THE remarkable life of shepherdess Alison O'Neill is the subject of a special exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.

A third generation hill farmer, she has been the tenant of Shacklabank Farm, near Sedbergh, for 20 years.

The 37 acre farm is owned by the diocese of Bradford and let to those who would have no other means of starting a hill farm – but when she took the tenancy folk asked how she would survive on sheep and a view.

Alison's answer was to attract visitors to the farm with tea and scones – then followed a shepherd's hut and barefoot walking tours.She then found a way of adding value to her wool crop – designing clothes and handbags using 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."

The wool is sent to the Halifax Spinning Company. Yarn is returned to the farm and sent to professional seamstresses for manufacture into garments.

Alison sees herself as a custodian of the farm. The previous tenant had dairy cows and had used chemical fertiliser to produce more grass. When Alison took over, the meadow wildflowers had gone.

It took her 15 years to restore the meadows by scattering bales containing wildflower seeds and using muck from the neighbouring organic dairy farm. She fenced woodland so there is now a sweep of bluebells. Curlews and other birds are thriving.

She also "undrained" a meadow by the beck, which has returned to being a wet pasture where willows, bulrushes, damselflies and newts have come back, as well as wrens, snipe and lapwing.

The exhibition - Shepherdess - one woman farm" - has come about through the work of Ian Lawson who has photographed Alison and her life for eight years.

After 30 years as an architectural photographer, Ian had moved to Shap, in Cumbria, to explore landscape photography. He had begun contacting Herdwick sheep farmers without much luck.

He spotted Alison on Luke Casey's Dales Diary programme on Tyne Tees Television, got in touch and arranged a one day shoot.

He said: "When I arrived at the farm it was like arriving on a set of All Creatures Great and Small. 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."

Ian has produced a 430-page book featuring Alison and her flock. He believes he has recorded a disappearing way of life, having seen many other small farms give up the struggle.

Alison said: "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's grit. I just wanted to farm and make it work."

The exhibition runs until September 8.