“How do I find a way to make 37 acres pay a living?”
That was the question Alison O’Neill said she asked herself when she became tenant of Shacklabank Farm near Sedbergh.
Twenty years on, her remarkable story is being told in a special exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.
Alison is a third generation hill farmer steeped in tradition, but she is also an entirely new breed.
“I wanted a lambing shed with gingham curtains,” was one of many quotable things she said when I visited her in May.
Also at the farm that spring day was Ian Lawson. He has spent the past eight years photographing Alison and documenting her way of life. The DCM exhibition, Shepherdess – one woman farm, is the fruit of his labours.
The two met after Alison appeared on Luke Casey’s popular Tyne Tees Television programme, Dales Diary. Ian was putting together a book on sheep.
“I was just moving to Shap in Cumbria,” he said. “I’d been an architectural photographer for 30 years but wanted to explore landscape photography. I started ringing up Herdwick sheep farms and they didn’t want to know to begin with. They were standoffish. So when I saw Alison on Dales Diary I rang her up thinking that might be an easier hit.”
A one-day shoot was arranged.
“When I arrived at the farm it was like arriving on a set of All Creatures Great and Small,” he said. “It was as if time had stood still. All I was witnessing elsewhere in the Lake District and the Dales was change.
“Alison’s traditionalism and devotion to sheep was obvious. And like any photographer or artist, I was attracted to slightly unusual characters.”
Alison remembered the first meeting, too.
“Ian showed me some pictures of Herdwicks. I thought, ‘These aren’t just pictures, but bloody good pictures’. He asked me to round up the sheep, do what I normally did.
“After a few years, I didn’t notice him. One night I was mowing the meadow at midnight because it was so light, a full moon. But a lot of the time when it was right for photography, he’d be at the other end of the country. That’s why it took so long,” she said.
Ian explained the importance of having the ‘right light’.
“A lot of the photos are taken at dawn or dusk,” he said. “That’s when native hill flock sheep will lamb. Alison will go out at five am. With sheep you’ve got this extreme white and the sun burns out all the detail on the fleece. Cloudy days are the best for the detail and shadows.”
Ian has produced a 430-page book that features Alison connecting with the natural environment. Some of the wild swimming pictures, I suggested, were racy.
“It is a bit racy,” replied Alison. “We’ve got a bit of spirit, us girls from the Dales. Ever since I’ve been a little girl I’ve been taking off my clothes and jumping in the beck.”
But let’s return to the opening question. How has one woman sustained a living from a little Dales hill farm?
“The farm is owned by the diocese of Bradford and tenanted to those who have no other means of starting a hill farm,” said Alison. “People used to call it the ‘Ramshackle Tabernacle’ – and people would say, ‘How’s she going to do on sheep and a view?’”
The answer came in two parts. First, the view was monetised. Alison attracted people to the farm by offering scones and tea. She offered hospitality in the shape of a shepherd’s hut. She also started leading barefoot walking tours.
“I was always looking at ways of meeting people,” she said. “Scones take 10 minutes to make, you chuck them in the oven, and when you smell them you know they are ready.”
Second, Alison found a way of adding value to her wool crop. She began designing clothes and handbags made from wool from her flock of 150 Rough Fell ewes.
She said: “Wool is my bread. I turn a product worth nothing to most farmers into that which is sustaining the farm. It’s a ‘heritage fibre flock’ as they like to call it.
“Clients come for a farm visit, meet me and the sheep, have scones, feel the fleeces, and come to the studio. The fleeces are hanging up so people can feel them. Once they’ve felt it, they know they’ve got provenance.”
Wool from the flock is sent to the Halifax Spinning Company. Yarn is returned to the farm, before Alison sends it to professional seamstresses, including at Farfield Mill, for manufacture into garments.
Just as there are many breeds of sheep, there are also many types of farmer. Alison is a tenant farmer. She is also a ‘high nature value’ farmer.
“I don’t own the farm and I’m proud of that,” she said. “People ask me why I’m doing this when I don’t own it. I could never buy a farm. This was my chance to farm. I’ve been a custodian.
“I’ve ‘undrained’ the meadow over there. It was never meant to be a meadow. It’s by the beck, it’s a wet pasture, a natural sponge. I left it be and let the willows, bulrushes, damselflies and newts come back. It’s full of wrens, snipe and lapwing. Nature has returned. That’s the field where people linger when they come to stay.”
“The way I farm is the way people want to see it. The things I’ve maintained are what people who visit delight in: the walls, hedges and hay meadows.”
The tenant farmer before Alison ran a herd of dairy cows and had improved the fields using chemical fertiliser to produce more grass. When Alison took over, the meadow wildflowers had gone.
“The meadows took 15 years before coming back,” she said. “When I came they were just green. I scattered bales from Bowber Head in Ravenstonedale [which contained the seeds of wildflowers]. I used muck from the next door organic dairy farm. I’ve never fertilised in 20 years except with muck.
“I’ve fenced the woodland and now you can see a sweep of bluebells. The curlews are back on the allotment. It’s been beautiful to see the flowers and birdlife coming back. The farm is small in size, but enormous in benefit to wildlife. It’s a miniature world. There is so much value to be had in just one little area.”
Then the talk turns to the ‘woman’ bit of the exhibition title, ‘one woman farm’.
“Lots of women are farming, but not many are making decisions about the sheep and tups. Tups are a man’s world. I’d go to markets and I know what they were thinking, ‘What’s she doing?’
“My favourite time is selecting gimmers (female lambs kept for breeding), partly because it is seen as a man’s job to choose what sheep are cast out and what are kept.
“Day to day it’s dirty and hard, with not much money, but I always thought my life was beautiful. Hard work, fresh air and freedom – I was raised on that.
“If someone said 20 years ago that you’d have this exhibition and the book, I wouldn’t have believed them. I nearly left the farm twice because of the hardships. It’s been the happiest and hardest 20 years of my life. I’ve needed the Daleswoman grit. I just wanted to farm and make it work.”
Not everyone has been able to survive like Alison.
“A lot of this is disappearing right in front of our eyes,” said Ian. “The book is a portrait of a disappearing way of life. Many others haven’t been able to stick it out. In the time I’ve been coming here and to the Lake District I’ve watched farms going out of business, often being taken over by other farms.
“I’m documenting something that might not be here in twenty years, but I hope that through the work of the National Parks, it will be preserved.”
At the table listening was the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s Head of Land Management, Adrian Shepherd. He said he was fighting for traditional hill farming.
Weeks later, in a speech at the opening of the exhibition, he said:
“We need farmers to maintain all the special features of the National Park. Alison is a high nature value farmer. The concept is at the heart of what we do. We must ensure this type of farming has a future.”