I’ve been asked about this many times, and I’ve finally been prompted to write about it after I was asked again via Twitter.
So here goes. I’ve had many people say to me over the past few years ‘but how can you possibly love your lambs when all you’re going to do is kill them’. And I guess it’s a pretty valid question, because it does seem completely absurd. We get so excited to see what this year’s lambs will be like, and we take photos and we say how proud we are that they look good, and grow fast (‘fast’ being a few months, not weeks, as anti-farming organisations would have you believe!) and then we send them off. Either sell them live weight at market, or dead weight directly to the abattoir. But we all know what’s going to happen to them.
And I think the reason loading lambs to take to slaughter doesn’t affect the majority of us is because the inevitability is something we are used to. As a farmer, you don’t breed sheep, or any kind of livestock, because you want to keep every single one of them alive for as long as you can, otherwise there’d be no point in trying to farm. Of course you might keep the odd one, some farmers breed all their own stock, but they still have animals born that won’t fit with their desired flock or herd characteristics, and these animals will be sold. It’s just the way farming works, and I know it seems uncaring and harsh to a lot of people, but that’s why farming isn’t the right job for a lot of people.
I was asked specifically about the day the lambs leave, and to be honest, harsh as it may seem, it really isn’t that different to any other day in my opinion. When The Boss’ lambs go to market, we can spend nearly a whole day rounding them up, weighing them, drafting off the ones that are the right weight, tagging their ears with the electronic tags required and moving them to a separate field ready for loading in the morning to go to market. This can be done every week or every fortnight, depending on the amount of lambs you have and how far into the season it is.
It is a bit different with my own sheep, I’ll admit, because yes, I’m very proud of my lambs, and I don’t have many so I do ‘get to know them’, but farming is a business. And a lot of people forget that. Ultimately, I need my lambs to make a good price at market so I can keep expanding my business. So I can keep buying sheep, developing my blood lines, increasing the flock and buying new kit to make handling more sheep easier and quicker. It’s all part of the business.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think you can be any kind of livestock farmer without compassion and emotional investment in your animals. But emotional investment can come in different forms, and respect for your animals is crucial. Good farmers respect their animals, treat them with compassion, and give them the best life they can, while they can.
A good farmer has a lot of respect, appreciation for and pride in their stock, but a good farmer has to be a good business person too, and that involves selling your produce at the highest price you can. You can’t afford to be sentimental and keep animals that aren’t going to contribute something to your flock or herd. I think I’d be lying if I said that farmers get upset when their animals are sold, I think the most accurate way to describe it would be…indifferent? Maybe that’s too negative, but I’m struggling to find a word that describes the feeling of no feeling, without it sounding uncaring.
So this might not be the most helpful answer, or the answer that you all wanted, but what I’m trying to highlight is the inevitability of it all, no farmer ever expects to keep all the animals born on their farm, so there aren’t really any overwhelming emotions on the day when they are sold. I think the public see a lack of sentimentality as an example of how ‘cruel’ and ‘evil’ farming is, but those people don’t consider that farming is, at the end of the day, a business.
I don’t know if Charles Dickens had ever been lambing, but he’s definitely hit the nail on the head here. I don’t think you’d find a sheep farmer that could say lambing is ever the best of times, or ever the worst of times. Extreme fluctuations between the two might be a more fitting analysis.
So if it isn’t the best of times, why do we look forward to it so much? With the days slowly (really bloody slowly) sliding by as this uni term approaches its end, I’m not going a day without thinking about the next month of being elbow deep in a ewes nether regions. Lambing for me is as exciting as it is nerve wrecking. Of course when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you’re emotionally invested in the outcome. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s lambed who hasn’t had a favourite ewe, a favourite pet lamb, that one animal they really want to see do well. Because as much as the anti-farming lot would argue this fact, I do not think you can be any kind of livestock farmer without compassion and emotional investment in your animals. So when the next crop of your animals is being born, you’re excited to see what’s going to emerge. You’ve looked after the mother, fed them, vaccinated them, seen them grow, invested time and money in them, and now you get to see what they can produce for you. Think about that and tell me that isn’t sort of amazing.
I’m excited to spend every day in the countryside I know and absolutely love. In the fields, working until I’m exhausted. There’s something about coming home and setting like a rock when you sit down for too long that is almost addictive. Through the aching muscles, sore shoulders and arms, tired legs and dry hands, it’s satisfying to know you’ve pushed your body physically and mentally that day. At lambing you get to see the immediate rewards of that hard work, and I think that’s maybe why *most* farmers would tell you how much they look forward to lambing time.
