The Yorkshire Shepherdess: ‘Keeping our split a secret was like living in a pressure cooker’

Amanda Owen - Andrew Crowley, photographed at Ham Yard Hotel
Amanda Owen - Andrew Crowley, photographed at Ham Yard Hotel

Amanda Owen is dressed for a day in the city. Her hair is styled, her make-up is professionally applied, and she’s wearing a lilac polka-dot dress by Coco Fennell, a celebrity favourite. We are in the library of a boutique London hotel for a photoshoot and the Telegraph photographer has just asked if Owen can possibly adjust her pose for his next shot. She finds the politeness of his request quite comical. “Of course I can!” she says. “If I can shear a sheep, I can lean over a sofa.”

These are the parallel lives of Amanda Owen, Yorkshire shepherdess. She is a television star and bestselling author, a statuesque former model (albeit “just for knitting patterns”) whose half a million Instagram followers lap up her beautiful images of life in a remote part of the Yorkshire Dales. But she is also a hill farmer, rearing 1,000 sheep and nine – nine! – children. The landscapes may be stunning, but conditions up there can be brutal. It’s tough, dirty work, and not a lifestyle for the faint-hearted.

“So many people talk about ‘living the dream’,” she says with an eye-roll, as we discuss the lockdown trend for townies moving to the country. “It’s so tedious, isn’t it? What is that? Do you think I get out of bed every morning going, ‘Woohoo, can’t wait!’” Owen has a very dry sense of humour.

“Living the dream” is not the only entry on her list of unwelcome phrases. So too is “co-parenting”, which is what we used to call couples who called time on a marriage but still managed to share childcare duties. “It’s another rebrand,” Owen says dismissively. “Ugh.”

Whatever term we use, Owen and her husband, Clive, are doing it. The pair, whose marriage is the backbone of their hit Channel 5 series, Our Yorkshire Farm, announced in June that they had split up.

In fact, they had been living separately for some time – the couple own another property a mile down the road, as they are only tenants at Ravenseat, their farm in Swaledale – but had hidden the tensions from fans. Owen said she felt relief at putting the truth out there. “You know when you have a pressure cooker, and you take the lid off and let the air out?”

Amanda Owen - Andrew Crowley, photographed at Ham Yard Hotel
Amanda Owen - Andrew Crowley, photographed at Ham Yard Hotel

Amanda and Clive met in 1996, when she was working as a contract shepherdess and visited his farm, Ravenseat, to collect a ram. He was in his 40s, she in her early 20s. They fell in love and married in 2000, although romance was never exactly high on the agenda; she recounts in one of her books how she proposed by asking if Clive thought they should get married. “Mebbe,” he replied. “Does that mean yes?” she asked. “I suppose so,” he said. There was no grand plan for nine children, but they just kept having them. Their youngest, Nancy, is now six; the others are Clemmie, seven, Annas, nine, Sidney, 10, Violet, 12, Edith, 14, Miles, 16, Reuben, 18, and Raven, 21.

Over time, she and Clive grew apart. “Obviously, if we got on like a house on fire, then we wouldn’t have split,” says Owen, who turned 48 this month (she mentions that nobody in the family remembered it was her birthday). Yet they are continuing to run the farm together. How does that work? “Well, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t,” she admits. But it’s not as if they’re awkwardly sharing an office cubicle. “There’s enough room, believe me.”

In their typically practical way, the couple are keeping everything as normal as possible for the kids. They still eat meals together as a family and this morning she was on the phone to Clive, discussing Clemmie’s sports day and Reuben’s driving lesson.

“We both are very committed to the family and the farm. That sounds so cheesy, like some bloody publishers’ statement, but it’s a fact. We speak every day about what’s going on,” she says. “Sometimes I’m there, sometimes he’s there, sometimes he’s working away, sometimes I’m working away. We just have to make it fit.”

It’s clear that there is still a mutual respect between them. Owen says that an acrimonious split involving warring lawyers is “not an option”. Although very open and chatty by nature, she doesn’t want to talk in detail about their split as she feels that would be unfair to Clive. “He said to me, ‘I’ll never say a bad word about you,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll do exactly the same.’”

