The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

‘The real history of our landscape should be the history of the nobodies.’

In this book, James Rebanks sets out his tale of the Lake District in the UK according to the seasons. This is the way of life for generations of shepherds in this area: the sheep graze the fells in summer while hay is made; stock is bought and sold in autumn to replenish the flock; the challenge of keeping stock alive during winter and then spring, when the lambs are born, and the flock is prepared to return to the fells. There is a rhythm to this work: knowledge is passed between generations and refined by experience. A good working dog (or two) is invaluable, as is the right breeding stock. I have never been to the Lake District, but here in Australia I have observed a similar pattern in both the Midlands of Tasmania and the Monaro region of New South Wales.

Mr Rebanks describes the daily and seasonal chores of sheep farming around three generations (now including a fourth generation) of his family. He grew up observing his father and grandfather learning the work patterns required which are copied and adapted, as necessary. Shepherding is important: a family and a community exercise.

Mr Rebanks’s experience at school was not positive. There was little he could relate to:

‘This crappy, mean, broken-down school took five years of my life. I’d be mad, but for the fact it taught me more about who I was than anything else I have ever done. It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them.’

I know many who would agree with him. Increasingly, modern life in developed countries is lived within artificial constructs of time and season disconnected from the natural world. We ignore (sometimes at our peril) the weather and other seasonal markers famers live by.

There are signs of change. Small farms are less viable, people are moving into the country once farmed or grazed. My own grandparents would recognise the world and work described, but the future is less certain for many. Most of those I know who farm have to work off the farm for income, or have ingeniously developed farm stay or other income-generating opportunities.

‘Two worlds that didn’t understand each other were colliding.’

Well worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith