A day after learning he has won the Wainwright nature writing prize for his second book English Pastoral, writer and shepherd James Rebanks has a sense of optimism that is palpable. Following his bestselling memoir and debut, The Shepherd's Life, he felt a sense of pressure that he had to create something that would be equally well received. The challenge was to balance writing time with agricultural work on his farm, which is situated in Ullswater Valley of the Lake District. The dramatic rural landscape is scattered with a few villages and hamlets, satellites to a winding lake.
His family have lived there for over 600 years and his writing traces a long heritage of living and working on the land. After taking night classes for his A Levels a decade after leaving school, James studied at Magdalen College, University of Oxford and travelled home to work on the farm between terms. Now, to ensure he has quiet periods in the year where he can spend the afternoon and evening writing, he’s restructured and simplified the farm. “That really isn’t what you want to do as a farmer,” he says. “I find it very difficult because I’m obsessive about both farming and writing.”
Despite this determination, James says he wasn’t quite ready to start writing again – he was so focused on completing his first book, that he hadn’t considered anything beyond that. “Nowhere in my teenage brain, when I dreamt of being a writer, did I ever think about a second book,” he says. He considers English Pastoral to be the result of a 15-year learning journey, which wasn’t finished when he began writing it. “There were spots of time, memories I have of my grandfather or dad doing things that have been in my head for a long time, but the overall political message of the book came out of a journey that only fell into place about six months before I finished it.”
English Pastoral offers unflinching depictions of the changing approaches to agriculture over three generations. It traces the actions of his grandfather and father as they reacted to an imposing landscape of industrial practices, affecting farming methods that had remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. The central section of the book is hard-hitting, but towards the close there is a sense of optimism about the future. I wonder how James manages to stay positive while witnessing destruction around him. “I think we get too tied up in wondering whether we can individually change the whole world, and we’re not going to get much done if we think like that,” he says. “I prefer to ask a different question of myself and my family, which is, ‘can I mend my fraction of the valley we live in?’”
James has certainly risen to the challenge. “I’m unapologetically sure that I can mend nature on my land, and I’m almost as positive that my neighbours are going to play their part and we can mend this valley,” he says. He finds that discussing global issues in the abstract can result in two very polarised sides of ecologists and farmers. Instead, he prefers to “just get on with it”. He has friends who have very different views about what they would want Britain to look like in 20 years time. “But we just park anything controversial and start planting trees together, or we walk down and look at butterflies. A lot of protecting nature isn’t controversial. A lot of it isn’t divisive or difficult.”
He sees accelerated change with approaches to farming, a shift away from thinking that industrial practices are the only way forward. “I can see farmers around me changing very rapidly,” he says. “Sometimes they end up being portrayed as stereotypical, stupid people or bad guys, and I’m just not seeing that in the real world.” What he does see is environmental issues being discussed in the pub and on the roadside. “There’s a discourse about farming that I think would even have surprised my dad who died six years ago.” This is another reason he feels a sense of optimism. “People can learn. People can change.”
As well as supporting nature on his own farm, James is involved with the Ullswater Catchment Management Community Interest Company, set up by Danny Teasdale in 2015 after storms flooded the area. Now, they plant miles of hedgerow and thousands of field trees, as well as building ponds and re-wiggling rivers. He is finding that biodiversity and abundance comes back with the smallest encouragement. “We don't have to stop farming. We just need to farm in the right way, the way that nature understands.”
The book focuses on the coming together of new and old knowledge; there is not simply a rose-tinted view of past approaches to farming. “I sort of semi-ironically called the first part of the book 'Nostalgia' because I certainly don't think the past is better,” James explains. He considers the 1980s to early 2000s as a precise moment in time when farmers were optimistic about the use of fertilisers, pesticides and machinery. “We thought it was progressive, that it was taking us to a better place and was inevitable. And now we know that it isn’t.”
“It's fascinating to me how much of the landscape that emerged from traditional farming is ecologically brilliant for British flora and fauna, when farmers were just making the most of the things they had around them.”
Before this time, hundreds of generations honed farming methods through trial and error. “There was a whole toolkit of things that my grandfather and great grandfather would have used,” James explains, such as moving livestock around to maintain soil fertility. Now, he tries to find a balance of around 60 percent old knowledge and 40 percent new knowledge. This means incorporating farming methods passed down through generations, such as giving land recovery periods, while also using new techniques including scientific soil health testing. “It's fascinating to me how much of the landscape that emerged from traditional farming is ecologically brilliant for British flora and fauna, when farmers were just making the most of the things they had around them.”
“What we're learning from the rewilding projects at the moment is that it isn't just about native habitats, it's also about native processes,” he says. “We don't just need mature woodland. We need woodland that's been disturbed by wild boar or domesticated pigs.” By combining methods from the past and present, “it’s almost like we’re reinventing farming,” James says. “I think we could make this landscape the best compromise between ecology and production that there’s ever been.”
The principle to James’s farming approach is considering what the land used to look like and how it used to function. “So we think of every field as a woodland clearing,” he explains, “which means that every field of mine now has to be surrounded by a bushy hedge, with field trees coming through.” He has also worked to put wiggles back in rivers, which allows animals and plants to thrive, and planted over 25,000 trees, with plans for another 10,000 in the next two years. He’s seen a few swallows in his barn turn into over 100 in less than ten years, and little white egrets appear in ponds he built in a wetland two years ago, which have never been seen in the valley before. “How could you not be optimistic when you get to that point?”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Heather Birnie.
English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks is published by Allen Lane.
To become a volunteer or donate to the Ullswater Catchment Management Community Interest Company contact them via their website.