Postal Reading group
January 2022
Notes on the book The Shepherd’s life by James Rebanks

This book came as something of a surprise, and, by all accounts, would appear to have been an unexpectedly popular read. The Shepherd’s life by James Rebanks is a largely autobiographical account of the life of a sheep farmer in the Lake District.

Of course, as non-fiction and autobiography, there is no plot as such, but James has nevertheless had an interesting and eventful life. Having been born into a traditional sheep-farming family, James spent many bored years at school before leaving at the earliest opportunity to join his father and grandfather on the family farm. Later, when he is frustrated at the lack of autonomy, he gains A-levels at evening classes and then studies for a degree at the University of Oxford, no less! While this was a brief interlude, and James happily returned to their farm some years later, it does show that he is no ordinary shepherd.

As I have visited the Lake District on a number of occasions, both as a destination for hill-walking and for photographic trips, I was interested to read this. However, the book started badly as James’ dislike of tourists, those who purchase second homes in the area, and almost everyone except shepherds becomes clear. Although I have always tried to avoid the usual tourist activities like boat trips on Windermere, James doesn’t seem to be particularly positive about hill-walkers either, and I hate to think what his views on photographers might be.

Of course, there are problems with tourism, particularly for the most popular areas rural areas like the Lake District, but the counter argument is that it is important for the local economy. James must implicitly acknowledge this when he refers to other farmers who have diversified into providing bed and breakfast accommodation. Perhaps the visitors may get in the way of running a farm, but quite apart from the number of local jobs which they help to support, the very fact that they are choosing to visit a rural area, is helping to keep James’ shepherding way of life safe from industrialization.

Despite James’ apparent dislike of tourism, there was very little discussion of the obvious problems caused by the sheer number of visitors to the area: traffic congestion and footpath erosion to name but two. There must be an important debate to be had here over how best to manage tourism while preserving the traditional way of life. This must surely have been one of the aims of creating a national park in the area.

Another issue which similarly passed largely unmentioned was the question of land ownership and access rights. While the idea of common ownership, or at least open access can too easily by spoilt by a small minority of thoughtless people, the idea that the fells should be open areas which are accessible to all and therefore protected from development is a powerful one. Despite concerns over misuse, experience from other areas shows that where there is a freedom to roam, it works well and most users get along without difficulties. Where people feel some connection with the land, then they are motivated to take more care.

The more serious problem, where I do have some sympathy for James is that of second homes. Unlike tourism it is difficult to claim that this is beneficial to the economy where the net result is to drive up house prices, ensuring that local people are ‘locked out’ of the market, affecting not just farmers, but many others in low paid jobs too. The fact that it affects other areas of Britain means that it is a problem of London versus the rest of the country.

The image of sheep farming as a traditional Lakeland custom is a pervasive one, but it must be admitted that all forms of agriculture are relatively recent in the history of mankind. Farming sheep in the Lake District is as much of a monoculture as intensive arable farming is in the South East of England, and has similar drawbacks. Although it is possible to graze sheep on marginal land which couldn’t be used for anything else, many ancient forests have been felled to make way for the sheep. Similarly the idea of sheep farming being environmentally sustainable is shattered by James’ story of the toxic sheep dip. Arguably necessary to prevent “fly strike”, but hardly safe!

The other area where I do have some sympathy with James is that of his education. I can imagine that many local boys thought school irrelevant and boring when they could have been outside helping on the farm. Of course, there were many parts of the school curriculum which might have been of use or interest to a shepherd, biology or geography perhaps, even if that wasn’t immediately apparent. The real problem is trying to make the subjects more interesting so that students are persuaded to keep attending long enough to learn something relevant.

In conclusion, this would have been an interesting account of a shepherd’s life in the Lake District, but was spoilt by some of the narrator’s preoccupations. Although tourism is not without its problems, it does have some benefits for the local economy and has arguably helped to prevent industrialisation. It is also here to stay. On other occasions I can sympathise with some of James’ views of the education system, and there would have been some interesting discussions around that, just not the debate which James was hoping to start! So, by all means read this book for interest, but don’t let James put you off from visiting the Lake District, or from walking on the fells. If you do visit, then please do so as responsibly as possible, and don’t get angry if you are held up behind a flock of sheep!

Comments by Nicholas Cutler