English Pastoral : An Inheritance

English Pastoral : An Inheritance, by James Rebanks

James Rebanks is a shepherd and hill farmer who lives and works in Cumbria. English Pastoral is his second book and in it he tells his story of his family’s two farms, how they changed over three generations and how he became a passionate guardian of his land.

At the start of the book we learn a lot about young James and his friendship with his grandfather who owned and ran an upland farm, and who taught James a lot of the more traditional ways of farming. At his grandfather’s side James learned to love the birds around the farm including lapwing and curlew and also the rhythm of the seasons and how the care of the livestock and the care of the land followed these rhythms as did the wildflowers, birds and other wildlife. James lived with and also helped his mother and father who were tenant farmers in the Eden Valley, also an upland farm. He charts the difficulties and hardships of the lives that they lived.

The book moves onto the changes in farming over the last seventy years, the move away from the traditionally managed mixed farm of his childhood and the progress to modern industrial farming. He explains the struggles of farmers to keep up with the pace of change, the debts incurred in the costs of modern industrial agriculture, but the absolute belief in the new modern ways. He talks not only of own family’s farms but also those of friends and neighbours, about the move away from traditional breeds of sheep and cows to more modern ‘efficient’ breeds, the change in crops grown, away from turnips and barley, the use of pesticides to clear the pastures of thistles.

However there was a neighbour, Henry, who stuck with the old ways and he was laughed at by other farmers. Henry still spread muck from his cowsheds on his fields, not artificial fertilisers or slurry, he rotated his crops, kept with traditional breeds and crops. When he died and his land was carved up and sold off to others, the new owners sent off soil samples (as is the modern way) to the lab for nutritional analysis and, low and behold, Henry’s soil was the best the labs had ever seen! The most traditional farmer in the neighboured had the healthiest soil. This became a pivotal moment for James Rebanks.

James and his wife were living in Carlisle at the time of the devastating floods in 2005, and, although they were not affected by them themselves, they saw the damage and misery inflicted on so many. Not much later he and his father were visited by a young ecologist who worked for the Eden Valley Rivers Trust and were offered financial help to fence and hedge land, plant trees, put bends back into their streams, all of which would help prevent future flooding in Carlisle. They went ahead and worked with the ecologists and it was a revelation to James. He charts his progressive understanding of the ecology of his farm, marvels at the return of curlews, lapwings and an array of wildflowers. Following his father’s death he relinquishes the tenancy of the rented farm and concentrates on his late grandfather’s farm which was owned by the family, buying more land when he could. He plants thousands of trees, creates wetlands, stops using pesticides and allows some of his land to be for wildlife. He acknowledges that not all farmers could do this, but a lot could.

Finally the book explores the relationship between farmers and consumers, the lost link. The power of the big supermarkets and their influence on both what we eat, how farmers farm and the impact of that on biodiversity, soil health, climate change. It’s powerful stuff with plenty of food for thought. He writes well and the book is easy to read. There are plenty of statistics given to back up what he talks about but he also speaks from the heart with passion and personal experience of course and ultimately he does make you believe that change is possible. Although it is just one man’s story it provides a valuable insight into the changes that have been made to our landscape, our wildlife, our food and out attitudes to our food over the last seventy years and for many people who have lost their connection with the land and farming it will shed some light.

English Pastoral won the 2021 Wainwright prize for Nature Writing UK.

Helen Herring

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