This year, we have had to take comfort and joy where we could find it.
Many of us have been increasingly drawn to the natural world. The changing seasons – spring flowers appearing, migrating birds returning, leaves changing colour – offered respite from a global health emergency and ever-changing advice and restrictions.
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During the first lockdown, when millions of us were unable to get a change of scenery, at least we had television.
So it was no surprise when record numbers of viewers flocked to watch the Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen and her family on Our Yorkshire Farm this summer with the Channel 5 show at times beating BBC One and ITV to win the ratings battle in the coveted 9pm slot.
The series is part of Channel 5’s recent move to ditch the trashy imports in favour of myriad ways of visiting Yorkshire – introducing us to The Yorkshire Vet and The Yorkshire Steam Railway, enlisting John Prescott for Made in Yorkshire and Sean Bean for Yorkshire: A Year In The Wild, then remaking the classic All Creatures Great And Small to great acclaim and audiences of six million, the channel’s best ratings of all time.
“Yorkshire is part of Channel 5’s DNA,” according to channel controller Ben Frow.
Our Yorkshire Farm offers a window on another world – a green and pleasant and reassuring one in which traditional farming methods are followed and face masks are largely redundant, with the nearest neighbours way off yonder.
If Owen already knew about living in extreme isolation, albeit with her husband, their nine children and many, many sheep on their farm in Swaledale, Yorkshire, they were not unaffected by lockdown.
— YorkshireShepherdess (@AmandaOwen8) December 5, 2020
“It hit us hard as well,” says Owen. “Our day-to-day lives were not initially impacted much because, with being isolated and remote, life pretty much continues.
“But our year is split. There is six months of shepherding and being full-on on the farm with the animals. From November right through to lambing time at the end of April, it’s all about the sheep. You hunker down and that’s what you do.
“But then everything changes. You feel like spring is here. The flowers come out. The birds come back. It’s like life comes back to the hills. And usually, with that comes visitors, tourists, walkers, ramblers, people out for a day in the Dales. And this year, they never came.
“Usually we see visitors, tourists, walkers, ramblers, people out for a day in the Dales. And this year, they never came.”
“It took a while to sink in. On the farm, we have the dark skies and there were no aeroplanes, nature took over, there was a real sense of peace. But then that peace became disquiet – because we were looking out over the hill and there was nobody coming.”
When lockdown arrived, Owen and family were midway through filming series three of Our Yorkshire Farm. Suddenly, there was no camera crew, no one to set up microphones or carry heavy cameras up hill and down dale.
Instead, it became a truly family affair – the series completed with the kids mucking in, Owen directing, and a new pressure to deliver a much-needed dose of Yorkshire life to homes across the country.
“It’s our busiest time of year, so we’re out working on the farm but also trying to lug cameras and all the rest of it. And you can imagine, when your mother is directing, she doesn’t kind of have the same sort of authority,” says Owen.
“But we felt a huge sense of responsibility to make it work. Because people needed something uplifting. Everyone was looking to the countryside, to the outdoors, to what we’ve got on our doorsteps. They were craving being outside. Just to be able to walk in the sunshine or rain, not being enclosed in our walls became so important. And the nearest a lot people could get was through the television. This programme we were making had to give that to people. Fortunately, somehow we did it. But it was flippin’ hard.”
Chicken out. 🐓
— YorkshireShepherdess (@AmandaOwen8) December 14, 2020
As our worlds became smaller and more solitary, seeing each other on screens became vital. The sense of dislocation and distance – and the need to find solace through technology – did not just affect those in the big city.
“Because of what’s happened this year, people have relied so much on escapism through media,” says Owen. “The digital element fills a gap that is needed. I would get up and post a picture of the sunrise or a clip of the birds singing online. Lots of people couldn’t hear the birds. I felt guilty because I almost had my very own splendid isolation – but it was just a different kind of isolation. I was getting back from people what I was missing. They didn’t realise that. It was very much a two-way thing.”
So we got to witness the sunrise and the beautiful scenery while you got the connection, the contact and the communication?
“Exactly. It wasn’t just me putting up bonny pictures for people. I was getting that conversation and that dialogue. People say, ‘Oh, isn’t it marvellous how your kids live an old-fashioned kind of life on the farm’ like we are in some sort of rural utopia. And, of course, we love living here.
“But the kids also need access to the outside world and the internet. It’s about striking that balance. I feel like the thing that we are most fortunate about is our ability to be able to live in two separate worlds. Once we go outside, there is no mobile signal. You’re untouchable.
