Sometimes a lowly cattle shed is just too . . . lowly. Not to mention outdoorsy.
Ciara the Cow — so called because she arrived during Storm Ciara in February — would rather spend the festive period indoors, with the family, thank you very much.
‘She was fed by hand as a calf because her mother didn’t have any milk, so she thinks she’s a human,’ says Amanda Owen, aka the Yorkshire Shepherdess and the woman who is possibly the most famous (not to mention glamorous) farmer in Britain.
‘If a door is left open in the house — and with nine children there is always a door left open — she just comes in.
Amanda Owen, aka the Yorkshire Shepherdess and the woman who is possibly the most famous (not to mention glamorous) farmer in Britain
‘She doesn’t like the rain. It’s a problem, actually. I’ll be doing something and I’ll shout ‘why do I smell cow?’ and she will be in the living room.
‘She likes to eat underwear, so we are forever prising a thong or a pair of pants from her mouth, or picking up a regurgitated sock.’
Charming! But Ciara, bless her little soggy socks, is in for a surprise. As is Violet, the ten-year-old who has raised her.
Santa will be bringing both of them (and the whole Owen family, in truth) a specially sourced Christmas gift: a cow bell.
‘I’ve tried to shop locally this year, but this was one you can only get in the Swiss Alps, or via the internet, so the internet it was,’ says Amanda. ‘At least we will all hear Ciara coming, so hopefully our socks will be saved.’
The Owens, who live in a remote farmhouse high in the Yorkshire Dales, are the least starry of reality TV stars. And hurrah for them.
Our Yorkshire Farm, the Channel 5 show which follows their lives, has been one of the highs of an often low year.
Ciara the Cow would rather spend the festive period indoors with the family
The pandemic struck mid-series, and the film crew had to depart — leaving them to film the final episodes themselves on their mobiles.
Amanda — a woman who gave birth to five of her nine children at the side of the road, and who delivered number eight herself, ‘like you would a lamb’ — coped as she copes with everything.
‘It was a case of, ‘oh, OK, you want me to run a farm, raise nine children, cope with a pandemic with no food in the fridge and film our own TV show?’ she says with mock horror. ‘Give it ‘ere then’.’
The series — dripping with warmth as well as mud — duly got finished.
While the TV show was one of the ratings hits of the year, her celebrity status continues to grow. She now has more than 130,000 followers on Twitter and even her own calendar, showcasing images from across the seasons.
She’s adept at handling the media side — she jokes that the family scrubs up well for our photographer — but insists that they ‘keep it real’.
‘This frock is gorgeous but look at the mud on it now,’ she mock-complains. ‘My life is mostly mud.’
Christmas seems to happen in much the same style. As the rest of us will be having our own Covid-secure Christmas bubble this year, — worrying about who’s in, who’s out, households, numbers, protocol, shielding — for the Owens and their giant brood aged between four and 19, little will change.
There will be 11 of them for Christmas this year. Which is, she says, in a way easier.
They just don’t think about it . . .
‘Chaos,’ she says. ‘It’s always chaos. The decorating theme this year is ‘chuck everything at the tree and hope it all stays up’, but I like it that way. Our Christmas isn’t like a Christmas in the Next Directory.’
Christmas food? Has she been poring over Good Housekeeping recipes and planning a canapé selection? Has she ‘eck.
‘It’s just a meal, isn’t it? I don’t understand why people get so het up about it. We feed 11 people every single day. Just get on with it.’
Between them, the nine children — Raven, 19, Reuben, 17, Miles, 15, Edith, 12, Violet, ten, Sidney, nine, Annas, seven, Clementine, five, and four-year-old Nancy — can cook and clean
This is her approach to pretty much everything. Today, there is much hilarity as she gathers her brood to pose for our photographer in their best Christmas clothes.
She teases that she is playing Mrs Santa and they must play her elves. Cue appalled looks before they realise their dear mother is joking.
When we settle down to chat, she shuts a clatter of children in the kitchen, and one of the secrets of her success is revealed: delegation.
