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Amanda Owen

Q & A with Amanda Owen

3 January 2017

Amanda Owen has written two books about her life as a shepherdess.

She lives on a farm in Ravenseat, in one of the most remote parts of the Yorkshire Dales with her husband, Clive and their nine children. She cares for a flock of 1,000 sheep, along with dogs, horses, ponies and a peacock.

What made you decide to become a freelance shepherdess?
As a child, my only contact with farming was reading James Herriot’s brilliant books about farming life, it really inspired me to leave Huddersfield behind me and pursue a life in the country as a shepherdess.

Coming from a city environment how hard was it to adapt to a shepherdess role?
It was quite a shock to the system, but I think that’s a good thing, it makes you more independent because you have to take on the challenge. I did find that people in rural areas are very welcoming and accepting. The key to adapting is not having the idea in your head that you’re going to change things, but that you’re going there to listen to people, to fit in with their way of life.

Was the career as a shepherdess different from what you had expected, if so why?
You have an idealistic picture book of what it’s going to be like but you have to be brought back down to earth as you can’t go in from the top, you have to start from the bottom. I wanted to be out in the wild on the moors, farming with just a dog and stick, I did eventually get to that point, but I had to work my way up the ladder to get there.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a shepherdess?
There are training courses, like learning how to clip as there are certain essentials you need to learn. You also need to ask yourself if you really like sheep, because you have to have an affinity with them. When its half-light and raining outside, and you know you’ve got to tend your sheep, it’s those kinds of days where your love of farming really has to shine through. My main advice would be to get some hands-on experience to find out if you are up for it, because you can’t be scared of bad weather and you’ve got to be comfortable with isolation. So, I would say before you commit to anything, get experience.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
The challenge of working hard and feeling like you’ve done something. I enjoy the sensation of feeling tired and being connected to the seasons. If you’ve never been cold, then you can never appreciate being warm. I enjoy that emotion; the highs and lows.

What is the hardest thing about your job?
When things go wrong, like when you have dead stock, you think about what you could have done differently. I always say to myself, if only I’d done it like this, but you haven’t got to dwell.

What roles do you play in your life?
Certain roles in my life aren’t necessarily more important than others, as my priorities vary from day to day. It can sometimes be mother, shepherd, plummer, even sometimes a builder, that’s what you’ve got to take on when you’re living where I live.

Which of your friends do you go to for advice, adventure, laughter and acceptance?
I have a friend called Rachael, who I share everything with. She’s a farmer’s wife so she knows all about the realities of farming. We compare our diaries, our tales of woe…she also keeps in touch with the news, I don’t mean Donald Trump but what’s going on in the area so I can feel like I’m part of the community, because it’s easy for me to get cut off.

If you chose another career what would it be?
I always wanted to be a vet, but I was never clever enough, so I would have to change drastically if I wanted to make that happen!

What was your first paid job and what did you learn from it?
I worked in a shoe shop when I was 14. It’s really traumatic when you’re selling shoes you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in! I learnt the ability to be able to hide behind shelves when my friends walked past, I learnt that targets couldn’t be met when you’re selling terrible shoes. But I also learnt you can’t do well in a job that you’re not passionate about.

What were the lessons your parents felt were most important to teach you?
I suppose it would be a work ethic, to get on with life and be independent. I worked lots of jobs when I was younger, and they taught me not to prejudge things but to give everything a go.

Which adults influenced you other than your parents?
In my teens, one of the first people that I worked for was a farmer called Woody, he took me on even though I was green, and he took a chance on me, I felt really valued as he taught me things without being condescending.

What do you daydream about?
It depends what time of year it is! If it’s lambing time, I daydream about the most perfect lamb, but when it’s snowing, I dream about it being sunny and not having to wear my waterproofs and feeling the grass under my feet.

Who do you admire and for what qualities?
I don’t really put anyone up on a pedestal so that’s a hard one! I don’t say to myself I want to be more like that person or treat them any better than me. I suppose I treat everyone equally.

If you could write to someone from the past who would you write to and what would the letter say?
I would have to write to James Herriot and thank him. I’d say he was the person who set me off and inspired me because anyone could read his books, they spanned the whole spectrums of ages. The countryside he described made me want to leave the town behind. When I was asked to write the foreword for Macmillan’s reprint of his volumes, I was so honoured as I was able to put my mark on something he had written. I even found an account of him coming to Ravenseat, he describes the beauty of the place, so the stories really resonate with me.

A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess is published by Magna Large Print this month. Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna.