In January 2012, a distinctive new voice and eye joined the cacophonous chorus on Twitter. The account was called HerdyShepherd1, where “Herdy” stood for Herdwicks, a tough, rare breed of sheep raised for millennia in the mountains of England’s Lake District. The pseudonymous shepherd behind the account deployed a smartphone camera and an acerbic, thoughtful voice to give followers a glimpse of the harsh beauty and hard work that make up a way of life unchanged for thousands of years.
Fast forward three years, and HerdyShepherd reveals his real identity: 40-year-old James Rebanks, whose family have been farming in Cumbria, the last province on England’s west side before you get to Scotland, for at least six centuries. Rebanks went public because his Twitter account’s popularity—this week, it has almost 63,000 followers—attracted publishers’ attention, and the book that resulted, The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, is a surprise No. 1 best-seller in the United Kingdom.
Rebanks is an unusual protagonist: the oldest son of a sheep farmer who was in turn the oldest son of a sheep farmer, he had no use for school and left at 16 years old to get back to the fells. But he reversed course in his 20s and won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied history. Once done, he worked as hard to return to farming as he briefly did to leave it. He suffered through city jobs and country tragedies—every animal on his father’s farm was killed to stop the advance of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001—and succeeded in establishing his own farm, where he lives with his wife, three children, and photogenic sheepdogs Floss and Tan.
The Shepherd’s Life was released in the United States May 12 by Flatiron Books. It is a gorgeous book, unsentimental but exultant, vivid and profound, and a fierce defense of small-scale farming against the twin threats of agribusiness and tourism. I’ve followed Rebanks since his earliest days on Twitter, and I couldn’t wait to talk to him. I’ve edited and condensed our conversation for clarity.
How does it feel to have this thing, that you hadn’t initially even planned on doing, become a bestseller?
James Rebanks: When you do a thing, you obviously try to do it as well as you can, don’t you? I love what we do. I love where we’re from. I think what we do is really important, and I tried really hard to write something good that would capture that. So I hoped all along that this would happen, but I’m obviously very chuffed that it’s worked out. I’m just delighted, really, with the feedback, because it looks very much to me like people agree with what I’m saying, which is that they don’t really want food to be cheap and they don’t want everything to be industrial. They don’t want to mindlessly copy a model of agriculture that has happened in other places. I think there’s a lot of people feeling that in their bones.
How did this come about? The book came from interest in your Twitter account, but how did you know about Twitter, and what made you want to start posting photos?
I didn’t want to start doing it! I didn’t have any interest in it. For about six months, I had a few friends that were talking about it, and I didn’t think it was anything to do with me at all. Then out of curiosity, when I got a new phone I just for an experiment started putting some pictures on of some sheep. But I had no expectation of it being particularly successful.
And the only thing that changed my mind on it was the reaction. When I suddenly had 200 people telling me that they like something, and then it turns into 2,000 people, then it turns into 20,000 people, you realize that there’s a demand. It’s quite odd. We live in an isolated place, and I don’t see any of these people ever face to face. So I treat it like a sort of picture diary, or just me scribbling down my thoughts. Ninety-five percent of the time, I’m not really thinking anybody’s paying any attention to it—and then I bump into people, like if I go to town or something, and they’ll tell me they know all about what I’ve been doing. And I’m always quite surprised by it.
Can you explain where you live? You talk in the book about living in a valley and taking your sheep up onto the mountains, and the sheep knowing from generation to generation exactly where on the crags they belong. It sounds remote.
There are 13 valleys making up the Lake District National Park, and we live in one of them. All of that is either privately owned by families like ours, or privately farmed, even though it’s called a national park. There’s lots of foot paths and other public access, and there’s an encouragement to think of it in a sort of spiritual or aesthetic sense as national property. But it isn’t really national property in the way that Yellowstone is, or other parks in North America. It was never taken out of the hands of the locals.
People mistakenly think that means it belongs to everybody, or to the state. It doesn’t. It belongs to private landlords. It historically belonged to the lords of the manor. In some cases, it still belongs to their descendants. There’s a dual kind of ownership on the mountain. The landlords own the land, but there’s a completely different set of rights which we hold, which are the rights to graze on those mountains. Basically the peasants came out on top, because their legal right to graze those mountains is stronger than the landlord’s right to change anything.
Is it impolite to ask how big your farm is?
Some farmers would be a bit bashful about it, but it’s absolutely fine. We have about 500 adult sheep, and another 500 young lambs on top of that. A month ago there would only have been 500, so that would have been about 400 that were pregnant and about a hundred young stock that don’t lamb the first year. And then we just got 500 lambs on the farm, because of the last month’s work of lambing. In the autumn, that’ll reduce down by about 150 surplus male lambs that we sell. So it goes up and down like that: It’s at its lowest in March, and it’s highest in the summer months when all the grass is there. That’s the ancient pattern of this landscape, to produce from the grass in the mountains a cash crop of sheep through the summer.
Could you have more sheep, if you wanted?
