Five of Amanda Owen’s nine children were born in either cars or ambulances at the side of the road. Quite frankly, on the tortuous (if scenic) journey to her farmhouse high in the Yorkshire Dales, you wonder how she made it to hospital with any of them.
On the map, it looks as if Amanda, better known as the Yorkshire Shepherdess, lives just a hop and skip from civilisation. In reality, the drive is a precarious one involving a twisty road, with sheer drops. The nearest maternity unit is two hours away. For a woman in labour, in the dark, this must be the road to hell.
Little wonder, then, that when the contractions started for baby No 8, Amanda didn’t even wake husband Clive and tell him to get the car keys. She simply piled towels in front of the fire, gave herself a stern talking to, and eased the baby out with her own hands.
‘I’d done enough lambing to learn a thing or too,’ she says. She then delivered the placenta, and took baby Clemmy upstairs to meet her father. What was his reaction? ‘Let’s just say there was swearing involved.’ It was Amanda’s dream birth — no-fuss, on her terms, and, you suspect, deliberately rebellious.
Amanda Owen, also known as the Yorkshire Shepherdess, with her eighteen-month-old border collie Joe
Amanda Owen pictured tending the flock at her farmhouse high up in the Yorkshire Dales
‘My first child, Raven, got stuck and that ended up with a caesarean. I always wanted a home birth — not because I’m an Earth Mother, but because it’s just less faff — but the midwives would never agree to it. So this time, I did it my way.’
She gives Clemmy, now three, a big kiss on the head. ‘It worked fine.’
She’s popped out another baby since then, too. Nancy, two, has also just woken from a nap and hurls herself into her mother’s arms. A lamb (a fluffy toy this time, but in this house, who knows?) completes the tableau.
Where is the rest of the (human) flock? The four middle Owen children — Edith, 10, Violet, eight, Sidney, seven, and Annas, five — are at primary school, and hurtle in at 4pm, after an hour-long bus ride.
The older children Raven, 17, Reuben, 15, and Miles, 13, join the throng at 6pm.
Their school run involves a three and half hour round trip, on buses and taxis. When it snows all bets are off as to who will get home when.
‘Sometimes we have to launch a rescue mission,’ says Amanda, breezily.
When the big storm, the ‘Beast From The East’, hit in March, they were marooned. At one point they got the front door open, but couldn’t shut it again, because snow fell in.
Amanda’s human flock. Left to right: Edith, 10, Miles, 13, Reuben, 15, Raven, 17, Clemmy, three, Nancy, two, Violet, eight, Annas, five, and Sydney, seven
The brutality — not to mention the hustle-and-bustle — of the Owen family life can be seen next week in their own reality show on Channel 5
This being a farm with 850 sheep to tend, though, they needed to venture out. Getting food to the animals was nearly impossible. ‘We got to the point where we couldn’t cut our way through the snow so we had to sort of clamber on top of it and shimmy along, commando-style, pushing the feed as we went.’
The brutality — not to mention the hustle-and-bustle — of the Owen family life can be seen next week in their own reality show on Channel 5. For a year, on and off, the cameras tagged along to record their daily lives. Think All Creatures Great And Small was must-watch, feel-good telly? This is the real-life version, but with sheep and cows and chickens and free-range kids galore.
Mercifully, much of the filming was outside, in the fields (the farm runs to 2,000 acres). Inside, today, it’s hard to see where a film crew would go.
As I perch on the fire fender with Amanda, our heads nudge the chandelier of socks and joggers above us on an old fashioned pulley airer. There is an ‘odd sock box’ in the corner, but there is often a dog to be found in it. At least one of the kids today is wearing odd socks anyway. It’s an odd sock sort of home, in the nicest possible way.
Amanda calls her own children ‘feral’, which is pushing it a bit, but they are certainly lively, and the house reflects this. One internal door has had a chunk knocked out of it, and reattached. ‘They’ve all crawled through it. It’s our child flap.’ Someone has drawn jellyfish on the wall, which made Amanda roll her eyes rather than run for the bleach.
