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Shacklabank: The farm for free rangers

Rhiannon Batten takes a North Country walking holiday with a difference

Ask an average British farmer to think back to 2001 and the reaction won't be pretty. The UK's first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease for 20 years, which began in February seven years ago, is estimated to have cost the agricultural industry alone close on £1bn. Scratch a little deeper, however, and the picture isn't as relentlessly dark as it first appears. Post-2001, with their traditional livelihoods looking shakier than ever, many farming families were forced to diversify. And, while no-one would welcome such a catastrophe, what it has done is radically transform the UK's rural landscapes, generating myriad innovative businesses that wouldn't otherwise have existed.

One of the most inspiring was started by shepherdess Alison O'Neill. Brought up in Cumbria before moving away, Alison returned to the area in 1999 with her husband, John, and baby daughter, Scarlett, and started rearing traditional Rough Fell sheep (as well as a Doolittle-like assortment of other animals) at Shacklabank, a tenanted farm outside Sedbergh. The O'Neill's dream of restoring Shacklabank to a small, traditional working farm was always going to be a challenge. But when foot-and-mouth struck they realised they would have to diversify if they were going to survive.

"After foot-and-mouth, I sat in the lambing shed, tearful, thinking 'I can't have my dream put us into debt'," remembers Alison. A businessman who was staying with the couple suggested that Alison started selling what she already offered to people who visited – homemade scones, paddling in the beck, walks to bluebell woods – and two years ago she duly launched a series of "free-range" walking holidays.

The result is one part Nigella, one part Bill Oddie, one part Old McDonald and one part Alfred Wainwright (she didn't realise he'd beaten her to the free-range walking tag until she saw the phrase in one of his books recently). Based at Shacklabank, with accommodation either on the farm or in gypsy caravans, trips are tailored to match guests' interests, from mucking in with the animals or brushing up on baking skills to heading out onto the surrounding Howgill fells with Alison as a guide. This summer, Alison is also launching special, themed "Born To Be Wild" walking trips for wildlife enthusiasts, and I went to Shacklabank for a trial run.

Arriving just in time for dinner, I was met enthusiastically by John and sheepdog, Moss, and led into the farmhouse past an old dresser laden with jugs of daffodils and beneath ribbons of brightly coloured bunting. Over a hearty plate of Shacklabank's own lamb shanks (a very direct reminder of the farm's field-to-plate philosophy), Alison summarised the concept.

"We want to provide holidays where people can walk, eat good food, get an understanding of farm life and feel a connection to the countryside," she said, adding that the surrounding Howgill fells deserve to be better known.

The Howgills are a cartographer's riddle. Famously described by Wainwright as looking like a herd of sleeping elephants – though, in a nod to one of her other passions, Alison sees them more like "slices of apple under a pie crust" – they are part of Cumbria but not part of the Lake District, largely part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park but not part of Yorkshire.

A mixture of enthusiasm to see the landscape and a desperate attempt to find room for a pudding of homemade lemon meringue pie meant that we struck out between courses to look for otters and badgers (though I had a sneaking suspicion that this was also a subtle way for Alison to check how fit I was).

Tiptoeing our way down to a nearby stream and up and over neighbouring farmland, we didn't see either in the end. But being outside in the late spring twilight, stumbling over dewy grass, listening out for sudden rustling, was an excellent introduction to Alison's Famous Five-style approach to holidaying.

The following morning, an ominous drizzle was already falling by the time we started tucking into one of John's lavish breakfasts. Supposedly the 360-degree view is so good from Shacklabank that a bell was hung there in the 16th century to warn local farmers when cattle-raiding Border Reivers were seen approaching. Shrouded by the rain, however, you wouldn't even know the Howgills were there. But, with local ham, farm eggs, Cumbrian sausages and much more to walk off, there was no excuse for staying indoors.

