Published by Allen Lane, 2020
James Rebanks came to public prominence with the publication of his first book, The Shepherd’s Life in 2015. That book was very much a defense of farming as practiced in Cumbria, painting a picture of the modern Cumbrian sheep farmer as standing in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Rebanks was instrumental in the Lake District National Park obtaining World Heritage Site status in 2017, this designation recognises the system of small upland farms practising communal grazing with Herdwick sheep as being the most defining feature of the Lake District. According to one friend of mine involved in conservation in the north of England, this World Heritage Site designation has made it more difficult to do projects in the National Park, where overgrazing by sheep is one of the main causes of the loss of biodiversity.
This book therefore came as a welcome surprise and I would recommend it to anyone interested in farming and the countryside, even if you know little about Cumbria. Unlike The Shepherd’s Life it recognises that modern farming is a break from traditions of the past and has had a destructive impact on the landscape and the wild creatures that inhabit it, as well as on farming communities. Like The Shepherd’s Life it is a beautifully written personal memoir, full of vignettes that make the points he is trying to get across. It does not have the paraphernalia of an academic text; of notes, references and an index (which I would have liked at various points to find the sources of his information), but you will learn a lot about the huge changes that have taken place in farming over the last forty years, their impacts, and what at least some farmers (including Rebanks) are now doing to try to put things right.
The book is split into three sections: Nostalgia, focussed on how his grandfather farmed when James Rebanks was a teenager starting to lean about farming; Progress, the attempts James Rebanks and his father made to try to ‘keep up’ with the farms around them who were modernising; and Utopia, about how he is trying to farm now and pass on his farming skills and knowledge to his children.
Rebanks says that his grandfather ‘existed in nature as an actor on the stage always trying to hold his ground’ (p.36). His grandfather knew his land, not least because he started farming in the ‘30s and ‘40s when farmers worked the land on foot behind a horse. Even on a tractor, he was attentive to the land he was on. Rebanks tells of how his grandfather once spotted a Curlew’s nest while working a field, so stopped the tractor, got down and retrieved the eggs which he later replaced (p. 29). He took time to watch his animals carefully and knew them as individuals. Holding his ground with nature meant that wild animals that ate his crops, such as crows and rabbits, had to be killed, thistles that ruin pastures scythed and gorse controlled by burning: producing food, including plant food, always involves killing things. Rebanks said that farmers of his grandfather’s generation saw freedom in ‘living quietly’, in eschewing foreign holidays, fancy meals out and shop-bought things. Rather they valued self-sufficiency: Rebank’s grandmother grew fruit and vegetables, made jam from the blackberries they collected from the hedgerows and cooked all their food. They slaughtered and butchered their own sheep and cattle. When James Rebank’s parents sold their dairy herd to buy some land they kept a few cows to provide milk for themselves because Rebank’s father considered shop-bought milk to be ‘a pitiful thing’ (p.48).
In the Nostalgia section there are indications that this way of life was becoming unviable. As their last employed worker left the farm and his grandfather aged, James’s mother, as well as his teenage self, had to plug the gap. After working outside all day his mother was under pressure to have a meal on the table within half an hour of coming in, fulfilling the role taken by her mother in law who had not had to do farm work as well. Bigger farms near them in the Eden Valley were getting big new tractors, barns and cattle sheds. The contractor who came to combine their barley told them they should have sprayed it with herbicide so it was ‘clean’ – without the poppies and thistles that grew in it. And the village they lived in was changing, becoming more middle class and tidy, so that people complained about their cows depositing their cow pats on the road or churning up bits of the village green.
The Progress section starts with a 20-year old James Rebanks in Australia, getting away from his Dad and their small farm, driving a tractor at night down thirty miles of dirt track to bale a field of lucerne. Australian farmers seemed full of enthusiasm and hope that they could out-compete the rest of the world. Rebanks thought they were right and when he went home tried to get his Dad to adopt some of the modern ways. He went out and bought some herbicide to kill the thistles that previously had required backbreaking work to scythe – and mixed it so it was twice as strong as the instructions said “because we all knew that the ‘boffins’ always played on the safe side” (p.112). They spayed their barley fields to get rid of the weeds and switched to more ‘productive’ (but less resilient) breeds of cattle and sheep. The prices they could get for their animals were falling in real terms, with sheep half or less than they had been a few decades ago which meant that to maintain their income they had more animals. Nonetheless it was a constant battle against rising debt in which they were forced to cut costs and work ever harder.