“I imagine if you have a screen in front of you and the news coming at you all day, it will be so easy for it to get on top of you, to get embroiled in who said what or the latest figures and graphs. It’s a happy medium to be able to walk out the door and have a bit of a digital detox.”
Owen expects more people to follow her in migrating away from cities as it becomes apparent that so much office-based work can be done from home. If you can work at home in a city, you can work at home anywhere, she reasons. Just don’t expect trading the city for a new idyllic rural life to be without cost.
“It’s about doing your homework and knowing what you are letting yourself in for,” she says. “We haven’t got a mobile signal for 20 miles around here. You are not going to get a Just Eat delivery. Your internet is going to cost a heck of a lot more and the speeds are going to be rubbish. You might have to cope with no electricity. And if things go wrong, you might have to sort it out yourself. So go in with your eyes open.
“We did the migration a lot of years ago. So would we recommend it? Absolutely. All you have to do is adapt. It gives you a certain sense of freedom, but you have to overcome troubles – just like you have troubles in the town. It’s just a different trouble out here in the wilds.”
The recent death of her favourite sheepdog, Bill, meant Owen once again leant on her online community. “It’s like a culmination of the whole of this year,” she says.
“I think everybody’s just one step off blubbing. You almost feel a bit guilty about it when there are so many big things going on and you’re like, ‘my dog’s died’. There’s people out there who have got real issues, with Covid or going into hospital.
“You almost feel a bit guilty about it when there are so many big things going on and you’re like, ‘my dog’s died’. There’s people out there who have got real issues, with Covid or going into hospital.”
“I’m still on a knife edge. We have other sheep dogs, of course. And they all have different characters, but there are some that are… he was as near human as you could ever wish. You could almost read his thoughts. But social media can be a really supportive place. And seeing the outpouring on there has been amazing, actually.”
Next year brings new uncertainty to rural communities in Britain. If visitors have not been pouring over the hill in Owen’s part of Yorkshire this year, Brexit certainly does loom large on the horizon.
Despite some voices of protest, the BBC’s flagship Sunday evening show Countryfile continues to explore implications for farmers, asking tough questions, asking experts – vital public service broadcasting for eight million regular viewers. Similarly, This Farming Life, on BBC Two, airs the real impact of the current uncertainty on six farming families in Scotland and northern England.
Owen – who talks of the need for diversification, not putting all your eggs (or meat, or wool) in one basket – feels ready. For whatever may happen.
“All you can do is take your best guess at where it’s gonna go,” she says. “One side of the business might take a hit so the other side might have to prop it up. But my gut feeling is that people have farmed in these hills for 1,000 years, they are farmed well and it will carry on because it is giving the consumer what they want and is also environmentally good.
“It sounds naff to talk about future-proofing, but that’s what you’re doing all the time. The kind of farming we are championing – nature-friendly farming, with groundnesting birds, no fertilisers, hay meadows– is not a new idea. It’s how it always was. But at some stage, people went more industrialised.We didn’t take up the new technologies and start throwing fertiliser about and now the tide has turned.
“We now have the box lamb scheme whereby people can buy lamb from us and have it delivered to them knowing full well how it has lived and the distance it has travelled. It’s about knowing what they’re eating. And that gives me a peace of mind as well.” It also operates outside any possible changes to export taxes or regulations.
— YorkshireShepherdess (@AmandaOwen8) December 16, 2020
But before 2021, a celebration. For many, Christmas will be different this year. Smaller, quieter. Owen has shared her Christmases past with millions of Our Yorkshire Farm viewers. But she sees some benefit in treating Christmas Day like any other.
“Plenty of people will be working over the festive period, whether that’s on farms or in hospitals. But it gives you a really good feeling. I can’t recommend it enough.
“Maybe you’re better off getting some work done or making something that makes you feel good. It can be the best gift you can give to yourself. Do something that makes your heart sing or makes you think ‘I’ve achieved something’. Because Christmas can be quite a lonely time even when there are people about.
“Christmas is going to be very different this year for a lot of families. Ours will pretty much remain the same because we carry on business as usual – which might sound dull, dull, dull. But when you’re on a farm, it’s all still to do. I don’t mean that as a hardship. It’s quite a nice feeling. It’s that sense of belonging again. It’s what we do.
“We end up spending more time outside and with the animals, where there is nothing outwardly telling you it’s Christmas – there’s no pipe music, there’s no lights,” she says. “There’s just a feeling in the air. And it’s that connection with doing what’s always been done.”