As we climbed our way up a rain-glistened field, listening out for curlews and lapwings overhead, Alison explained that part of the motivation behind her trips is proving that everyone can enjoy walking. "It's not about how high you go, or how fast, or whether you're dressed as if you're about to attempt the north face of the Eiger," she insisted.

Which is just as well, because Alison's walking outfit of choice is a tweed jacket, walking boots and a short skirt "with a warm pair of knickers underneath". In typical O'Neill style, she's even hoping to launch a special line of walkers' knickers, embroidered with suitable phrases and butterfly motifs.

But it's not just walking gear that Alison does differently. Heading up to bed the previous night I'd found the room a mass of Cath Kidston's cabbage-rose fabric and a table equipped with a little jug of freshly picked primroses, a bottle of homemade damson gin and a teapot dressed in an elaborate knitted tea cosy. On warmer days, Alison likes to take guests hillwalking barefoot, stopping for natural pedicures in cool, hilltop streams. Even the lambing shed is decorated with gingham curtains.

But if this all sounds a little whimsical, it's not without substance. Before Alison launched the walking holidays, she signed up for a hill walking leadership qualification, beating many of the more macho types on the course to a pass despite being the only one to turn up for lessons in a flowery skirt and flip-flops. Later, on our walk, we reached Blakeberry allotments and came face to face with Alison's two feisty fell ponies. The no-nonsense farmer in her came out as she brought them quickly under control, though she later fed them apples, telling me to sniff their munching breath because "it's just like apple pie". And it was.

From the allotments, we walked up Firbank fell to Fox's Pulpit, a windswept outcrop beside an abandoned graveyard, where George Fox is said to have started the Quaker movement, preaching to 1,000 onlookers in 1652.

We hadn't met a single other person by this point, so the idea of 1,000 people congregating on this isolated spot took some imagining. But part of the appeal of the Howgills, to those that know them today, is the emptiness, neglected as they are in favour of better-known tramping grounds such as the Lake District and other parts of the Yorkshire Dales. "The Howgills still feel wild," agreed Alison, approvingly.

Just beyond Fox's Pulpit is Great Knots viewpoint, a hare-riddled moorland from where the landscape suddenly spills out onto a patchwork of fields and old stone walls. Having scrambled down a bank peppered with foxgloves and dipped down across a dismantled railway line and a skinny wooden bridge, here we joined the Dales Way footpath, following the river Lune towards the village of Thwaite.

As a couple of weary-looking hikers passed us in the other direction, we settled down opposite a sandbank to tuck into a classic Shacklabank picnic. Between gulps of freshly brewed tea (from polka-dot mugs) and sandwiches made with great chunks of Wensleydale cheese, we took turns with the binoculars spotting oystercatchers, sand martins, swallows and wagtails across on the bank.

Heading back towards Sedbergh, a little further on we stopped to rest beneath the Lune viaduct. Apparently every tributary in the Howgill fells runs into the Lune, which eventually runs into Morecambe Bay, but at this point it hardly looked like it was moving. A wide stretch of calm, tea-coloured water, this was a well-known spot for kingfishers, so we waited, like inverted trainspotters, looking out for feathers instead of wheels.

As occasional birdsong reverberated around the viaduct's arches, we watched as first a dipper settled on a nearby rock and then a great heron came in to land, balancing yogi-like on one leg. Then, suddenly, there was a flash of blue skimming low over the water. "Yes!" we both shouted, wishing just as quickly that we hadn't made all that noise.

"The best bit is we can now have cake," said Alison, reaching for an array of ginger shortbread, flapjacks and fruit cake. "Kingfishers and cake, what could be better?"

Which sounded like the perfect motto for embroidering on a pair of knickers.

Shacklabank Farm is just outside Sedbergh, in Cumbria. The five-day Born To Be Wild walking breaks will run from 21 to 25 July and from 29 September to 3 October 2008. Each is limited to six people and costs £525, inclusive of all accommodation and food (01539 620134; www.shacklabank.co.uk).