“I’ve always reckoned that the best way to teach kids is to lead by example, right? Not, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ Therefore the best thing we can give them is just the sort of home life that they’ve always had. In essence, nothing’s changed. And people might say, ‘Well, I don’t believe that.’ But if it works for us, that’ll do.”

In a statement last year, Owen condemned media intrusion into the couple’s lives. She describes it as “hellish”. Ravenseat is on the Coast to Coast path, and anyone can walk right up to it, which meant they had photographers hanging around outside. At least the isolated nature of the farm means they weren’t difficult to spot, I say. “Oh, you can spot them. But you can’t exactly take them out with a rifle,” she deadpans, stressing that this is definitely a joke – she can see the headlines now.

There is perhaps a telling scene in Owen’s most recent book, Celebrating the Seasons. In 2019, she decided to run a fell race for the first time. But, wary of not being able to complete it, and having to limp home in humiliation before a crowd of spectators, she came up with a crazy plan. She would run the course alone on the evening before the race – organisers had laid out the flags and markers, and “I couldn’t lose as I was only competing against myself”.

She set off. It took her a long time. As she approached a river, she saw Clive teetering on rocks in the middle of it. He had begun to fret about how long she’d been out, fearing she had fallen and broken a leg, so came out to look for her. Just at that moment, he lost his balance and fell into the water. “To say he was raging was an understatement,” Owen writes. He stomped back to the starting line and then, in front of everyone, suddenly burst out: “Why can’t yer just be bloody normal?” The incident, Owen says, was never spoken of again.

Amanda Owen and the family found fame by accident - Lorne Campbell / Guzelian
Amanda Owen and the family found fame by accident - Lorne Campbell / Guzelian

On television, Owen is certainly the gregarious one. Much has been made of the difference in their personalities, and the 18-year age gap. But she becomes animated when I mention a news report quoting an unnamed neighbour who claimed the marriage breakdown was down to Owen’s love of the spotlight. “Village gossip that’s inflated out of all proportion,” she says dismissively. “How come the newspapers can go to a pub and talk to a random neighbour who remains anonymous about something that allegedly they know? They don’t know the ins and outs, because we’ve never spoken about it. I feel it would be incredibly unfair for me to even speak about that without Clive sitting here. Because, you know what? We talk. We’re not throwing things at each other. We’re not enemies.”

Don’t confuse the hardiness of Owen’s lifestyle with her disposition. Criticism hurts her. “Of course that kind of thing is really difficult. And do you know what? You never get used to it.” Now her older children are starting to get a taste of it too. Someone online accused Raven, who has a popular Instagram account, of getting lip filler. “I’ve got to toughen up. I’ve got to toughen them up. Living on a hill farm, you toughen up to the weather. Maybe that’s not the only thing that you have to get acclimatised to.”

She can shrug off criticism that she “doesn’t look like a farmer”, though, because she’s had that for years. She remembers someone snarking on social media that Owen shouldn’t be wearing a mini-skirt in her 40s. “I was on the moor chasing sheep around. I’ve always worn a skirt, with a pair of wellies, because it’s comfortable. And that’s it.” That one comment was turned into a click-bait headline by a local news website, which makes her seethe because “they have rewarded the troll”.

Owen found fame by accident. About 20 years ago, the couple began serving afternoon teas to walkers at Ravenseat (they still do this in the summer months, along with running their shepherds’ hut as a B&B). One day a TV scout stopped by, who was looking for people to take part in a programme about the Yorkshire Dales. Other bits of television followed, and then a literary agent got in touch. Owen’s books about life on the farm became wildly popular – the hardback version of Celebrating the Seasons was the 10th biggest-selling nonfiction book of 2022. And then came Our Yorkshire Farm, which launched in 2018 and regularly draws audiences of three million.

“Everyone must have realised by now that I’m just an opportunist,” Owen laughs. “I never chased it. People think this must have been a big plan. No, no plan. Just like there was no family planning, ever. It’s always just been: see what comes along.” She is aware, though, that her family life – with her at the centre of it – is a valuable brand, because at one point in our conversation she mentions that she could never be an online “influencer” as she wouldn’t be able to plug products she didn’t believe in. “People know me, and they’ll know whether it’s genuine. ‘Genuine’ is sort of, I suppose, the strapline, the brand.”

