Challenges and rewards of life on the hill

TWITTER accounts don’t come any more dramatic and enticing than that of Alison O’Neill, a shepherdess in the Yorkshire Dales whose @woolismybread account offers thousands a welcome escape from the pressures of city life.

Not that anyone would claim running a small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales is an easy task, but living in nature amid the spectacular scenery of the majestic Howgill Fells in Westmoreland makes up for any harsher challenges life throws at her, she insists.

OPEN OUTLOOK: Alison’s pinned tweet features her beloved fells PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“I am blessed with a rare freedom,” she writes. “I work quietly in the old way, woven to my landscape, betrothed to the life of a shepherdess.

“I don’t like sheep, I love them and I always have. I care for my flock and in turn they provide for me. I fashion their wool creating beautiful products, offering provenance and heritage as hallmarks for every item I produce.”

That love of nature shines through her posts from the fells, but it’s the lifestyle as much as the scenery which her followers find both restful and inspiring, from the homely sound of clucking hens around the farm to the sight of a bulging breakfast tray or the reassuring company of Shadow the sheepdog.

Alison enjoys sharing her world, guiding walks and holding talks about my life on the fells with her beloved sheep, amid the whirling swifts and restless winds.

HOME COMFORTS: Sunday breakfast on the farm PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

Born into a shepherding family, she recalls: “Life for me was practical and everyday, sometimes harsh in a northern way. I was lucky and thankful to be reared on fresh air and freedom, a country girl whom inherited an instinct to nurture and a desire to care.”

When in the late 1970s her grandparents and parents sold their farms, she vowed that one day she would have her own farm and follow in their footsteps, despite the warnings about the impossibility of making money from small-scale hill farming.

Come the run-up to the millennium, and she was taking on the tenancy of Shacklabank Farm, a 37-acre plot which would be home for the next 20 years: where her daughter Scarlett would be born and where unhappy memories of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic and a divorce would be offset by the rewards of farming in one of the country’s most stunning landscapes.

Thanks to that “sheer Dales-woman grit and determination”, she has managed to remain at the farm on the hill, offering an antidote to fast fashion and intensive farming.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Alison has farmed at Shacklabank for 20 years PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“Rather than selling my wool for next to nothing I found a way of turning it into highly desirable tweed clothing. And rather than pushing wildlife back on my farm, I have encouraged it to flourish. My labour of love is a way of life and one that I am most grateful to have,” she says.

Certainly her 38,000 Twitter followers appreciate her straight talking and love of simple pleasures, like the smell of autumn in the air, the company of the loyal Shadow or nurturing her beloved Rough fell, Swaledale and Herdwick flocks, using their wool to produce a range of natural tweeds that capture the “spirit of the place we all call home”.

It’s a lifestyle that has made the Yorkshire shepherdess something of a media star, but for her Twitter fans it’s her ability to “keep it real” that continues to delight and inspire.

Alison’s website, shop and media and video links can be found here.

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