Sunday book review – English Pastoral by James Rebanks

James Rebanks’s earlier book, The Shepherd’s Life (reviewed here), was a great read despite being very irritating in many places. I made it this blog’s book of the year in 2015 and, rather more importantly for the author and publisher, it was a best-seller.

This book is less irritating but is still a great read.

The book is in three parts with the first (Nostalgia) being mainly about the author’s childhood growing up on a Cumbrian farm spending much time with his grandfather, who farmed, if you like, the old-fashioned way. Part two (Progress) is more about his father’s tenure of the land and the changes to the farming set-up that, slowly and unenthusiastically, were introduced in the name of efficiency and modern farming. And the last part (Utopia) is about the author’s own actions and plans for the farm which involve putting more nature back in place.

Of these three parts, by far the most interesting is the middle one which is a fine account of the economic and social pressures which led to widespread changes in farming practice, in order to remain profitable. It is a touching insight into what must have been going on in many farmers’ heads through looking at the reluctance of the author’s father to follow the herd because a nagging voice in his head told him it wasn’t right, although the economics won in the end. Overlain on that are the author’s changing views on what modern farming should look like informed by what he saw locally but also in sheep and cattle ranches in Australia and the flat croplands of Iowa.

This account of how farming clobbered the natural environment (never quite put like that by the author) is a microcosm of what happened on many UK farms, and which started earlier and was more rapid and extreme in the lowlands but reached almost everywhere eventually. Indeed there is a feeling that this thing called progress was running wild in the towns and in farming down in the flat lowlands and was gradually moving up the valleys and eventually couldn’t be ignored by the Rebanks and their neighbours. The Rebanks, it seems, were late and somewhat reluctant adopters of progress because of inherent conservatism fuelled by that persistent, nagging doubt about whether this was a change for the better.

Basically, in this book, Rebanks comes out (in the last section, where Utopia must be a somewhat ironic title?) as a farmer who gets what nature conservationists have said about farming for years. He accepts that modern farming has damaged soils, reduced wildlife and increased flood risk whilst not being great for animal welfare and yet producing cheap food for us all.

The snag with the last part of the book is that whilst it seems clear that what is happening on the author’s land is good for wildlife, and generally an environmental improvement, we don’t get told that this is the way forward, economically and in terms of food production, probably because it isn’t! That’s a mild criticism but it’s unsurprising. I don’t think anyone has ‘the answer’ and the author doesn’t claim that he does, but I guess he would say, and I’d agree, that what he is doing is part of the answer but more of a part of the answer in improving the ecology of farmland than in feeding the world.

This book is a little bit like Knepp-lite, it’s not the full rewilding but it’s a more pragmatic middle ground that might attract many farmers. But like the Knepp story it isn’t a model for UK agriculture as a whole. If everywhere were like Knepp or the Rebanks’ place then food would be scarcer and more expensive. But we need an agriculture system that leaves a space for lots of wildlife in places, and more wildlife almost everywhere and books by farmers about putting wildlife back will help deliver that. I’d like to read an honest account by a farmer along the lines of ‘We absolutely knew that the changes we introduced were an ecological disaster, storing up environmental problems for the future, but the money was there to be made and so we made it, and we intend to carry on making it’ because not all farmers are unwilling victims and not all have seen the light.

There are scraps of observations of nature in these pages and the role of silage-making in the decline of the Curlew is well explained on pages 155-56. It would be difficult to be persuaded from the words on the page that Rebanks’s understanding of wildlife on his own farm is very high but that is often the way with farmers. And it makes his decision to take a more wildlife-friendly approach, guided by others, all the more admirable. But the descriptions of farmers and farming make the book. That’s what Rebanks really understands and really cares about, one feels. Whereas The Shepherd’s Life struck me as beautifully written propaganda for unsustainable sheep farming this book is much more complex, and so far less irritating.

Rebanks’s life of a successful author, public speaker and advisor to UNESCO on sustainable tourism doesn’t make him quite the typical farmer compared with his neighbours in the Lake District. He’s not exactly your typical shepherd!

I wonder what the neighbouring farmers make of this book and also what the wider farming community will think of it. There is something for everyone here – it’s a good story. But will the farmers who read it think that its author has just gone over to the townie environmentalists or will they see this tale as indicating a way forward for some of them to follow in other hills and dales?

I’ll certainly buy his next book too – Rebanks writes so well.

English Pastoral: an inheritance by James Rebanks is published by Allen Lane.


5 Replies to “Sunday book review – English Pastoral by James Rebanks”

  1. Isn’t he the guy I’m told recommended stealing from us all by lying to get the farm subsidy and then not doing what you had promised? Won’t be reading anything he’s written. (He will claim it was just a joke no doubt.)

    1. I rather think you ought to read the book for yourself. The author was sharing a story about his Grandfathers take on adapting to the early ESA schemes. Hardly a recommendation for stealing, what a silly thing to allege!

  2. I am enjoying the book a lot and agree it shows a way forward. I think its a little unfair to say he should outline a vision for the whole farming sector, he is outlining what solutions he has on his small bit of land. He never claims to be an expert at farming on lowlands, or on policy or economics. But now that he’s put this book out there, perhaps someone else will be inspired to write such a book.

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