Owen says she is frequently misconstrued, with her opinions about child-rearing and home economics wrongly interpreted as instructions on how the rest of us should be living. She knows that not everyone can live like her. Celebrating the Seasons is filled with her hearty and delicious-sounding recipes, from creamy ham and cabbage pie to rhubarb and custard crumble cake. She makes her own pizzas and Indian food. How on earth does she find the time to knock up all these meals from scratch, what with the children (Raven has left home and Reuben now has a girlfriend so is around less, but the others are still permanent fixtures around the table) and the farm work? And how can she say in the book: “I’m hardly a homemaker”?

The trick, she says, is to get the children mucking in. “I’m making them homemakers. Not because I’m doing great parenting – it’s because I’m lazy! And the fact that I do have so much going on – I rely on them. And I think relying on the children and giving them responsibility is one of the best things you can give your kids, because it gives them a sense of worth. If they mess up, then it has an impact. And they have, to a certain degree, to watch their own backs.” Because she’s away from home tonight, she roasted two chickens in advance for the family’s supper. But she also left 12-year-old Violet (“a really good cook”) with instructions for how to make cauliflower cheese.

 Amanda Owen - Andrew Crowley, photographed at Ham Yard Hotel
Amanda Owen - Andrew Crowley, photographed at Ham Yard Hotel

Does she miss tending livestock with a little one strapped to her chest? “You know what? I think I’d say that, so far, I prefer them as young adults and teenagers rather than babies. I love having conversations. There’s nothing worse than being a trendy mum, but I figure you have to stay with it in order to keep up with what’s going on in their lives. So no subject is out of bounds.”

The children joke about their supposedly semi-feral upbringing. Raven recently got a first-class degree in biomedicine, and is now doing a Masters. “She makes me laugh because she says, ‘I did that even though I was dragged up.’” But there’s no mistaking how free their childhoods seem, roaming the moors instead of gaming in their bedrooms. Swimming for this lot means rivers, becks and waterfalls; when Violet had her first proper swimming lesson arranged by school, she was perplexed that the pool was in a building.

Plenty of country folk can’t bear London, but Owen is not one of them. “I love it,” she enthuses. Does she fantasise about city living? “On a really s----y, wet, January day? Yeah, obviously. That’s why I’m really lucky, because I get to do a bit of both.” To my surprise, she wouldn’t rule out living here. “I would never say no to anything. You could never have placed me where I am now. I believe that living where we do makes us incredibly versatile and adaptable.

“People say, ‘Oh, your kids live on the farm – is that the real world?’ Absolutely it is. Because what does it give them? Common sense, a work ethic, communication skills. It gives them so much that they can apply wherever they go in life.” Farming skills can take her children anywhere, she says. “No matter what fashions come and go, no matter what government diktats are coming at you, we need to eat.” Owen, it must be remembered, grew up in the Huddersfield suburbs with no farming background. She wanted to be a vet but wasn’t academic enough; discovering John Forder’s book Hill Shepherd in her local library inspired her to go down this path.

What’s next for her? Owen is contractually unable to discuss whether Our Yorkshire Farm will return for another series, but the separation means it is unlikely to go on in its current form – it would just be too awkward. Channel 5 sources say “the future is uncertain”. However, new projects are in the works, with plans for Owen to branch out and make shows on her own, while Clive and the children will also continue to appear on screen. This will be one in the eye for the anonymous neighbour who said Owen had dragged a reluctant Clive into the spotlight. “They’ve got a little shock coming, haven’t they?” Owen smiles.

Given all the attention, does Owen regret inviting the cameras in? Not a bit, because it has given them financial security. “Because let’s be brutal about it: you’re not going to get rich off farming. We’ve got a big family to support and we live on a farm that doesn’t belong to us. People see the farm and say, ‘You have all this.’ Yes, we have all this, but never the security.”

It’s typical Owen: blunt, unsentimental and family-focused. “It’s all right to sit there and feel sorry for yourself,” she says. “But we have to provide for the children. That’s what we did it for. So how could I have regrets?”

Celebrating the Seasons (Pan Macmillan) is out now