English Pastoral – An Inheritance by James Rebanks

If you are interested in the future of our upland landscapes – then this is a really important book. It is the second book written by James Rebanks and follows on from his extremely successful and popular first work – The Shepherd’s Life (2015) which detailed the tradition and culture involved with being a Lake District sheep farmer. In all my talks and lectures on hill-farming on Dartmoor I use this Rebanks’ quote as it seems to capture the essence of how hill-farmers across the country view themselves.

Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape. Taking my sheep down those lanes is what people have done here since the land was first settled. That is what these lanes are for, to let the little farmsteads access the mountain grazing. I am walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and living a life they lived.

In his second book he describes his journey as he attempts to de-intensify his farming practices to bring wildlife back to his farm. The last 40 years or so has seen an era of conflict between hill-farmers and conservationists, the latter essentially blaming the former for unsustainable grazing regimes which have seen upland habitats and wildlife plummet in their abundance, quality and value. Hill-farmers, in their defence, argue that all they have done is follow government agricultural and environmental policy in an attempt to approach financial viability and produce food for the nation.

This is a timely book, farming and hill-farming in particular, are at a crossroads, we are about to leave the European Union, new trade deals have yet to be agreed, the Basic Payment Scheme which has subsidised farming in recent years is being phased out and a new and as yet unspecified Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is to be introduced to support farming in return for environmental improvements. It is a time of change and great jeopardy for hill-farming, but nevertheless there are opportunities and glimmers of hope for those who can read the runes.

The book is divided into three long but sub-divided chapters and it is beautifully written. The first chapter, Nostalgia, looks back to when Rebanks was a young boy and fell in love with hill-farming under the tutelage of his grandfather – a man deeply rooted in traditional hill-farming practices, at the point in time when new more intensive farming practices were becoming widestread, practices which Grandfather Rebanks rejected.

By the end of that year, though, I had fallen in love with that old farming world. My grandfather had achieved what he had set out to do: I was no longer a boy hiding from the farm; I was a true believer.

The second chapter, Progress, details his farming life as an adult, working for much of it with his father in an era when hill-farming was changing from the traditional to the modern. This period sees, for example, the introduction and widespread use of inorganic fertilisers, the switch from cutting hay to silage and the use of pesticides along with major changes to the farmland landscapes and their associated wild animals and plants. There are some interesting insights into how farming practices changed and how this impacted on the curlews that formerly bred in the small fields.

Throughout this chapter it is clear that both Rebanks and his father were unhappy about the impacts that their more intensive farming  practices were having on the land and its wildlife. There is a revelatory section where an old but traditional farmer Henry dies and his land is split up and sold to others, the soils in his fields are tested for nutrient levels and general soil health and it transpired his soils were amongst the healthiest in the district. His traditional methods of mixed farming and field rotations along with the use of animal manures had protected and enhanced his soils without the need for artificial fertilisers and lime.

My father found this news a revelation. It shook him, because it said something about what the new farming was doing to the land. The most traditional farmer in the district had the healthiest soil……. My father knew the truth lay in Henry’s soil.

Rebanks discusses how the quest for ever cheaper food has degraded the environment and made farmers price takers, whilst at the same time had distanced consumers from the process of food production and how land was being managed.

This was business-school thinking applied to the land, with issues of ethics and nature shunted off to the margins of consciousness. There was no room for sentiment, culture or tradition, no understanding of natural constraints or costs. The modern farming mindset didn’t recognise these external things as relevant. This was farming reduced to a financial and engineering challenge, rather than being understood as a biological activity.

And so, his quest begins to try and transform his farming practices to benefit nature whilst still producing high quality local food.

The science of what has happened is chilling, and the fact that the loss of nature is escalating is evening more terrifying. ….. As farmers we now have to reconcile the need to produce more food than any other generation in history with the necessity to do that sustainably and in ways that allow nature to survive alongside us. We need to bring the two clashing ideologies about farming together to make it as sustainable and biodiverse as it can be.

The third chapter, Utopia, sets out how Rebanks is attempting to reconcile these two clashing ideologies, by fencing off river and stream banks, ‘re-wiggling’ water courses, ceasing to use inorganic fertilisers, substantially reducing pesticide use, planting trees, re-instating hedges and by re-introducing Belted Galloway cattle to his landscapes. These are impressive changes and achievements and perhaps unsurprisingly are accompanied by a flourishing of wildlife and soil health on his farm.

Rebanks suggests that his farming friends ‘crudely’ divide into three categories: a third have begun to change their farming and are ‘committed to trying to be good ecological stewards’, another third are ‘open to change but have limited room for manoeuvre as they are in the financial realities of trying to run a profitable business’, and the final third are ‘deeply sceptical – or still true believers in the intensive post-war model of farming’.

James Rebanks is a significant figure, he is this country’s most famous hill-farmer, this book clearly shows that he is in the ‘public money for public goods’ camp and that nature can be successfully blended into the cultural landscapes narrative of a World Heritage Site.

This is a must-read book for everyone interested in our upland landscapes: conservationists, ecologists, policy makers AND hill-farmers. Dartmoor’s recent history is similar to that of the Lake District in some respects but different in others: the in-bye land has seen agricultural improvement and intensification but significant areas of its common land is now substantially under-grazed. I have consistently suggested to Dartmoor’s hill-farmers that they need to ‘follow the money’ as the new ELMS emerge, English Pastoral sets out one way to achieve that.

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