Lambing can also be the worst of times. That feeling of exhaustion at the end of the day doesn’t go away overnight. Especially when you’re waking up worrying about that ewe you left with her small lamb, you can hear the rain lashing against the windows and you’re anxious about what will be in the field when you go out the next morning. Not to mention the vast majority of farmers that physically get out of their bed, don their waterproofs, and go out to check their stock at 2am. Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months. Being physically and emotionally exhausted for that length of time drives you crazy. Mistakes happen. You’ll lose a lamb that you know needed checking if you’d just had the time and energy to make the effort. You blame yourself, you blame your colleagues, you blame your dog, you blame the weather and the short hours of sunlight and the lack of sugar in your tea. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t sobbed angrily at a particularly stupid ewe who wouldn’t follow her lamb onto the trailer. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never rested my head on the soft, greasy wool of a ewes side after finally catching her in the driving rain and wind, silently gathering the strength to put my hand in, and praying I find two front legs and a head. I can’t quantify the amount of internal dialogue I’ve had inside my head, arguing with myself over whether I’ve got the strength to pull this lamb out of a particularly tight ewe (yes, that is a thing!).
But there it is, the hard work and the determination and the never-ending cups of tea pay off. Because suddenly lambing stops as quickly as it started, and you don’t know what to do with yourself apart from look at your ewes and lambs, watch them graze and grow and jump around like, well, spring lambs. And you can be safe in the knowledge you worked damned hard to have this moment watching your stock flourish. And then it’s on to the next job, because we all know farming never stops for long!
Prompted by an article I wrote for Farmers Weekly, which you can read here, while on work experience, I have decided to try and write about a subject I believe I have some experience in.
I’m not going to come out and start accusing people that I have met throughout my life of sexism or misogyny or woman-hating. Those words are active, they require an intention, a motive, and the experiences that I have had whilst trying to establish myself in the agricultural industry could not be labelled as any of those things.
Because half the time, the people that have tried to stand in the way of my ambitions don’t even realise what they’re doing. When I was at school, and I started to vocalise my passion for agriculture and farming, the response was always ‘oh so you want to be a farmer’s wife?’ My response was, and still is – No. I don’t want to be the farmer’s wife. I want to be the farmer. (Apparently a revolutionary idea to some). But why should that be the immediate response? It was accepted that a few of the boys in my year would go to university to study agriculture, but I was constantly encouraged to do something else. ‘Why don’t you go and study English, or Journalism, or be a vet?’ Essentially; ‘why be a farmer?’. Maybe that was just my school, or maybe this is something experienced by many young women venturing into the industry. I suspect the latter.
I often get the impression that in agriculture there is still an unspoken doubt as to whether women can farm. I’m not talking about individuals here, although there are those that are very vocal about their opinion on the ability of a woman to make her own success in the industry. I’m talking about the community as a whole. Why do I scroll through my Twitter feed and feel thankful that I’ve finally found some female farmers to inspire me to keep treading this path? We’re still at a stage where young women and girls in the industry have to actively seek out their inspirational figures, they have to find their determination and their boldness and their confidence in a way that I don’t believe young men have to. As a young person in agriculture, you have to prove yourself. You have to prove that you’ve got good stockmanship skills, that you can be trusted to drive that tractor, that you can cope with the pressures of lambing, but as a woman, you often have to prove that you’re justified in even wanting to farm.
I think I can say that I’ve finally reached the point where my life goals are no longer questioned. It’s sort of sad that I even had to justify them in the first place, but I’m so proud of how far I have come in the last 5 years. And why shouldn’t I be? Society loves to tell women not to shout about their achievements, not to be too loud, or seem too arrogant. But I’ve come from no farming background, with no family ties to agriculture, and got myself experience, contacts, some sheep, and now I get to write about it. So if I want to shout about my achievements every once in a while, I damn well will.
I don’t often discuss my interest in poetry, but I discovered the poem ‘Apologia’ by Oscar Wilde a long time ago, and there’s one stanza that I remind myself of frequently when I need some motivation to kick ass and do what I need to do. I hope it strikes a chord with anyone reading this who might need it.
“Many a man hath done so; sought to fence in straightened bonds the soul that should be free. Trodden the dusty road of common sense, while all the forest sang of liberty.”
Knowing the words that are written beneath this, it is hard to write an introduction to this blog that will do them justice. I had the absolute honour of interviewing a writer and farmer that I greatly admire. So this blog is certainly less about what I have to say!
