There are few better smells than a hay barn; dry and sweet. This one, perched in the middle of the rolling flatlands of James Rebanks’ farm, is 150 years old and offers a cool respite from the cloudless day. Even the Lake District is warm in a heatwave.
Butterflies waft out of the open doorway, silhouetted against the daylight. Rebanks, whose family has farmed on this land for 600 years, says that they hibernate in the rafters over winter. In recent years, there has been a new inhabitant: a barn owl. “He nests in that box,” Rebanks explains, pointing to an unceremonious wooden crate perched above our heads. “I see him about every third day. There’s usually a 50/50 chance he’s just tucked up on one of the walls.”
We don’t see the owl, but he’s nevertheless present. The return of barn owls to the Rebanks’ farm is a significant, life-changing, thing. The majestic sight of a barn owl in flight – “like a giant white moth” – poignantly punctuates Rebanks’ new book, English Pastoral; its wings charting the remarking transition his farm has made from a place of intensive, life-sucking agriculture to something more ancient, sustainable and beautiful.
“I think the moment I was won over was when barn owls came back, six months after putting the fences up beneath the house,” he tells me. “It was so direct, so absolutely caused by us. I remember looking at my mum and dad and all of us being equally thrilled by it.”
The Rebanks family emerged into the public consciousness five years ago, with the publication of The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, Rebanks’ debut. A stunningly no-nonsense story of mountain – or “fell” – shepherding tradition in Cumbria, Rebanks’ sparse and handsome prose shed light on an industry few in this country understood and gave the Lake District new literary voice; a modern, local storyteller to the canonised Alfred Wainwright and William Wordsworth.
The book became a bestseller, something Rebanks had tentatively hoped for since December 2013. “[My pitch] went out for auction between loads of [publishing] houses on a Friday dinnertime, one night before Christmas,” Rebanks recalls. “That evening, at 11’o’clock, it was bought by Penguin for a chunky advance. You’re waking up the next morning thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, why is this company agreed to pay me for a book I haven’t even written yet?’”
The book, along with an unexpectedly successful shepherding Twitter account, @herdyshepherd1, turned the anonymous farm into an unlikely tourist spot. The farmhouse, a heft of Cumbrian stone that clings to the base of the mountain, was soon frequented by international press; Rebanks tells me a story of one particularly determined Norwegian journalist who made his way there uninvited, thanks to a distantly related cab driver knowing where to take him (the local community is small, and close-knit).
If The Shepherd’s Life introduced a whole world – the book has been translated into 16 languages – to Rebanks’ way of life, English Pastoral tells the rest of the story. A “Warts and all” account is how Rebanks terms it in the book’s introduction, “of what farming was like here in my childhood, and what it became.” It is more impassioned, more political, more depressing and more optimistic. It is a plea for nature-friendly farming. I posit that it somehow seems more mature, an older, more grizzled brother to The Shepherd’s Life, and Rebanks quietly agrees.
“Some of the stuff in The Shepherd’s Life was from when I was 20,” he says, explaining that his first book referenced journal entries he made in youth, when he was “angry, or just a slightly different person to who I am now.” English Pastoral has allowed Rebanks to reflect on his lot as a middle-aged man, one who, after growing up in the shadow of his father and grandfather, now must run the family farm for future generations. He is doing so in a revolutionary way: farming with, rather than against nature. Encouraging weeds, insects, nettles and wildlife to inhabit places once mined for productivity. It is, he admits, “a really weird switch in mentality”, but it’s one that can help battle environmental disaster.
I am the latest in a handful of media townies to arrive at the farm, photographer in tow. The last one is still hanging around, having got her car stuck in the driveway the day before. James’s family – his wife Helen and their four children – are unfussed and accommodating; his youngest, Tom, who is not quite three, herds toy sheep inside little plastic hay bales on the flagstones. We’ve come to the farm to see the work detailed in English Pastoral in action: a decade of careful, counter-intuitive undoing of the sprawling, pesticide-laden, chemically fertilised efficiency that led many small family farms to ruin and debt, and a grim reputation of ruining the countryside with industrial agriculture.
Rebanks is convinced that this is the only way to sustain his farm and others like it, to prevent the ending of a heritage that is thought to stretch back, on these fields, for 5,000 years. “We have to do this as farmers. We’re going to die if we just leave this narrative to other people, that we’re a problem and therefore we need something else other than farmers,” he enthuses, with squat Cumbrian vowels. “The case has to be made for why people like us are of any value to people like you, really. And I think the way I can answer that is, in my farming and in my writing, is by saying ‘Don’t give up on us, help us and we’ll deliver all those things you want’.”
Rebanks’ farm is comparatively small: 185 acres, newly separated into 45 different fields, as it was in the 18th century. On it there are cows (the delightfully humbug-like Belted Galloways), two pigs named Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa, four sheepdogs and 450 Herdwick sheep, the mountain-proof animals that Rebanks first documented on his Twitter account. Several hundred more roam the mountains that surround us in a colour-chart of green and blue, diffused with summer haze.
On the back of a quad bike, we get a tour of the main sights, among them the eye-wateringly valuable shearling tups, or rams, which maintain the pristine heritage of Rebanks’ flock; the barn; the re-wiggled streams and some of the 15 new ponds that have been installed since last year. Rebanks’ enthusiastic narration is interrupted by tiny frogs scampering under cloven hoof and dodging swooping herons, by voles running alongside my boots and the buzz of dragonflies. We pause at the characteristic “wup-wup-wup” of green sandpipers – one of the birds, along with egrets – that have never been seen in the valley until this year. Kestrels nest above our heads. The farm is rewilding around us.