Rebanks paints a graphic picture of the impacts of this new way of farming on the landscape: big sheds replaced old farm buildings; tidy fields were devoid of wildlife; field boundaries were lost; pastureland became a monoculture of ryegrass doused with artificial fertilisers. He outlines the impact of some of the changes in agricultural practices, such as the switch from spring to autumn sown crops, from hay to silage making and the simplification of farming systems so they lost their diversity of crops and animals. Not only was the modern farming bad for wildlife, but for farming communities too. Varied jobs on farms, where workers worked alongside farm owners on a more or less equal footing, were lost, as were many farms. The big farms had dozens of workers but a high staff turnover, as the work was deskilled, boring and dirty. They tended to employ immigrant workers who came and went without anyone getting to know them. And there was a new gulf between the ‘farmer’ – who had become an office-based business manager – and those who were employed.
Rebanks tells several stories to illustrate the growing unease felt by his father and others about this new way of farming: his admiration mixed with horror at the sight of the bulk and colour of the grass in the field of a lowland farm, because of the amount of artificial fertiliser they must have given it; the loss of one of their cows in the slurry pit of a neighbouring big dairy farm; the sight of a plough with no gulls following it, because there were no worms in the soil for them to eat. Then there was the death of a farmer they knew who had not changed his ways, but still practised a mixed farming system, growing his own feed crops and making hay rather than silage. The soil of the land he had farmed was tested by the farmer about to take it over and the analyst he sent it to said it was the best he had seen, rich and fertile, needing no additional nutrients. This shook Rebank’s father and others (it got discussed in the pub), who thought it said something about what the new farming was doing to the land.
This unease with the new way of farming is how the final section of the book starts: old farmers at a family gathering are discussing how farming has gone badly wrong. One of them says that the Eden valley is now a green desert, devoid of the birds, hedgehogs and butterflies that used to be there and the others look rather uneasy because he “sounds a bit like the environmentalists we once all hated” (p.195). Rebanks puts much of why he has changed to a more nature friendly form of farming down to a woman called Lucy from the Rivers Trust who came to see them about doing work to their watercourses to ‘slow the flow’, soon after a severe flood in Carlisle. Rebanks had at the time been living in a terraced house in Carlisle and the water had came within meters of their front door. Rebanks and his father clearly learned a lot from Lucy about their watercourses, how they were really man made drainage channels and what they could do to slow the flow of water from their land. She came with funding for fencing so they agreed to fence off areas around some of their becks. Rebanks says that this was the first time they had ‘unimproved’ land, becoming guardians of some half-wild spaces and managing land for something other than farming. Fencing out livestock resulted in areas of rough grass and an explosion of voles then, after just a few weeks barn owls were seen on their farm for the first time in years, hunting the voles. Rebanks says “Everyone in our family felt proud about the owls, as if we had been paid back straight away” (p.217). Since then Rebanks has planted trees, introduced Belted Galloway Cattle and ‘rewilded’ a stream, giving it a more natural, meandering channel. He has reduced the medication, against worms and fluke, given to his livestock, and is thinking in different ways about grazing regimes.
Rebanks still defends his farming community and talks proudly about his children learning about rearing and showing sheep. But the community he recognises as being involved in his farm is wider than in the past: in the 1980s and 1990s when, he says, the layers were being stripped away, the farm was often a lonely and quiet place. Now there are several ecologists involved in the farm who have taught him to notice things that he did not see or pay attention to before, he hosts visits from schools and works collaboratively with other local farmers – a contrast perhaps to the attitude of his grandfather who considered the boundaries of his farm to be the boundaries of his concern. He wants his children to see what he did not when he was young: the bigger picture of the ecosystem that their farm is part of and the interconnected world beyond.
Rebanks talks about a culture war that has grown increasingly polarised and toxic: on one side are those who see the cheap food that modern farming has made possible and think that farming should make use of all available technologies to become ever more productive and efficient; on the other are those who believe that farming is trashing the earth but who don’t understand the reality of what has to be done to produce food - which is that killing is always involved, whatever you eat. The recognition by farmers like Rebanks of the damage done by modern farming and their moves to farm in a more nature friendly way are moves towards the other side in this war. In response environmentalists and those in the green movement need to support these farmers, by buying their products and pushing for the changes to farm subsidies and the food system that are needed to give them secure livelihoods. But most importantly we need to learn more about agriculture, how our food is produced, and how those methods impact on the wider ecosystem. Reading this book would be a good start.