We have rights to take some of the sheep into the mountains, onto the common land. But there’s a set number of rights to go on the mountain, and we can’t exceed that. For communal and ancient reasons, you just can’t do that, but we also can’t do it now because those commons are part of environmental schemes as well, and there’s quite tight rules about how many sheep you can take up there. And then on the valley bottom land, we have to grow in our meadows all the hay for the winter. So if we kept too many sheep on the lower ground, we wouldn’t be able to clear some of the meadows to grow the hay in July.
There’s all sort of rules and customs and traditions to make sure that people don’t just keep amassing more and more and more. In the 20th century, they broke down a little bit, because there are some crazy subsidy systems in Europe that encourage people to just have more and more sheep. But for the last 20 years or so, that’s been sort of corrected, and the sheep lands have been managed back down to more sustainable levels.
Resisting the urge to expand for the sake of expanding seems an important issue for you.
One of my heroes is Wendell Berry. Somebody gave me his book, The Unsettling of America, which is about the whole process of industrialization of agriculture. I thought it was brilliant: a really smart guy, back in the early 1970s, setting out prophetically what was going to happen, and it has happened in most places, and it’s happened here. It happens because of the way the food industry’s structured, doesn’t it? We have this model that completely disconnects what you pick up off a supermarket shelf from its origin, and we’re encouraged to think that there aren’t any wider effects of buying it cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. But we all know that’s not true, don’t we? And we end up getting a countryside and a landscape that we didn’t ever really want.
I’ve noticed on Twitter that, in addition to posting beautiful pictures, you try to educate your followers about the realities of food production, and you do this in the book, too.
Whenever I speak out against the cheapening of food, people kick back, saying, “Yeah, but we can’t afford anything else.” I pointed out, and it really shocked some people, that the sheep we keep have about a quarter of the real value they had in 1970. The practical effect of that is there are less shepherds to look after them than there used to be. You’re under massive pressure as a shepherd to look after them well. But if I go to a vet or I’m buying additional products to cure them of various ailments, sometimes these cures are now more costly than the sheep.
Say I have a sheep that needs a Caesarean. When I was a kid, we would have taken the sheep to the vet. Now, that makes no business sense, unless it’s an exceptionally valuable sheep. It would cost £150, £200 (U.S. $231-$308) to have a Caesarean, and it would cost me £1 ($1.54) to shoot the sheep. If the sheep is worth £75, the rational economic thing to do is to shoot the sheep. Now, I don’t do that of course. But that is the kind of logical impact that the cheapening of food has. It’s cheapening living creatures. It’s cheapening people’s relationship with those creatures, and it’s creating a whole new set of pressures which didn’t exist a generation ago.
British readers especially seem to have reacted very emotionally to the book. I get the sense that you have reminded people there is something precious and unique about British farming, something they are in danger of losing.
In places like America and Australia, where the land settlement was much later, I think the agricultural model right from the beginning was much more rational; commercial and practical.They’ve been places, for a century or more, where they could produce things at global commodity prices. Everywhere else, outside of America and Canada and Australia, has a much older, more small-scale, more traditional relationship with farming and food.
Our national parks, from the start, were a social contract with the people that lived in them. They were never state-owned. What was conserved, what people thought they were conserving right from the start was a particular kind of farmed, managed, lived-in landscape. But what’s happened over the last 30 or 40 years is a lot of people in the UK have slipped into thinking that they should be like North American wilderness national parks, and that farming is some kind of aberration in them.
I’m trying to wean people off the idea that all special places are wild. I think lots of special places are, and should be, but there are a handful of places, like here, where what people have created over 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 years is really, really special. And that was always the point of conserving them.
You and your wife started the Herdwick School in hopes of communicating that understanding. How does it work?
When we built a new sheep shed a couple of years ago, we wanted to make it a place where we could bring people to the farm, particularly school kids and groups. At that time we didn’t know the book was going to happen, but we both feel passionately that the stuff that we care about isn’t very well communicated to visitors to our landscape, or even to local kids in the schools. It wasn’t something we wanted to do to make lots of money out of it; we thought, well, can we invite schools to come a few times a year to our farm and learn about what we do.
We have a really nice classroom, and we’ve worked with about a dozen different schools. Sometimes they come to learn about natural things, or sometimes they’re doing literature or they’re learning about landscapes or habitats, or they want to know about farming food. We put on a planned day, like an itinerary for a full school day, where they might start out in the morning learning about the sheep and the wool, and they might towards the end of the day cook some of our meat and taste it. And they just seem to really value the time being outdoors. It’s a more local version of what I tried to do with the book, which is to just tell people about the things I care about.
The reaction to the book has been more than you expected, and you told me that you may write another book as a result. Do you have any concerns about being made into a spokesman, or of being drawn away from your farm?
I don’t think I’m a spokesperson for anything, really, apart from the things I believe in. And I certainly don’t represent anybody else in any kind of formal sense. I’m so stubborn, and so clear in my mind about what I want to do and what I love, that I just wouldn’t let it do that. If I genuinely thought it was going to stop my first priority being the farm, or my flock being as good as they are, I would delete the Twitter account tonight.
You have to understand: Where I live, I’m not an expert. I’m 40 years old, I’ve studied our way of life for 30 years, practically. I’m just a beginner. You’re no one in this landscape until you’re 70, 80 years old, and you’ve proven that you know all about the landscape, and the sheep.