James rebanks bounds over a barbedwire fence and lands in a carpet of meadowsweet. now visible from only the waist up, he spreads his hands among the flower heads of the buttery white perennial with a brusque caress that suggests this is a familiar pastime. the plants, which stand more than a metre tall, sway in the breeze, filling the air of rebankss lake district farm with a sweet aroma that prompts him to lean forward and stick his nose in for a better sniff. it smells a bit like almonds, he shouts across to the nearby lane where i am still sitting in a muddy trailer on the back of his blue quad bike.
Following a colossal five-hour thunderstorm the night before, its a rare sunny day in these typical wetlands. rebanks, whose 2015 memoir the shepherds life became an international bestseller, and i are on a wildflower hunt, driving around his 185-acre farm among the rolling fells of matterdale to locate the sodden bits of land this candyfloss bloom is sprouting from. ifhe was to write about meadowsweet, rebanks says he would include the word frothy. so far, so romantic. but he wont be picking a bunch to take home to his wife helen. theyd drop polleneverywhere and make a right old mess, says the bearlike 46-year-old in his broad, northern drawl.
Since 2012, when he first found an audience by tweeting about rural life under the moniker rebanks has straddled the roles of poet and pragmatist. one sees meadowsweet in a wordsworthian-way, making his farm look wild and pretty and inspiring him to put pen to paper. the other sees a plant that provides habitat to insects, herbal fodder for his 650 herdwick sheep and, crucially, is a key indicator that his ecological rewilding of the land is working. its one of the first things that takes off when we just give the land a bit more time to recover, he says.
Rebanks would probably reject any resemblance to the lake poets. that this area was so mythologised by wordsworth, coleridge and their group was the main reason he decided to write his first memoir. [theirs] was basically a middle-class, white, dead mans version of this landscape, he says with fervour. the ultimate insult is that [affluent britons] reckon they discovered the lake district in the 18th century. no you effing didnt! he laughs, with a hint of pugnacity. you mean you came out of your parlour and went for a walk in the 18th century.
Rebankss family has farmed this lush pocket of land for more than 600 years. i wanted to put the working-class nobodies our people back into the books, he says. his prose is undercut with the same sense of down-to-earth realism. it was a beautiful evening in the english countryside, with a peach-red sunset, but the fields were speckled with our dead cattle, he writes in the shepherds life, recalling the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 that wiped out the livestock and livelihoods of almost 2,000 farms in cumbria.
Rebanks wasnt always a bookworm. he fell in love with literature after he left school. in class, he played the clown and resented his teachers insistence that smart kids needed to leave the county to do anything worthwhile. he dropped out at 15 to work on the farm but after the death in 1991 of his idolised grandfather william the patriarch, the boss of the flock and family tensions mounted between rebanks and his father, who had taken over the land.
He changed course at the age of 21, taking a-levels before winning a place as a mature student at oxford university to study history. after graduating in 2003, he later became an adviser to unesco in paris; he thought earning loads of money working a white-collar job would give him financial stability when it was his time to inherit the farm. yet corporate life was not for him and he had returned to the farm fulltime before his fathers death in 2015. theres nothing anyone could do to keep me from working here, he says, revving up his quad and looking back over his shoulder, gesturing to the sprawling fields thick with fresh mud behind him.
In his new book english pastoral: an inheritance, rebanks contemplates not the past six centuries but the next six decades in farming. we you, me, everyone all inherited this land and we have a duty to look after it, he says. he glances at his son isaac, a sandy-haired eight-year-old who is on gate duty today.
In 2020, that inheritance seems fraught. nature, says rebanks, is at breaking point. the book opens with him recounting a childhood memory of ploughing a field with his grandfather, vividly describing the black-headed gulls swooping down to fill their beaks with the insects and worms unearthed by this mechanical work. forty years later, and current methods of intensive farming which involve chemical fertilisers, pesticides and over-ploughed land in pursuit of extreme efficiency mean the gulls no longer come. the bugs have moved out. the soil is trashed, he says. synthetic fertilisers kill the microbial network in the earth. its no better for plants either. its like feeding kids junk food. the crops are overgrown but malnourished. they rely on truckloads of this fake sugar, like junkies.
In recent years, this, by his own account, shy but stubborn farmer has been outspoken about the modern, globalised food model. he uses his instagram and twitter accounts which have a combined reach of 160,000 followers as a vehicle for debating everything from american free trade deals (effing sinister) to climate change (if you think cows are bad [for emissions] you are way off the pace). the accounts originally gained traction for their ability to transport city dwellers to the evocative english countryside, full of broad skies and verdant pastures. but rebanks believes that the way to get people to reconnect with british farming is through political and environmental debate. to fix the broken food system, farmers need to get the public on our side to spend more on food by buying organic, local produce directly from farmers and butchers. the boom in vegetable boxes, born out of the pandemic and shipped directly to customers, now makes this an easier ask.
Rebanks never set out to be a voice. for the first two years he tweeted anonymously and he wanted to publish the shepherds life without a byline. i didnt want to stick out...its the ruleall cumbrians grow up with, to not think youre clever, not to show off. it makes people feel uneasy. rebanks attributes this to an engrained attitude of egalitarianism, first brought to cumbria by the vikings around 900ad and today known as jante law. but english pastoral is a plea to consumers as well as the wider farming community. it is the story of a global revolution as it played out in...a radical and ill-thought-through experiment that was conducted in ourfields, he says.