For those that don’t know, James Rebanks is a hill farmer from the East of the Lake District. His first book, The Shepherd’s Life, is a particularly special piece of literature for me as James writes about his life and experiences farming on the fells (and other things that I won’t spoil for you!) with such poignancy and honesty. Truthfully, and in my humble opinion, his writing style is only akin to works I’ve read in English Literature classes. The Shepherd’s Life was also the 3rd bestselling work of nonfiction in the UK in 2016, so there’s your proof! So I would thoroughly suggest purchasing James’ book (either of them!) or following him on Twitter, where he also seems to be reasonably popular with a meagre following of 89.1k…But honestly his photos of farming life on the fells offer welcome relief from day to day life. Anyway, enough chat, I’ll let James take over.
Did you ever hope/think you’d one day write a book, and did you ever have any doubt about your abilities?
I have known ever since I was about seventeen that I was meant to be a writer and a farmer.
For most of the past twenty years that seemed a quite unlikely combination of daydreams. At times I almost gave up.
But it has worked out in the end, because that is basically my life now.
As for doubting my abilities.
I am filled with insecurities and self-doubt. I’m not sure what anyone makes of my words until they read them and tell me. Most writers I know confess to feeling the same way. You never feel cocky, for the simple reason that half of a book is in the reader’s interpretation of your words. You can’t second guess that bit, so you are always full of doubt.
But, if this makes sense, as well as having lots of self-doubt, I have always deep down believed that I was probably capable of writing very well, and in my more confident moments I always thought that if I got a break I would be recognised as a writer of talent. Most writers daydream like that as well. That’s what being a writer is, half terror and half daydreams of being the next Hemingway.
I read vast amounts of books, and have done for twenty years, so I have had a hunch I was useful as a writer. I have written nice stuff for magazines for years. I just didn’t know how to get in to the Book Writing Club.
Do you think there is a link between people that are involved with nature and the countryside, and their ability to write?
I don’t know much about other people, but my love of nature is intrinsic to my writing. At its simplest, my love of nature is about seeing beauty and poetry in things around me, and recognising that they are beautiful or interesting. I don’t have to contrive that interest, it is who I am. I am genuinely cheered by seeing wild things each day. I was lucky to have people around me in my youth who drew my attention to such things and made such a way of seeing seem normal, and part of living a good life.
It is perhaps a short step from seeing beauty and poetry in natural things to writing those thoughts and sights in to words.
But most country people perhaps have a similar way of seeing, and most don’t write books. So clearly other things have to happen to turn someone who sees things in to a writer.
What’s your favourite poem, or a quote from your favourite piece of work, and why?
I think The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway is the best book ever written. Flawless. Perfect. I read it about twice a year. I read it to see how far beneath perfect I am falling.
Do you struggle to balance the day to day running and responsibility of your farm with the time you dedicate to your writing, and how do you balance the two?
Yes. I struggle badly with that. Writing well is like an obsession, it takes over you like a kind of fever. But farming is obsessional as well. Farming tend to wins in daylight hours, and writing tends to win in the dark hours. In winter I focus on writing when I’ve done my day’s farm work. I wrote The Shepherd’s Life at nights, mostly between 9pm and 2am, in a room where I lived with my wife and two kids in our sheep shed, because our house was only half built. I’m not James Patterson or Stephen King turning out a book a year, and I have no intention of ever doing that, that requires your whole waking life (and I’m aiming for quality not quantity). My farming life is who I am, I don’t want to do less of it. So writing has to fit around it. Which perhaps is why I love writing poetry the most, as I can write a poem in the hour spare I get before sleep. Writing a book is a major undertaking. Exhausting. The hardest thing I have ever done. It requires sustained focus. I can write 1,000 words easily anytime. But writing 100,000 words that flow as a story that works. That’s really fucking hard. It is a year or more of determined focus.
Clearly your farm work inspires a vast majority of your writing, however are there any other major influences in your creative process (your degree, other interests etc.)
My writing is largely linked to the things I have experienced, and seen, smelt and heard. Yes. But it is also heavily influenced by what I have read. I’ve read thousands of books over the years, and I could show you in my writing the different influences that went in to my having my voice on the page.
I also did a history degree at Oxford, and that had an influence as well, because I studied ‘peasant history’ in Europe and realised how important and great that subject can be. In the UK academics didn’t traditionally take rural people’s culture seriously, but since WW2 on the continent lots of amazing historians led by people like Fernand Braudel focused on what ordinary people did, and how it shaped history. I am also fascinated by economics and my writing often relates to economic themes, and changes. I try to ask questions, through stories, about whether we are heading in the right direction to a better future, or just floating along on a slow boat to hell.
What would be your go-to piece of advice for any young person hoping they might get the opportunity to write as you have?
Read. Read. Read.
Then. Write. Write. Write.
Then read lots more.
Write by imitating the writers you admire.
Then try and find your unique voice. And your subject.