The origins of this new phase of the farm were in 2008, with a visit from a conservationist named Lucy Butler, who, Rebanks writes in English Pastoral, “changed my father’s and my views of what it means to be a good steward of this land.” Butler encouraged them to move the artificially straightened rivers to the bottom of the vale, to “slow the flow” of water from the mountains and help prevent the catastrophic flooding that had increasingly ruined local towns and farmers’ livelihoods in recent years. It was the start of a way of farming that held the intentions of a better world in its palm.
Twelve years on and Rebanks says he has “never, ever, in my life, felt more excited about our farm. I get up in the morning and can’t wait to go down the fields, because I want to see what’s new, what’s turned up.” After the grim monotony brazenly detailed in English Pastoral – of perfect crops entirely sterilised of insect life, of supersized cows spending their lives cooped up in barns surviving on antibiotics – these buzzing fields feel like a miracle. No wonder he likes it.
In person, Rebanks is keen to stress certain things: he is not the first to farm in this way, and he doesn’t intend to force others to do so. “There’s people who have been working on this for like 30 years, and then I’m probably on the next wave, the normal farmers who thought, hang on a minute, maybe this is what we should be doing,” he tells me, leaning on one of the smart new fences installed with money from a conservation initiative. “I’m not telling everybody what to do, a lot of them are doing similar things of their own volition and interest.” When we touch on the economics of it – how farmers can make something that prioritises nature over income work – he cites government subsidies that reward ecological infrastructure. Still, he says, the public need to be prepared to pay more for meat.
That remains a challenge unresolved in English Pastoral. Instead, Rebanks’ insistence that this older, less intensive, more ecological way of farming propels the book’s most vociferous third chapter, titled ‘Utopia’, in which he insists that change to a more sustainable way of doing things is complex and requires open-mindedness from everybody. “The idea that land must be either perfectly wild or perfectly efficient and sterile is unwise and blinding; it is a false and unsustainable simplification,” Rebanks writes. “When we despair and reduce our worldview to black and white – ‘farming’ is bad; ‘nature’ is good – we lose sight of vital distinctions and nuances. We make every farmer who isn’t a saint a villain. We miss the actual complexities of farming, the vast spectrum between those two extremes and the massive scope for nature-friendly farming that exists between them.”
English Pastoral is, then, a manifesto. But it’s also a swansong. “I cannot see myself writing another book about our farm or perhaps about my life,” he says. We’re in his study now, an airy cuboid that looks out across the mountains and is lined with books. “There isn’t a load of stuff I left unsaid. I’ve said what I have to say that can add to that debate.”
Because as much as Rebanks is a farmer, he’s also a writer. As he explained on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs earlier this year, despite leaving school with barely a GCSE, his enrolment in night school in his twenties enabled Rebanks to read History at Oxford University before he even earned his A-Levels. Three years later, having spent more time on the family farm than among those dreaming spires, he graduated with a double first. “I think I’m just totally and utterly in love with the idea that you can create something on a page that does the magic that other great books do in my head,” he says of writing. “I fell in love with that at 17 and I’m still head over heels in love with that concept.”
He equates becoming a bestselling author in his Forties to his mates who longed to be footballers as boys. “A lot of people’s dreams end quite soon but a writer’s dreams? You can still be telling yourself that you haven’t quite dropped your masterpiece until your dying day. Something about that is quite cool.” He’s already working on a third book, details of which are kept under wraps for the sake of the dictaphone’s recording, but scatter the large white board propped up against the wall in Rebanks’ business-like, all-caps handwriting.
We talk about legacy. I find his writing is steeped in it: that of the Vikings whose dialect still feeds into that Rebanks uses today (“yow” for ewe, “tup” for ram, “beck” for river); of his father, to whom The Shepherd’s Life is indebted, and whose death shortly before its publication paved the way for Rebanks’ radical re-imagining of the farm; of his grandfather, whose stickling for tradition Rebanks still honours today. If farming and writing appear to be odd bedfellows in a man’s life, it is legacy that binds them together.
“I don’t know if everybody’s like this or just mad egotistical crazy people but I’ve always thought I was one of those people who thought they wouldn’t live very long,” Rebanks says, with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I think for me writing is a way of cheating death. It’s a way of existing after you’re gone.
“The first book was probably a letter to my dad when he was dying, really. And then this book is sort of a letter to my kids, I suppose. It sounds silly and melodramatic but if I peg it tomorrow, they can read that book and they’ll have a pretty good idea what their dad’s ethics and beliefs were about the land. And they can make of that what they will but I’ll have least done my best.”
With both the farm and the book, Rebanks is carving his own legacy: what kind of land he leaves behind. It’s why, for all the pages of anger and defeat, for the days when the nesting birds are ploughed out of existence or the family home is swallowed by debt, we are left with a living, breathing vision of a farming culture that is making the world actively better.
While English Pastoral may start with Rebanks’ grandfather, it ends with his children. Molly, Bea, Isaac and Tom – aged between 14 and two – are as besotted with the farm as their father was during his boyhood. They show us around, riding quad bikes and folding lavender into ponies’ manes. They tell me how they show and sell the sheep they have reared, gleefully explaining that they get to keep their winnings. As much as Rebanks has been looking to the past for more sustainable farming methods, he and his young family have been planting hundreds of trees on the land for their future – something that has never been done before on this farm.
“It does become about my children,” Rebanks explains, rounding off on a story about an afternoon spent being interviewed by one of his heroes, the American farmer-turned-environmentalist Wendell Berry. “I suspect I am hopeful because I have to be hopeful, because what the hell else is there if you’re not hopeful?” He’s gruff about it, but it makes sense: within the span of his children’s lifetimes, he’s turned the farm around. We look out across the farm, to the mountains, down to the river corridor where the barn owls fly. It’s a hope-inducing thing.
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