A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

I’ve been savouring A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks over the last couple of weeks. It’s a seductive book, disarmingly straight-talking, really informative and nicely evocative; it is structured around the author’s working year as a Lake District sheep farmer, the seasons giving shape to an approach that is fragmentary and episodic. It feels like it was written on the hoof, when work allowed, a paragraph here, a few pages there, the whole skilfully pieced together, artful but retaining a feeling of spontaneity. Rebanks’ farmers are highly skilled workers, possessing a deep knowledge of their business, their place and the tools of their trade.

Much of A Shepherd’s Life is about how shepherds look at sheep, the judgements they make, the pride they take in their ewes and their tups, and the eye they always keep on their neighbours, who are both friends and rivals. Shepherding is about breeding good quality sheep and Rebanks leaves one in little doubt about the accumulated value that resides in a long established flock. Shepherds are connoisseurs of sheep, their eye no less sharp for their purposes than the art critic’s is for hers.

The book is also about family, work, dogs – Floss is well-known to Twitter – and, of course, the land. These are the things Rebanks loves. It left me envying a life I know I’ll never have, a life I’m not sure I’d even be up to.

But The Shepherd’s Life is also a manifesto, an intervention, a work of advocacy; it is a defence of a threatened way of life. Towards the end Rebanks mounts a classic defence of the common against the old threat from enclosure: ‘This is an ancient, hard-earned, local kind of freedom that was stolen from people elsewhere, the kind of freedom that the nineteenth-century “peasant poet” John Clare wrote about.’ (p. 284) The right to that freedom, he says, which is predicated on a ‘community-based relationship with the land’, comes from working the land: ‘by paying my dues, I am entitled to a share of its commonwealth.’ (p. 285)

That may be so, although common land is only a part of the story, for as Rebanks makes clear shepherds like him do not simply roam the common, but cycle their sheep between privately-held land – owned or leased – and the common. And what my work on Dartmoor taught me, is that common rights are attached to private holdings; in other words, common rights are a form of property that belong to those who have existing rights of private property. To put it bluntly, not everyone can stick sheep on a common. Nor do sheep wander at will. They have to be hefted, that is, trained to stick to particular parts of the common.

On Dartmoor, this is called ‘lairing’. Look closely at a map of Dartmoor and you will see that the expanse of open land that forms its heart is in fact divided into numerous small commons (part four of Q&F explains all this). I’m not suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong in this, not least because the general public has established rights of access to these commons, but we need to be careful not to romanticise the common, losing sight of the fact that those freedoms are a form of property, exclusive to a small number of landholders. That said, such rights are challenged by the ministrations of Natural England, who exercise great power over how they are exercised. It is striking that Rebanks does not comment at all on this; nor does he comment on the subsidies that keep hill farming going, subsidies that in recent decades have come to be based less on stock-raising and more on agri-environmental management schemes. The effectiveness of his polemic relies on a simplified picture of the sturdy, community-orientated but independent shepherd. Yes, he shows that diversification has been needed to make ends meet – running a B&B is a more typical way of doing this than writing a book – but he has little to say about how for decades making ends meet has also meant much form-filling.

There are no simple conclusions or morals to be drawn from this. Agricultural subsidies stem from the ‘cheap food’ policies that originated in the 1930s, were extended during the war and consolidated by successive postwar governments. They subsidised the consumer as much as they subsidised the farmer, which means they are a form of redistribution, albeit one that is not progressive – all consumers benefit – and have at times been open to abuse. They also, of course, benefit the supermarkets, who can buy produce very cheaply from farmers kept going by the system. It’s complicated, and it complicates the Rebanks picture.

Rebanks also comments on the decline of traditional farming and the skills that made places like Britain’s uplands ‘habitable in the first place’. Britain’s rural landscapes are anthropic – it’s one of the main lines of argument in Q&F – and whatever it is we like about them in the present is almost certainly the result of agriculture. Landscapes like Britain’s are made or produced, a hybrid of the human and the natural. ‘No one who works in this landscape’, Rebanks pointedly observes, ‘romanticizes wilderness,’ and you’ll understand why once you’ve read the section on winter. (p. 212) The shot across the bows of the re-wilding movement is unmistakable. But the question that has bothered preservationists and conservationists, and now the re-wilders, won’t go away: in a densely-populated country, is it down to the small number of people who work the landscape to determine how it should be? Or, to re-phrase the question, is it down to people who can exercise rights of property over the land to determine how it should be?

Two centuries ago, Wordsworth described the Lake District, on account of its great natural beauty, as a ‘kind of national property’ that needed to be protected. By the late nineteenth century much the same was being said of Dartmoor and other places. It is now largely accepted that the state has a right to restrict what can and can’t be done to the land and the broader natural environment, feeble though those restrictions and protections often are. What is contiuously and enduringly up for debate is on what basis those restrictions should be made. Rebanks makes the case for ‘tradition’, though tradition, as Raymond Williams might have said, is one of the most complicated words in the English language. It is perhaps also the most meretricious. How do we define what is traditional?

On Dartmoor, ‘traditional’ grazing regimes – and the exercise of common rights – were turned upside down in the late nineteenth century when commoners with easiest access to the moor introduced new breeds and year-around grazing. Is this now tradition? Are the drugs that keep lambs healthy tradition? We should banish tradition as a defence of anything, instead seeking to see the merits of the individual case. Rebanks is right to emphasise the knowledge and wisdom of the shepherds. They do know the land better than almost everyone, but they know it as grazing. They have figured out what works, but it is what works best if rearing sheep is your aim. Environmentalists, particularly those exercising state power, do need to learn to listen to the men and women who work the land, but this has to be a two-way conversation. There is no single way of looking at the land and the gaze that predominates at any particular time is highly political. And make no mistake, A Shepherd’s Life is a highly political book. It is beguiling. It did make me envious of  a life lived with such a clear purpose and in such an extraordinary place. But for all its matter-of-fact realism, it is an argument, the case for defence, and its appeal is to the emotions. It’s a powerful example of what words can do.

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