Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen may have Britain’s biggest home-school class

It is little more than two months since Amanda Owen filmed one of her cattle trailers being swept away in a flood whose proportions she described on the next morning’s breakfast TV as “biblical”.

By David Behrens
Saturday, 18th April 2020, 6:00 am

Yesterday, the land had turned so dry that her children – all nine of them – were forming a human chain to haul water by the bucketful from the river and on to the fields.

“We’ve gone from being the wettest farm to the point where, honestly, there’s tumbleweed blowing across the yard,” said Mrs Owen, the Dales sheep farmer whose books and Channel 5 series have earned her the soubriquet, Yorkshire Shepherdess.

She had written in February that the energy and power of the rain as it swept across her 2,000 acres in Swaledale was “unreal”.

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Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen on her farm. Picture by Simon Hulme

“The gusts of wind are exceptional and water is pouring,” she had said.

But as she reflected yesterday, the change in the weather since than had been the least of the differences to have befallen the landscape.

Uniquely placed as having possibly the largest class of stay-at-home children in a single family, and in one of the most isolated locations, she remained, she acknowledged, in a more fortunate position than many.

“The kids are having ad hoc lessons as we go through the day,” she said. “They’re learning biology every time we’re out lambing, they’re having PE classes when I send them out to chase sheep – and they’re getting some history tuition when I tell them how things used to be and how they should be.”

Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen with some of her children on her farm at Keld. From the left are Clemy aged 4, Anis aged 4, Violet aged 10, Edith aged 12 and Nancy aged 3. Picture by Simon Hulme

Her eldest daughter, Raven, back home from her shuttered university, had been out with her at 1am, attending to the lambs.

“Farmers are adept at making the best of situations and that’s exactly what I’m doing,” she said.

Her sympathies were with families who had neither the space nor the fresh air necessary to run a school at home.

“If the children come out of this mentally and physically well, then people will have done their job well,” she said.

Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen on her farm. Picture by Simon Hulme

“Those families stuck with the kids at home don’t need to hear people harping on about learning a foreign language or studying grade six piano.

“It’s difficult enough for your average adult to deal with, never mind a young person who wants to be out seeing friends. Everyone is just trying their hardest and we shouldn’t really judge – it’s impossible for a lot of people and I almost feel guilty that our own lives continue mostly as normal. Farming is isolated at the best of times.”

She realised, however, that many of her neighbours were feeling the strain of the enforced remoteness, especially in a period that had been designated Farming Help Awareness Week, with an eye to addressing social isolation.

“For a lot of farmers their once-a-week trip to the auction mart was their lifeline – it was where they got their contact, where they had their dinner – and that’s gone. I can imagine there will be a few people out there who are feeling pretty lost at the moment,” Mrs Owen said.

Yet she is convinced that good can come out of the current upheaval, both for individuals and the environment.

“I really am hopeful that we will get through this terrible situation. I’ve read conflicting reports about the unemployment there’s going to be afterwards, and I’m sure that some businesses will fold – but for others, it might actually be the making of them.

“People are doing online fruit and veg deliveries, and milk is being delivered again. Milkmen were supposed to be things of the past.

“And I’m hoping that people will look around and remember who did the right thing. You’ve got companies like Morrisons supporting farmers and stocking up food banks, while others are just laying people off. People will have long memories.”

She also hoped that more eyes might be opened to the countryside as hers once were. Growing up in Huddersfield, she had become entranced by a James Herriot book handed her by her grandfather.

“Ordinary people are missing being outside. I’m hoping in the long run, if we sit it out, things will actually come good for the countryside. People will realise the affection that they have for farming,” she said.

She considered herself lucky that she had diversified her rural business north of Hawes, and retained “fingers in many pies”.

But she also pointed to the irony of advice to many farmers that diversification should take the form of hospitality to tourists.

“We’re right on the coast to coast path. There would have been 15,000 people walking right through Swaledale and that’s a lot of bookings that are now lost. That’s got to impact enormously,” she said.

“And if you run a farmhouse B&B and you’re not paying business rates, you can soon find that you don’t qualify for any of the loans or grants.”

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