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28 October 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 12:55pm

James Rebanks’ Diary: The future of English farming, Tosh the sheepdog puppy, and lockdown parenting

Our postwar society was built on bullying 1 per cent of the population into producing the cheapest food in history.

By James Rebanks

The leaves on the beech trees shine like burnished gold when the sun emerges from between big grey clouds and catches them. The bracken on the distant fells is dead and brown, and most of the tourists have gone home. Here in the Lake District, there is a slightly ominous dampness. Thick jumpers and socks are worn again, and the back door is a tangled mass of wellies, waterproofs and jackets. We have just come in from the barn, from clipping the tails of the ewes, getting them ready to mate – a shaved tail makes the tup’s (ram’s) work easier. Next weekend we will be sorting the ewes to match them to the tups, including the new tups we have been buying over the past month. Ours is a small family farm, without staff, so the big jobs get done at the weekends when the kids can help.

Books and bullying

I’ve spent the past four years writing a book about farming. It is called English Pastoral and, like my first book, I’m pleased to say, has become a bestseller. I guess people read my books because of concern about what has happened on the land; there is a desperate hunger to understand how it happened and how it might be otherwise.

We built a postwar society on the idea that we should outsource food production to about 1 per cent of the population. We gave that 1 per cent every mechanical and chemical tool available and bullied them into producing the cheapest food in history, by handing all our food-purchasing power to a few giant supermarkets that know exactly how to drive down prices without breaking our flimsy regulatory rules.

Now there aren’t any more corners to cut. Cheapening food beyond a certain point gets ugly, mean and world-destroying. Milk is now cheaper to buy than bottled water – imagine what you have to do to produce milk for that price (it’s not cute).

If our government gets its way, we are about to unleash terrible economic pressures to lower our standards further, by competing with US agriculture. Everyone who knows a damn thing about it knows we need a system better than either the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy or the American system, which is even worse. We can do better, as I explain in my book, but it will take a kind of rebellion to make that happen – one that needs you as much as me.

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Release the hound

We have a four-month-old sheepdog called Tosh. Tosh is the result of a liaison between a Border Collie and a Kelpie (the brown dingo-like dogs often used in Australia). He has gigantic ears. We brought him into the farmhouse because the last pups we trained lost their confidence by spending too much time with our oldest bitch, Floss. Even though she is slowing down, she expects all other dogs to let her lead because she is the alpha female. The result is something slow and ineffective, like Theresa May’s cabinet.

We are trying to persuade Tosh that he is the smartest alpha male there has ever been. I’m not sure we thought this through properly, because when we took Tosh to the sheep for the first time this week, all hell broke loose. There was a cacophony of yapping, barking, yowling and the strangest dog shrieks I have ever heard. The sheep were very confused. Floss sat on the quad bike and gave me a look that broadly translated as: “What fresh hell have you unleashed on our pack with that ill-bred lunatic?” In the months to come we will see if this noisy creature can become a great sheepdog.

Perfect parenting

A while ago we were convinced we were the greatest parents ever to stride into a parents’ evening. Our eldest, at 14, was acing school tests and talking about going to university to become a vet. Our second eldest, at 12, was winning poetry competitions. Our third, at eight, was into Greek and Norse myths, and could hold a conversation with anyone about Victorian plumbing systems because he loved watching Horrible Histories. Our youngest, at two, was into plastic dinosaurs and was almost definitely destined to be a great palaeontologist.

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Then lockdown happened. Within 15 minutes we discovered we were terrible at teaching our own kids in a structured or useful manner. After an hour, our eldest had turned into a kind of 1970s union strike agitator and more or less refused ever to study again. Apparently, she was learning more from binge-watching Prison Break and Money Heist than from our citizenship or business studies lessons, and riding her old pony to the next county each day was more “genuinely educational” than our classes. She declared that she was finished with education and was going to be an entrepreneur, so she got a job at the local pub as a first step towards owning it. Two months later, she decided to be a jockey, signed up to work at a local racehorse yard, and declared she is never going to university.

Our second eldest decided school isn’t for her, either, and has carried out a management coup of our farm. Now she more or less runs it, and treats me as an employee. She sold 20 sheep last week to some Scottish folk while I was at the market. We are apparently getting more pigs, chickens and some dairy goats (whatever they are). The mutiny has spread downwards, as the boys don’t appear to believe in houses at all now – when it isn’t raining, they live mostly outside with stolen biscuits and the iPad.

Feeding cows in the rain

We started feeding hay to the out-wintering cattle today. There was a downpour and the bull bawled at me, so I took pity on them. He rasped a handful of hay from the trailer and with his gob full he seemed to smile at me for being so obedient. They are all hardy Belted Galloways (black curly coated cattle with a band of white around their middles). Giant skeins of geese filled the grey heavens above us with child-like chattering. I left the cows and retreated to the farmhouse for a coffee by the fire. Winter is coming. 

James Rebanks is a farmer based in the Lake District. His latest book, “English Pastoral: An Inheritance” (Penguin), is out now. He will be in conversation with Rory Stewart at Cambridge Literary Festival’s Winter Festival Online on 21 November. Tickets are available here.

This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning