The Barefoot Shepherdess Alison O’Neill talks about her beloved dogs
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:25 06 February 2018
Alison O’Neill has become well-known as The Barefoot Shepherdess but life in the fells would be impossible without her four-legged friends. Emily Rothery met them.
The first thing I notice about the Barefoot Shepherdess is that she is wearing boots. Alison O’Neill is a hill farmer but is also well known for leading guided walks in the Lake District and on the Howgill fells.
She has loved walking barefoot since she was a child and she encourages walkers to shed their boots, dip their toes in cool becks and experience the feel of velvety moss beneath their feet. When it comes to farming, however her bootlaces remain firmly tied.
The second thing that I notice is that her sheepdog, aptly named Shadow, is never far from her side. Alison has three working border collies and is the first to admit she couldn’t manage without them. Three-year-old Shadow also accompanies her on walks. ‘He’s a great companion, has a huge personality and just loves people. When I was 12 my Grandma gave me a book which I loved. It was Shadow the Sheepdog by Enid Blyton. When my grandma died she left me a small amount of money and, on my 50th birthday, I decide to use the money to buy a sheepdog. Naturally I called him Shadow.
‘I know that I shouldn’t have a favourite but he’s a special dog to me. He sleeps on my bedroom window-sill and loves to look out at the flock and the moon and he’s obsessed with watching birds! He’s fantastic with children and very affectionate but is also a good worker.’
Alison has three Northern breeds of sheep, rough fell, herdwicks and swaledales, on her 40 acre farm near Sedbergh. Shacklabank is the epitome of a traditional Cumbrian farm and sits atop a hill with stunning views.
‘It’s always was my dream to be a shepherdess. My parents and grandparents were hill farmers. It’s a tough way of life but I always loved being outdoors with the men. It seemed much more exciting. In those days farmers’ wives worked really hard but most of the work was indoors. I had a toy farm set and the wife, with her tea towel and pinny, was fixed to the kitchen door. My brother had a cavalry set so I sent the farmer off to war and released his wife so that she could tend the flock!’
At the age of 18, Alison left home to travel but returned determined, against all odds, to make a going concern of her own small tenant farm. A typical day might involve gathering and clipping or taking her sheep to the local auction. ‘It can be wild, wet and windy up here but to me it’s a joy and the dogs love it.
‘My dogs all have different personalities and roles. When gathering sheep, they very much work intuitively as a team. Shadow will stay with the main block of sheep, while my new boy Mac goes on the big outrun and brings them in to Shadow. Then they work together to gather. Drifter, who is eight, is a powerful dog and will stand firm and do what I ask so is great in the yard when bringing the flock in. He loves his food and the fire!
‘Shadow is very gentle and good with the lambs. He’s also athletic and has great speed. He can clear high walls without touching a stone. Mac has a keen eye and his obsession is with sheep. He can bring the whole flock in a moment and can deal with the “big nowty yows”. I’m a Winn by birth and the Winns are renowned for being “nowty” which makes us stubborn and if we’re told to do something, we won’t!’
Last but not least, Alison’s fourth dog is Tweed a feisty eighteen-year-old Jack Russell terrier. ‘Her legs are failing now but at one point she had a huge role. I had lost two of my sheepdogs and was trying to bring the sheep in on my own when this tiny terrier followed me and started gathering alongside. She’d picked it up from the other dogs. For a good two years she was in charge of the flock and is still in charge of the yard. She’s a good ratter too. Nobody messes with Tweed!’
‘These days she spends much of her time in the under-croft in her nest, enjoying milk, honey and eggs and listening to Radio 4. I ride to the fell on my native fell pony Sunny, as my grandfather would have done and Tweed comes with me. She’s put in a pannier but thinks it’s a bit degrading!’
Alison’s gritty attitude has seen her through the difficult times and led her to diversify following Foot and Mouth by achieving a Mountain Leadership qualification. She likes to do things the traditional way but sometimes with a modern twist. ‘To keep the farm viable I am now producing tweeds from my own wool under the brand name Shepherdess. I love to wear tweed like my grandma did and I produce high quality wool garments and accessories. There is even a mini-Shadow made from wool and Shadow wears his own smart tweed collar and lead which people love and is now part of the Sheepdog range.’
On the day that I visit, Alison has just returned from appearing on BBC’s Sunday Live programme. ‘I also do talks, usually with Shadow by my side, from WIs in small village halls to huge corporate events in London. But for me nothing beats being out all day with the sheep – it might be wet and miserable but afterwards I’ll get the dogs washed and dried off then we’ll all settle in my front room by the fire. Heaven. I don’t really want a lot more.’