Eventually you’ll either discover you are lousy, or boring, and no one is interested, or that you have something you can use.
Finally, writing without readers isn’t really writing – it is just something you can tell people about at dinner parties. So show what you write to other people, and learn how your words affect them for better or worse. The more readers the better, I think so anyway.
Find someone you trust to give you feedback, and if they are right, listen and make changes.
But live your life. Writers are always better when they’ve got something to write about. Failure makes good stories, so go out and try lots of things. Nothing is wasted.
They say everyone has a book in them, but it’s such bullshit. Most people can’t tell a story for toffee. Most people are lousy writers, even some that get to publish books.
Why do you think people that live in urban areas, even different countries, are so drawn to your writing?
Good honest writing from a person who lives a traditional working rural life is actually very rare. People are curious about me and my life. But actually lots of it isn’t about me at all, they are curious about their own relatives and ancestors who lived lives that resemble mine in some way. When I do book talks I get queues of people telling me that their grandparents where shepherds in Italy, or fruit farmers in Kent, or grew vegetables in Thailand – everyone has a farming or land based story, or roots. So to hear a story from the land done well relates to their own history.
But the interest is also about the world we live in. The whole modern world is based on the idea that we gave up the dirty brutish existence of being peasants and small farmers. Progress was meant to be leaving the land. Life on the land was rubbish wasn’t it? Who knows? Maybe this shepherd guy who writes…
I hope my writing intrigues people because it might be a voice from the other side of that deal, saying ‘Hey guys, you lost a lot in that deal, as well as making some gains’. Modern life disconnects people from nature, gives them crumby places to live, work that is often boring, deskilled and low value, and offers leisure activities that can seem after a while facile and consumerist. A lot of people are wondering ‘what is this all about?’. Our society is increasingly unequal, increasingly unfair, and increasingly unsustainable. People are wondering how we got in to this mess and whether our grandparents might have had a better life in some ways. My book fell in to a moment in time where people were thinking about these things. People bring their own meaning to books.
Throughout your life, you have challenged the norms that both the farming and educational community had previously set, how did you get people to understand that you were serious about achieving your ambitions?
I’m not sure anyone except my wife took my ambitions seriously. Maybe my dad on my farming aspirations. No one else. So you have to have a lot of internal focus and determination. I can be a machine at times, utterly ruthless about anything peripheral – but that doesn’t necessarily make you a great friend or brother, or human being.
People tend to laugh at you if you vocalise your creative aspirations, or expect you to fail entirely. The odds aren’t good of success so they are often right. My life changed when I found one person who believed in me entirely, 100%, without any hesitation. And you only actually need one person like that. Everyone else is irrelevant. You can prove the crowd wrong later on when you’ve done the legwork and things start happening. And even if you don’t then screw them for their cynicism anyway, and just ignore them. Better to try and fail than be a cheap cynic.
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to James for taking time out of his farming and writing to answer my questions.
All rights reserved by the author – James Rebanks. No part of this can be republished without his permission.
As first posts go, fashion probably wasn’t my first thought. But hey ho, it’s on my mind so here we are.
My sense of ‘style’ will probably remain the bane of my Mother’s life for the rest of time. Sometimes I’m quite impressed with what I manage to pull off (floor length gowns, high heels etc.), other times I’m quietly shocked I’ve dared to step out the house. Arguably the best part of going to Harper is that I can plan my dress for balls on the colour of my wellies and my welly sock selection. Arguably the best part of working on a farm is that I can go to the supermarket in waterproofs covered in lamb afterbirth and straw and only a few people dare to look me up and down. I do not own a skirt, however I could probably change my coat twice a day for a week and have spares. Maybe my sense of style could be called ‘practical’. I have a favourite shirt. It is a Mens’ XS. I wear it to work on the farm, I wash it, I wear it to lectures at Uni. It goes with every pair of jeans I own, and every coat I own (essential). The label is faded and there’s escapee threads in a few places, but I paid £15 for it and it gets more wear than anything else in my wardrobe. Long live the checked tattersall shirt! My wellies are the most expensive item in my wardrobe, including my Leavers’ Ball gown and my tweed jacket, and I pride myself on keeping them ‘well muddied’.
If I’m feeling sort of girly, I might wear some moccasins, I might wear a more fitted blouse, one of my ‘smarter’ coats…that’s probably it. I’m not saying all female farmers are like me, but the thought of trying to cope in day to day life with the constant threat of my knickers being exposed is too much pressure for me. I strive to be comfortable and ready for anything the British countryside (or its’ four legged residents) might throw at me. Jeans, boots and a baggy shirt will do for me. Sorry Mother!