Driving into the Lake District, it isn’t the fells or the trees or the streams that drag your eye upward, towards all that sky. It’s the walls: those twisting grey lines of slate and rock that stand out against the green, rambling across the landscape in an ancient account of ownership and possession unreadable to a visitor.
These drystone walls can be seen in every idealised image of this place’s unspoilt natural beauty that has ever been used on a National Trust poster or conjured by a Wordsworth poem. And yet they are not part of nature – for decades, centuries, people have stacked stones here in this way. Look long enough, and you begin to see the labour and the skill that put them there. But you won’t see the person who lifted the stones into place on any postcards. As far as our romanticised vision of this place is concerned, they don’t exist.
For more than 250 years now, the Lake District has been “a landscape of the imagination”, as James Rebanks puts it in his book The Shepherd’s Life. His family have farmed in this area for six centuries. He had no idea how far divorced the wider perception of their home was from the reality of the land he worked on until a teacher at his school started holding forth about Wordsworth, Wainwright and the rest. “The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers,” he writes. “People who, unlike our parents, or us, had ‘really done something’.”
At his local school in the 1980s, wanting to work on the land was not a recognised aspiration. Those who followed their parents as shepherds and farmers just hadn’t tried hard enough. Success only came to people who used the education on offer as a “way out”, a one-way ticket to a new place and a better kind of life. It’s no surprise that Rebanks left school at the earliest possible opportunity and started work with his father and grandfather on the farm.
In his mid-twenties, his relationship with his father strained, he went to college to get his A levels, and then to Oxford for a history degree and a masters. His academic career began partly as a joke (“I thought ‘that would be funny, if I went down there and beat them’”), partly because he wanted to compete with his clever younger sisters, and partly because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of fellow northern historian A J P Taylor.
The drystone walls are a ubiquitous feature of the Lake District landscape. Photo: Pete Birkenshaw on Flicker, via Creative Commons
After his years on the farm, Rebanks had little patience with his fellow Oxford students. “I didn’t like them, really, but that was perfect, because I was chippy and wanted to take people on,” he tells me. “And I got there and found people who I found utterly obnoxious…” He excelled academically, but only stayed as long as necessary to get the credentials to start making money to pour back into the farm. “I literally would have done anything. If they’d said I could be one of those horrible bankers that makes half a million a year by doing god knows what I might even have done it at that point,” he says.
For him, going to Oxford has served its purpose, leading him to a second job consulting on the impact of tourism around the world for Unesco that supplements the income from the farm. He travels all over the world for this work – recent trips have taken him to places as far apart as the Isle of Lewis and the Drakensberg region of South Africa – but his focus is always on returning home to his sheep. The shock it gives the people he encounters elsewhere who think they’ve got him pegged from the muddy wellies and Cumbrian accent is just an added bonus of his education. He laughs. “[An Oxford degree] does exactly what it says on the bottle. You just mention it to a certain kind of middle class person, and they completely put you into another box. I shamelessly do that. Or have, in the past.”
The day I visit, the felltops shift in and out of view as grey clouds drift across the sky. In the valley where Rebanks’ farm is, the brighter green of the first new grass of the year is just flecking the fields. I perch on the back of his quad bike, Tan the sheepdog grudgingly making room for me, as Rebanks goes about the day’s shepherding. Hay is distributed to the most heavily pregnant ewes (those with twins were carefully sorted from the rest months ago with the help of an ovine ultrasound scanner) and hooves are trimmed. Apart from the odd wave from a passing neighbour down on the road, we are alone in the valley.
It isn’t necessarily lonely work, though. Rebanks shares his working day on Twitter, amassing more than 40,000 followers since 2012. Recently, he caused a minor internet sensation by livetweeting the birth of his sheepdog Floss’s ten puppies. Sheep Twitter is a small but active community on the social network, it turns out. Amanda Owen, author of her own more family-focused shepherding memoir, is also a popular tweeter, and if her all-weather pictures of sheep and kids up on the Yorkshire Dales have whetted your appetite, there’s plenty more out there to fill your timeline with.
No snow, just bright & breezy. pic.twitter.com/0OjNfx4dZb
— YorkshireShepherdess (@AmandaOwen8) March 27, 2015
The extent to which technology helps or hinders this traditional kind of farming is a live issue. While the quad bike is undoubtedly a vital modern innovation for the shepherd, by and large Rebanks estimates that about 80 per cent of the work he does happens in the same way it would have done a century ago. “It’s funny to think that my grandfather in the 1950s was at the peak of it, technology-wise,” he tells me as he throws lumps of last summer’s hay down from a plastic-wrapped stack into the bike’s trailer. This move back towards the old methods is a conscious choice that subsequent generations of the Rebanks family have made. It’s hard to make a living on this kind of farm – investing in fancy labour-saving technology is all very well, but if you then have a bad year it can easily mean the difference between survival and ruin. Bartering with neighbours (use of the hay-baler comes in exchange for tending to some extra sheep) and focusing on what makes this kind of farming standout from the commercial outfits in the lowlands is much safer.
