking of doing guided walks to take people a bit further afield on the old tracks.
“We have to tick the right boxes because it can be a busy thing for us, but also allows us to have six months of people coming through when the world comes to me and then six months of solitude. As a business, we have to take that opportunity and acknowledge that we are very lucky to have the chance to do something extra because with the financial times you are in you never know what will happen.
“We have a lifetime tenancy at the farm, so we know that our hands are tied in some respects, but equally, we wouldn’t want to build a campsite here and have a sea of caravans, so we have to make money using our brains instead of bricks.”
With the books bringing in an income, as well as more people drawn by that Google pin in the middle of nowhere, there could be concerns that such progress may be completely counter-productive and ruin the “product” she treasures so much, but this very special place is safe in Owen’s hands.
“I don’t think much will change,” she says confidently. “A farm like this can’t be anything else because the sheep come with the farm and they will stay here.
“The sheep are a constant, so nothing will change there and we have a lot of rare birds and the hay meadows that people want to see, so I think it is all about striking a balance between having the right stock on the ground and making a living. There are no other options as to what Ravenseat is and how it is farmed.
“So, it is no good having sleepless nights about it or sticking your head in the sand, you just get up in the morning and get on with your jobs. Because of that, I don’t see myself as a businesswoman, but more of an opportunist – I spot gaps in the market.
“I never came here to do anything other than chase after sheep. I never came to be turning the bedsheets over for visitors, or to pick up a pen and write like some Emily Bronte, I was just a very normal person who was prepared to go with the flow.
“When I look at the thousands of people who come here every year, I could start shouting and telling them to put their dog on a lead or ‘Get off my land’… or I could see them as a captive audience looking for somewhere to stay for the night or asking questions about the farm. I tell the kids that communicating is how you get on in life and that if you are a people-person who is prepared to listen then you will get somewhere.”
The flock she feeds, nurtures and guides starts with those nine who usually live in the house. With a 2,000-acre back garden, the children can run wild to burn off some energy, but they always know Mum will need their help when there is work to be done – they probably just don’t know it is work.
“I think this kind of life is a great foundation for whatever you want to be,” she says, as the children shout in through the kitchen door, letting her know they are going to sell some eggs at the gates.
“It is all happening out there this morning. Reuben has got 200 trees to plant over his holidays, one of them has two lots of sheep to feed and the other’s off with his eggs. For me, it is about gaining some common-sense and confidence, learning how to stand on your own two feet – they know it’s a lie to say ‘Where there’s muck, there’s money’ and as I tell them, how do you appreciate a good day if you haven’t had a crap one?
“It might sound like I am running some kind of military campaign – and sometimes I suppose I am – but you never know what is around the corner and it’s the same with life, whatever the children decide to be. They are all different characters with different ways about them, but we all sit down at dinner time and discuss the next plan of action.
“It doesn’t matter what sort of education you have got, if you are a bit of a plank and can’t work things out because you won’t lift a finger, then you’re not going to get on.”
There is a practicality about Owen that would be a good addition to any boardroom. It’s instinct blended with common-sense, but with a hefty dose of Yorkshire grafting – something I’ll try to take on board as I “farm” the borders in my more modest back garden at the weekend.
Published: 05 July 2017