“The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

– While I’ve been working away from home this season, on outdoor jobs, I’ve usually had a book on the go. For tent-based reading matter I tend to choose titles that span the territory between education and enjoyment and given that I spend a good deal of my work and leisure time in the Lake District, this seemed a promising read. I was hopeful it’d inform my work, enabling me to give deeper responses to the questions that young people often ask me about, “What’re all these sheep doing here?”
This memoir recounts the life, to date, of James Rebanks whose family have farmed the Lake District fells and its environs for generations. It recounts a robust childhood, accompanying his grandfather on the farm, but also a good deal of bitterness at a secondary education that failed to recognise the richness of his ambitions to continue the “family business” in farming. As the book progresses Rebanks recounts some youthful grappling with identity, a determination to prove himself, both as “a bright lad” and within the community of hill farmers where commitment to hard work and honouring traditional values and practices is held high. Finally Rebanks describes how adaptability, underpinned by these values, has sustained his livelihood and identity, in what might seem “the hardest job in the world”, through the season’s changes.
The book is full of humility and mature reflection and gives valuable insight into the commitments that sustain the landscape and culture that many Lake District visitors enjoy. In particular it led me to re-evaluate the practice of re-wilding that ultimately means “de-stocking” the hills of the Herdwick sheep that are so emblematic of the landscape and the generational culture that has put them there. I’m now not so sure where the balance of cost and benefit lies.
In short, I think this is a great book for anyone with affection for and interest in the Lake District. It sheds an unromantic, though far from soulless, light on the practices that sustain it and it’ll help me to answer those questions with considerably more knowledge, objectivity and understanding. Although a regular visitor to the Lakes I realise I’ve far to go before I’m as hefted to the landscape as Rebank’s and his colleagues’ flocks.
You can buy this lovely book, here.
The Shepherd's Life