Rebanks is talking about traditional, family-run farms like his own that, over the years, have had to battle against industry and nature; akeeping-up-with-the-joneses method of farming that saw farms gradually spending more and producing more, but with less variety in their output. arable farmers got rid of cattle; cattle farmers stopped growing vegetables. small-scale farmers began buying 80,000 tractors and other shiny machinery they could not afford, then ripping out hedgerows and ancient trees to make the land more easily farmed by such mechanical beasts. but it was a catch-22 that caught up with them; specialist farms are left vulnerable to the market price of crops or cattle. some of the biggest, most efficient farms periodically go bankrupt, he says.
Farming was different when rebanks was a kid. the tractors hed ride around on were beaten-up and crusted with rust. farmers grew crops to feed themselves, had fresh milk from their own cows and supplied the local villagerswith an array of farm-fresh goods. standing on a hillside in matterdale in the 1970s, the land would have looked like a hotchpotch patchwork each emerald field earmarked by bushy hedgerows humming with the chatter of crickets and the cheerful chirp of freshly hatchedchicks.
But the hedgerows disappeared after rebankss father tom took over the farm. that whole lump of land were looking at, in the 1980s and 1990s we grazed as one big field, he says, surveying the fellside with a sun-induced squint. thirty-two acres, as one field. they also got rid of the pigs and cows they kept for fun and, at one point, even attempted to breed newer, fashionable swaledale flocks, instead of the hardy herdwick sheep that came over from norway and are now native to this landscape. that modern experiment ended when all the swaledales died one winter. (the herdwicks striking with their snowy heads and charcoal fleeces are the only breed that can survive the cold on these fells, and 95 per cent of the worlds herdwicks are in cumbria.)
Big supermarket chains and government grants that reward intensive production are a prime target for rebankss criticisms. they encourage us all to produce too much, then use us against new zealand to crash each others markets...you cant exactly shift 5,000 pigs or sheep yourself at a weekend market, he says bluntly. its no better for arable or dairy farmers either. profits on milk fell to 2.6 pence per litre in 2019; hugely problematic for the economy in west cumbria, where the flat, coastal land is owned predominantly by dairy farmers but many villages dont even have a milkman. whilecows graze in fields throughout the villages, local residents fill their fridges with plastic four-pinters from the shop.
Rebanks admits that he thought he knew better than his dad, who was forced into makingchanges by inheriting a difficult financialsituation. my dad probably needed meto shut up, be quiet, work hard and support him, he writes. but today he is trying to restore the farm to its former glory. the 32-acre patch is nowseven fields, instead of one. hes just boughta small drift of pigs, as part of his new nature-friendly farming model that favours animal grazing instead of intense ploughing. hewants to start a meat collective with his localfarmers one neighbour produces venison,while rebanks can supply lamb, beef and pork, as well as eggs. if dairy farmers began supplying residents, theyd make better marginsby cutting out the supermarket. they we all could produce half as much if we sold itdirect, he says.
The shepherds fondness for wildflower spotting is a new hobby. between his gruelling farm schedule, writing, family life and the odd trip to the local pub, he has little time to spare. but all across the farm, meadowsweet grows on the watery verges a direct result of rebankss efforts to say no to fertilisers but also to replanting trees and ancient hedgerows. by allowing wildflowers to grow and fields to rest, hes encouraging the land to farm itself rested soil traps and removes carbon from the atmosphere, while the sheep, cows and pigs act as natures own plough, trampling the seeds to pollinate the soil. if you came back in 10 years time, this whole bank next to the beck [stream] will be filled with meadowsweet, it will be absolutely gorgeous, he says.
The re-emergence of those willowy tall stems represents a turning point. this wildlife corridor has converted me from being mildly sceptical about some of the environmental stuff 10 years ago to being the bloke that lays down in the flowers and just enjoys the sun for 10 minutes on the way home from a days work, he says, as the afternoon rays shimmer on the water. a buzzard soars above, swooping down to catch insects and mice. once, he saw one catch a mole. it makes me think, this is the good life, this.
The beck a former drainage ditch currently being turned into a waterway that will run through the whole farm is rebankss favourite spot on his land. weve had eaglets and green sandpipers on this bank no one has ever seen an eaglet in this valley before. just by making the habitat, stuff happens really quickly, he says.
Hes also involved in flood-alleviation programmes the countys capital carlisle has been hard hit by major flooding in recent years. rebanks sees the programme where he gets government subsidies for storing water as a responsibility of sorts; he thinks all cumbrians, farmers or not, are deeply attached to their landscape. perhaps its because of its relative isolation; with a population of half a million, the county has only one city, its small airport is currently not operational, and theres very little public transport to connect its inhabitants.
Rebanks is as hefted to this land as his sheep, which roam the fells untethered and unfenced, with an inherent sense of belonging that prevents them from straying too far. he jokes that anyone from south of penrith is a foreigner, and says he only discovered the concept of idle chat at oxford. small talk bores me to death, he says. while farming is hard and doesnt net him the sums a corporate job would, he wouldnt dream of being anywhere different; of doing anything else.
Its natural, then, that this idea of inheritance weighs heavily on his mind. i love this land, he says, stuffing his hand into the dirt and rubbing it through his fingertips. i look at it and i feel proud. its mine. my people and the people before them shaped it. one day, it will belong to his four children. he glances at his eldest son standing on the banks next to him. the best critic is going to be you, isaac, he says, as isaac, barely paying attention, suggests they plant even more trees. in 30 years, will you think your dad did right or not? time will tell.
English pastoral: an inheritance by james rebanks is published by allen lane
Follow on twitter to find out about our latest stories first.