Amanda may have become famous via social media — gorgeous photos of her daily life on a sheep farm made her an unlikely star, and led to a book deal — but this is no smug Instagram mum documenting a pristine life.
‘Each to their own, but what’s the point?’ she says, as she confesses that one visitor to the house asked if she was decorating (she wasn’t). ‘I could have a cream carpet, but what’s the point when I’m likely to have a calf lying in front of the fire. And my kids have answered the door on a Shetland pony before now. And when I’m older I think I’d rather look back and say, “I’m glad my children had a home where they could answer the door on a horse.” ’
Ten minutes in her company and you can see why Hollywood has bought the rights to the film version of her life. She is tall and effortlessly glamorous (her mother was a model and she once considered it as a career, too), even when she is wearing waterproof trousers with goodness-knows-what down the front.
When I arrive, she has been tending a newborn calf. ‘I would shake your hand but I’m covered in sh*t,’ she says. It’s a constant refrain. Later, she tells me she was asked to pose for Burberry, which tickled her no end. ‘The hairdresser asked when I’d last been in a salon, and I told him when I was 12. I told him there is no point going to salons when you are likely to have sh*t in your hair, and I think he thought I meant product. I meant sh*t.’
Amanda grew up in suburban Huddersfield, but fell in love with the idea of a more rural existence thanks to an obsession with the James Herriott books
The astonishing thing is that she wasn’t born into this sort of life. She grew up in suburban Huddersfield, but fell in love with the idea of a more rural existence thanks to an obsession with the James Herriott books.
Her careers teachers weren’t encouraging (‘being a shepherdess didn’t exactly come up at a comprehensive’), but she cycled around farms in the area, offering to work for nothing. Once she had learned the basics, she became a freelance farm labourer. She first set eyes on Ravenseat Farm — and its resident tenant farmer Clive — when she was working as a contract shepherd. They set up home together, started having children and, well, life turned out the way it has. ‘Oh God, I didn’t plan it. I didn’t plan any of it. You can’t. What’s the point? When you plan things they always go t*ts up.’
She most certainly didn’t plan to have nine children. Are they finished having children yet? They look at each other and giggle. ‘Well, I’m 45 now, but who knows?’
This is clearly a woman who likes to defy expectation. She is fully made-up today, and not for the benefit of the cameras. ‘I always wear make-up. Always have. Even if it’s just me and the sheep.’
When she does talks or book events now — which she does regularly, albeit ones that are fitted around her farm responsibilities — she likes to wear a dress, rather than her wellies. ‘I’ve done a few now and I have a bit of a problem with the welly thing if it’s in, say, Notting Hill. Why would you do that? It’s contrived.’
‘I’m pretty hands-off,’ she concedes. ‘I’d never want to be a Tiger Parent, or a Helicopter Parent, or any of those things’
She’s convinced a woman’s femininity can be an asset in farming, rather than a hindrance (‘we’ve given birth. We know how it feels’), and today is railing about a young girl she knows being told she couldn’t be a farrier, because it was a ‘man’s job’. ‘In this day and age! It’s ridiculous!’
Yet she insists she’s not a feminist. Eh? ‘I just don’t go around shouting about it. I just get on and do it. I don’t want to burn my bra. After nine children? Who knows where my t*ts would be?’
She is mostly a breath of fresh (country) air when she talks about parenting.
‘I’m pretty hands-off,’ she concedes. ‘I’d never want to be a Tiger Parent, or a Helicopter Parent, or any of those things.’
Some would baulk at the freedom her children are allowed.
In the summer, she says, two of the middle kids asked if they could go and play at the waterfall. She said ‘ok’ and they made themselves a picnic. Hours passed, and they had not returned. ‘Eventually I thought, “should I go looking?” and it turned out they hadn’t gone to the closest waterfall, but one miles away.’
Amanda considered home schooling but thought this life was ‘isolating enough’
Wasn’t she worried? ‘Life is dangerous, isn’t it? They could just as easily have an accident in the house in front of you.’