‘I have set them some tasks. I’ve told them I want some leeks sautéing, so hopefully they will learn how. Let’s see.’
It’s fair to say that festive preparations chez the Yorkshire Shepherdess and her flock (both human and animal) are a source of wonder in themselves. In this house presents are minimal, often home-made. Always useful.
‘I cannot stand throwaway presents. The kids always get something to open, but it has to be something that hasn’t cost a fortune and it has to be useful. For instance, Edith is getting a new pair of school shoes.’
Gosh. Poor Edith, I think. But, says Amanda: ‘No, but the thing is, she wants a pair of Dr. Martens, and they are expensive, but I think it’s a good idea, this time, because Dr. Martens are unisex and that’s good when it comes to hand-me-downs.’
There is a footwear theme to all gift-giving this year. Do she and Clive exchange gifts?
Not usually, she says, ‘but we have this year. He had a hole in one of his wellies, so I bought him a new pair.
‘He’s already had them, though. I couldn’t make him suffer a wet foot until Christmas Day. He was very pleased. He’s only wearing one of the new ones, though.
‘That’s very Clive. No point wearing both new boots when only one of the last pair had a hole in.’
She’s already had a present from second-born Reuben, too. A home-made head stock, for milking (the cow’s head goes in it).
She describes it in the way some women might a Gucci necklace. ‘It’s beautiful. So thoughtful. It wasn’t really a Christmas present though.
‘No point me risking having my head kicked in between now and Christmas, is there?’
Running Ravenseat Farm, with its 2,000 acres, 850-strong flock of sheep and 40-strong beef herd is a challenge any year, before you even get to the risks of being kicked by a cow.
This year, things got trickier. Like all of us, the Owens have been in and out of lockdown like yo-yos. They are in another one right now. Or the chickens are.
‘Not Covid-related, but Avian Flu-related. The decree came that all the chickens had to be housed indoors and accounted for to stop it spreading.
‘Miles and Sidney have been out with nets catching them all. We’ve discovered we have 58 chickens. Who knew?’
Also, a glut of eggs. ‘Well, normally we miss a lot because we don’t know where they have been laid, but because they are in the shed we are getting them all.’
Which brings us on to another interesting issue: milk. While you might think the Owens would be into self-sufficiency, they only were to a point pre-pandemic.
‘Covid has forced us further down that route, though,’Amanda explains.
‘When the supermarkets were rationing how many items you could buy, we ran into real problems.
‘Because we are so remote, I tend only to shop once every few weeks, but to be told we could only have a few cartons of milk was a nightmare.
‘Shopping in general was a nightmare — it was all regimented, walk this way, wear your masks, only so many items.
‘I was forever going the wrong way, or finding my mask hanging off my ear, and when I had five cartons of milk in the trolley, alarms would go off.
‘It looked like stockpiling, when it wasn’t. I have nine children and only shop once a fortnight.’
She sighs. Don’t get her started on the stresses of ‘sanitising yourself silly’ when you are more of a cowpat-friendly household.
She continues: ‘We had to get a house cow.’
A what? This is not the same as a cow-who-wanders-into-the-house-eating-socks cow, it seems.
A house cow is a cow, plucked from the herd of beef cattle, who is kept at hand, specifically for milk.
‘It’s not a cow with a big udder, but just a regular cow who would feed her own calf,’ she says (she’s very patient explaining country matters to non-country folk.) She’s basically Newsround’s John Craven with better cheekbones.
‘We share the milk with the calf. It works well. You take as much as you need — for a rice pudding, say, or for everyone’s Cornflakes, then the calf gets its milk.’
Who does the milking? Silly question. ‘In this house, everyone has a go. The kids knew how to milk the sheep already, so it was ‘just a step up’.
‘It goes with the territory because you often have to help the ewes with their milk.’
The kids also turned the house into a bakery. ‘They could already bake bread, but it went from being a thing they did occasionally to a necessity.
‘They are all brilliant at it. Another string to their bow.’
