Posted on Mon 03 August 2015

A Shepherd’s Life

I recently read the book ‘The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District’ by James Rebanks for my book group. I wrote this review to post on the Library Thing website but also to remember what I thought of the book at the time...

I read this book with a great deal of interest — we don’t often get the chance to read about farming from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Often our view is coloured by old media representations of greedy farmers harvesting subsidies rather than crops.

This book takes the reader through one year in the life of a fell farmer in England’s Lake District, structured around the four seasons. It struck me that this is the obvious outline for such a book and it does make sense and works very well.

I genuinely learned some new things from reading this book. It had never occurred to me that a flock of sheep might have a particular style and character that reflects the philosophy and personalities of generations of a fell farming family.

Overall though, I feel that this book has a number of faults. Rebanks is prone to repeating himself too often, for instance when discussing the cycle of the farming year or the capabilities of the younger generation growing stronger as those of their elders fade.

Within the book the author fails to say more than the absolute minimum about his ‘other’ work as a heritage consultant to UNESCO. Presumably this is actually quite an important role and people are willing to pay for his skills and this income keeps his farm viable. The fact that this is necessary and how he fits it into the farming year is barely discussed or explored.

At one point during the farming year he says he would rather his children “saw the blood and knew that it was real than had a childish relationship with food and farming — everything in plastic packaging and everyone pretending it had never lived.” I was disappointed that Rebanks didn’t expand on this topic. I’m sure there is a story to be told about how the small scale farmer cares for his livestock very differently from the industrialised farmer.

However I was mostly left with a rather uncomfortable feeling that James Rebanks has no time for non-farmers. 'Incomers', ramblers, office workers, students and teachers are all treated with equal contempt and I feel that this would extend to me as his reader.

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