One Woman Farming in the Hills

Andrea Meanwell with her sheep. Photo: Bill Robertson
Andrea Meanwell with her upland herd. Photo: Bill Robertson.

For me as a hill farmer, being in the hills is not an ‘escape’ or ‘a chance to breathe’, it is my everyday life. I’m lucky to have travelled to some far off places in my life, but nothing is as fascinating to me as my own farm. Noticing small changes every day as the seasons roll on is an endless source of interest. I have become reluctant to travel away from the farm because everything that interests me is right here.

The farm is unusual in being in two National Parks, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Through the middle runs the M6 motorway and the main West Coast Railway line. Thousands of people travel through my farm every day, and yet I can work all day without talking to another human soul. What I find so interesting on the farm is the interaction of native breeds with our Cumbrian upland environment; how the fell ponies grazing allow flowers to flourish, the cows bash the bracken and allow the orchids to flower, the sheep allow the tiny alpine plants and sphagnum mosses to thrive.

The sheep in the winter snow. Photo: Bill Robertson.
The sheep in the winter snow. Photo: Bill Robertson.

Yesterday my son and I scanned our sheep to see how many lambs they are having. They can then be split into different groups and fed appropriately. The scanning man arrived and set up his crate in the sheep shed at 6pm. We finished scanning the sheep at 8pm and had a quick supper of shepherds’ pie that I had left slow cooking in the coal fired range. The kitchen was warm and cosy (it is the only heated room in the house) but we had to head out into the night again.

We then walked each group of ewes to the field that they will be living in until lambing time. They walk slowly as they are pregnant, and we can’t rush. The fields where they are living are about 3.5 miles from home. At 11.54pm we finally got back to the farmhouse for a cup of tea. It had snowed on the walk back, and it was pitch black. I was absolutely freezing cold, I felt as if my legs had turned to ice, but I have honestly never felt more alive.

This is life on the farm. You test yourself physically against the elements and mentally through the many hardships that occur during the year- be it animals dying, loose dogs attacking sheep, disappointing weather, there is always something new to push you to your limits. I am glad of that, and as I lifted my face to into the blowing snow last night, I was grateful to live such a life.

Andrea with one of her Herdwicks, a breed closely associated with the Lake District. Photo: Bill Robertson.
Andrea with one of her Herdwicks, a breed closely associated with the Lake District. Photo: Bill Robertson.

There is routine in the day to day life on a hill farm, animals must be fed and checked, and we are deeply connected to the landscape and to the flock and herd. A lot of people today have lost the connection to land through generations of urban living, and we are privileged indeed to live in such a challenging environment.

Andrea Meanwell farms in the Lake District National Park and Yorkshire Dales. She has been the Lake District National Park Farming Officer since 2019. Her four books about her experiences setting up and running her own farm are available from Haycroft.: A Native Breed (2016); In My Boots (2017); Lakelanders (2018); and Four Seasons on a Westmorland Farm (2019).