She regularly waves them off to walk six miles to the nearest pub ‘to buy a packet of peanuts’. ‘It’s a rite of passage.’ She lets them camp outside. Sometimes even she thinks she goes too far.
‘The other day some of the little ones asked if they could use a kitchen knife to cut something. Then someone cut herself (“it was ME!” pipes up Clemmy) and I wondered if it was a good idea to let them play with knives.’ She shrugs. ‘Then again, she won’t do it again, will she?’
Her children, she argues, will go into the world equipped for it, and hopefully less inclined to push the boundaries, because there aren’t that many. ‘Put it this way, I don’t think any of them are going to be arsonists because they could all light a fire by the time they were five.’
The children do all attend school, though, which surprises some. She considered home schooling but thought this life was ‘isolating enough’. Also, she thinks she might be a ‘sh*t’ teacher. ‘If it’s something I don’t see the point of, I’d be likely to tell them, which won’t help them get exams, will it? They don’t need me going “who is Pythagoras, and why on earth would you need to know that?” ’
It might sound like an old-fashioned existence, but only to a point. All the kids have mobile phones —but ‘and this is where we are lucky’ concedes Amanda, no mobile coverage and internet access which is hit and miss (‘but mostly miss’). ‘So they can’t Facetime their mates. Or do any sexting,’ she grins.
They have TV, but no games consoles. And boredom is banned. ‘You should never be bored on a farm. Find summat to do!’
They do. The children expect to — and are expected to — pitch in. Amanda has never taken maternity leave (‘it doesn’t exist in farming life’) so each child has been carried on her back on the daily chores. The little ones help with the feeding, the older ones are capable of running the farm by themselves. Reuben in particular, is a whizz with machinery, building his own tractors.
Suffice to say these are not children who expect an iPad for Christmas. Amanda says she doesn’t have a budget for each child, but baulks at the idea some parents spend £200 on designer trainers
For Mother’s Day last year, he made Amanda a wellie boot puller from old oak boards and discarded piping. It brought her more joy than a Mulberry handbag would have done.
This brings us to Christmas. Suffice to say these are not children who expect an iPad. Amanda says she doesn’t have a budget for each child, but baulks at the idea some parents spend £200 on designer trainers. ‘For us, it may be £20 or it may be £2. I pick things up during the year, depending on what I think they will like. But it might be something as small as a pencil. The trick is to give them something that captures their imagination.’
One year, Reuben got a bomb, she says. PARDON?!! Clive goes to fetch it and, yes, this is a woman who bought her son an unexploded World War I bomb. ‘Don’t worry, it’s been deactivated,’ she says.
From the outside, it might seem that all this family’s Christmases arrived at once when her first book hit the best-seller list (she is writing her third), but they insist little has changed. ‘We don’t have a yacht,’ says Amanda. They have still never had a family holiday (they can’t all leave the farm even for a day). They have been able to buy their own property, though — which is quite a big deal, given that they don’t own Ravenseat (‘as tenants none of it is ours. Not even the sheep’). They converted an old farmhouse a five minute drive away, and now rent it out as a holiday cottage.
They are constantly bemused at how countryside visitors behave. ‘Some of them get Ocado deliveries,’ she says. ‘Then the drivers get lost. If I can say one thing to delivery drivers here, it is “if your sat-nav tells you to go across a field, then you don’t have to listen to it.” ’
One would think that a busy mother-of-nine and best-selling author would have her own Ocado delivery. She says not. ‘I like to go and look at what is in season, what is reduced.’
Soups and stews are her go-tos. She likes reduced, yellow-sticker food (‘although I peel the stickers off if the kids are taking it in their packed lunch’).
She’d hate to be depicted as Superwoman, though. Clive does as much cooking, cleaning and childcare as her — perhaps more.
‘And we are not the Waltons either,’ she says.
Of course they aren’t. The Waltons only had seven children.
Our Yorkshire Farm, 8pm, tomorrow on Channel 5.