There’s an orchestra going on with all the strings on various bows in this house.
Between them, the nine children — Raven, 19, Reuben, 17, Miles, 15, Edith, 12, Violet, ten, Sidney, nine, Annas, seven, Clementine, five, and four-year-old Nancy — can cook, clean, change tractor wheels, deliver lambs, light fires, negotiate waterfalls and do all manner of things that most children, these days, tend not to be able to do.
Amanda is fond of calling them ‘feral’. She likes joking about how there is a fine line between a parental style which fosters independence and having social services come calling.
To the visiting eye, though, she seems to have played a blinder. Her children are all very different — both physically and by nature.
‘I don’t quite know how, but we have produced some pale children with ginger hair, some with quite olive skin. All sorts. We have a rainbow family,’ she says.
They have different characters too. The eldest, Raven, is studying biomedicine at university (she’s at home for Christmas), while Reuben hated school and left as soon as he could, but has just landed his first job as an engineering apprentice. ‘Both have found their feet and their place in the world, which is all any parent wants’.
‘Above all, I want them to be independent, and to know that they can do whatever they want in life — but they have to bear in mind that they have to put in the effort themselves.
‘I don’t care if that’s at school, or whatever, but it has to be up to them. Reuben got his job by writing letters himself. I didn’t do it for him.
‘I don’t have time to be a Helicopter Parent, or a Tiger Parent, or any of those other things.’
Surprisingly, the woman who seems to be able to cope with anything did not cope well with home schooling.
‘We didn’t even try, to be perfectly honest. I mean we did log on, but we only have one laptop and one iPad.
‘It was never going to work and, to be honest, I knew I was never going to be the sort of mother who said: ‘Let’s do your German vocabulary, then’.
They learn through life. Not what they’d learn in a classroom, but valuable lessons, nonetheless.’ Their mother provided quite the model there.
She is very much a woman who followed her own dreams, even though they seemed quite mad at the time.
She did not grow up on a farm, but was a city dweller who fell in love with the countryside through books — notably the James Herriot series and one particular picture book called Hill Shepherd, by the author John Forder.
‘I got it out of the library when I was a child — it was too expensive to buy — and I was just transfixed by the images and the sort of life that was described.’
Early on, she tried her hand at modelling (her mum was a model) but, later, she applied to be a farm hand, and the foundations of a very different life were set.
She met her husband Clive — who was divorced, with two children — when she was sent to deliver some livestock to him, at Ravenseat. It was the start of an extraordinary journey.
There is a twist, too. It was only recently that Amanda — now an author herself; she has published three books about her rural life — bought herself an actual copy of Hill Shepherd. Flicking through the pages again, she made a remarkable discovery.
‘Clive was actually in the book — the one I’d read as a child. I was flicking through — the pictures meant so much more this time around because I knew the places and what it all represented — but then there was this man in a ridiculous corduroy suit with flared trousers and these Cuban heels.
‘It was my beloved. He had a terrible beard, too, and a fag hanging out of his mouth. Very politically incorrect. Can you believe that, though?
‘The man I grew up to marry was in that book of my dreams.’
Few come to be living their dreams in quite the way she now does. Mind you, few would have set their heart on such a tough life.
She admits lockdown was brutal at times, ‘like an isolation within an isolation’. Yet, in lockdown, as in life, she adopts a ‘don’t worry’ mentality.
‘Maybe it comes with the territory when you farm,’ she concludes. ‘Say you have a cow that is about to calf.
‘Do you go to bed and lie there awake, worrying about what will happen? You don’t, because you can’t know.
‘It might calf on its own, no help needed. It might need a vet. It might calf backwards, or upside down or the wrong way round. It doesn’t matter. You just deal with whatever happens.
‘I kind of feel this is the way 2020 has been, and we have to get on with it, and trust it will be alright.’
A Christmas message with bells on, then. Cow bells, obviously.
n To order the Yorkshire Shepherdess 2021 calendar visit dalesman.co.uk/shop — whilst stocks last, for delivery in January.