Our conversation ranges widely as we go from field to field, with me hopping on and off to open gates where necessary. We talk about the death of Rebanks’ father several weeks before from cancer; about the idea of “rewilding” the countryside; about the peculiar sense of ownership everyone who comes to the Lake District feels towards it; about whether any of his three children are likely to follow in his shepherding footsteps. Isaac, the youngest, is already showing a keen interest in sheep – when he returns from nursery we watch some of his favourite DVD, Mist: The Tale of a Sheepdog Puppy – but his father says he will be happy as long as all three of them grow up “smart and interested in the world”.
As we zoom into a high paddock, discussing the Fixed Term Parliament Act in raised voices so as to hear each other above the roar of the quad bike’s engine, something far more important comes bouncing out from behind the flock of ewes: the year’s first lambs, twins born in the night a full three weeks ahead of schedule. In his book, Rebanks sought to document the rhythm and traditions of the shepherding year. But sheep, it seems, like to surprise even the most experienced of shepherds.
Minutes later, I am crouched on the remains of a hay bale in the bike’s trailer, a lamb under each arm, while Rebanks wrestles their recalcitrant mother in beside me. I lean against her woolly bulk as we jolt back to the farm to provide post-natal care, lambs mewling into my jacket. These early arrivals are not pure Herdwicks, the breed native to the Lake District that Rebanks’ family specialises in. As we go, Rebanks yells back to me that this is the work of a “stray tup” (ram) that must have broken into his field last year.
After the winter in these fields near the farmhouse, or on rented pasture at lowland farms a few miles away, Rebanks’ sheep will join those of his neighbours and be driven up onto the fells to feed unsupervised for the summer – a practice the shepherds here have been using for thousands of years. Gazing around the valley, I ask him on which of the surrounding mountain slopes he has grazing rights. He points to a distant slope, still partly covered by great curve of snow.
This kind of farming might be traditional, but it isn’t particularly profitable. “The lambs we sell are a quarter of their real price when I was born,” explains Rebanks. “And the wool? You’re lucky if you get back 40 per cent of the cost of clipping back when you sell the fleece.” Most of the farm’s income comes from selling breeding stock to lowland farms, which prize the pure pedigree and the hardiness of these hill-bred sheep.
Fact of the day Herdwick sheep are classified as ‘at risk’. 95% of them in the world live within 20 miles of Coniston pic.twitter.com/QQBgg8BlDM
— Herdwick Shepherd (@herdyshepherd1) March 28, 2015
Over the years, Rebanks and his father – with whom he ended up best friends and partners after their earlier falling-out – have been gradually improving the quality of their sheep and making a name for their flock among Herdwick shepherds at the shows and sales for the breed. At first, when he points out his prize specimens to me, I can’t really see anything special about them. But gradually, I start to get my eye in. As well as thicker legs and broader, flatter faces, the stars of his flock have a certain air about them, a swagger the others lack. When Rebanks indicates what he hopes will be a future champion, currently preening himself in the middle of the flock, I can see what he means. This sheep knows how good he is. It shows.
The parts of The Shepherd’s Life that deal with the intricacies of sheep-breeding and the Lake District’s ancient hill farming tradition are the stand-out sections of the book. In lucid, straightforward prose, Rebanks explains the unique political and economic context that allowed this communal farming to persist in this area as enclosure destroyed it almost everywhere else in Britain. As a result, there are no walls up on the fells. The sheep are “hefted” – that is, the knowledge of which bit of mountain is theirs to graze on is passed down from ewe to lamb and they do not stray. As such, the right to graze on certain “stints” must be sold and passed with the flock.
The customary image of the shepherd is a lonely one, but this kind of fell farming is a communal activity. In one of the most evocative passages of the book, Rebanks describes the way he and his neighbours gather the sheep back from the fell in the heat of summer. A dozen men and women and their dogs fan out across the landscape, communicating via whistles and waves, driving the sheep before them back down into the valley. For Rebanks, this kind of work reminds him of his place in the long line of shepherds who have tend their flocks this way. There’s an anonymity that comes from such continuity, he finds, and there’s a comfort in that. As he writes: “Landscapes like ours were created by, and survive through, the efforts of nobodies.” Elsewhere in the book, he concludes: “My life has a purpose, an earthy, sensible meaning.”
Yet it’s a precarious existence. So why do it? “Because it’s beautiful and interesting,” Rebanks tells me. He gestures out of the window of the farmhouse to the fell. “I think it’s a dignified and decent way to live.”
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks is published by Allen Lane on 2 April