Sheep Lit: On Writing (and Reading) About the Lives of Shepherds

May 21, 2015 | 2 6 min read


It began with a work assignment, but quickly started taking over all the rest of my time, too. My “to read” pile was soon filled up with books that had rural English landscapes on the cover, often with sheep silhouetted on the far-off crest of a hill. The sheep emoji crept to the top of the “recently used” tab on my phone and stayed there. Others started noticing my new fixation. When my boss emailed to thank me for doing her a favor, she wrote: “I owe you a drink/book about livestock.”

covercoverWriting about sheep, it turns out, is a thread that twists through 20th-century explorations of the British landscape, and one that I have become eager to unravel. I hesitate to call it a genre or canon (only in my fantasies can you walk into a bookshop and find a section labelled “sheep-writing”), but there is undoubtedly a process of inheritance at work here. From W.H. Hudson’s 1910 work A Shepherd’s Life to Amanda Owen’s The Yorkshire Shepherdess last year, via Janet White’s The Sheep Stell and the veterinary autobiographies of James Herriot, certain themes recur. Unlike more pastoral-inclined works about the countryside, these writings prioritize pragmatism and resist whimsy; the sense of place they evoke is bound up with the lives of the people who inhabit the landscape; and above all they foreground their labor, the work that is the reason they are in these places at all.

The book that set me off on this track is a newly-published one: James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life. Since its publication in the U.K. last month, this work has done what publishers hope for with non-fiction but rarely achieve: arrive at precisely the pinnacle of the public’s interest in a particular trend, somehow imbued with that elusive “must-read” quality that sends books to the top of bestseller lists and keeps them there. In Britain, demand for the so-called “new nature writing,” embodied in the work of authors like Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald, is still high, although the inevitable backlash against the overwritten, self-indulgent prose that some of the movement’s authors display is already beginning. As a group, these authors are cozy and close-knit both professionally and personally, sometimes frustratingly so — a fellow editor at my own magazine has several times bemoaned the difficulty of trying to find knowledgeable-yet-impartial reviewers for these works.

This is partly why Rebanks’s book is so very appealing. As a full-time shepherd and a first-time author, he stands apart from this little scene. Although he’s very polite about it, the very premise of his book — that it is an account of a rural landscape and a traditional way of life written by someone who actively participates in it — is a riposte to all the books where a well-off man from the south of England visits a place and writes about how it makes him feel. Kathleen Jamie skewered this phenomenon with great precision in a review of Macfarlane for the London Review of Books in 2008:

“What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilized lyrical words.”

coverInevitably, having the time and financial security to roam the hills and have noble thoughts about them is something only society’s most privileged can do. It is, therefore, no surprise that the new nature writing is by and large the preserve of already-successful male writers. The Wainwright Prize, the U.K.’s nature and travel-writing award, could only find one woman to shortlist this year, despite the fact that 2015 has been a prolific and successful year for British nature-writing. Once again it is Jamie, in an essay from her collection Findings, who really gets to the heart of this problem. In “Peregrines, Ospreys, Cranes,” she writes: “Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter into my life.”

Rebanks, a Cumbrian shepherd farming in the area of northwest England where his family have worked for over six centuries, provides a refreshing counterpoint to all of this. His is a book that documents the rhythms of his work and its part in forming the landscape. Early on, he recalls how while his grandfather was teaching him to “wall” — that is, the ancient craft of fitting stones together so precisely that no mortar or bonding agent is required to keep the structure sound — some tourists stopped in their car to take photographs of them. Rebanks senior “murmured ‘bugger off’ under his breath” but knew that there only need be “a little bit of bad weather and they’d be gone to leave us to get on with stuff that mattered”. His grandson was hardly the first to record this observation. Shepherds must inhabit the landscape in all weathers. They have never had the luxury of going inside or driving away if the weather turns. In W.H. Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life, an account of the author’s conversations with a Wiltshire shepherd named Caleb Bawcombe, we are told that “it is a life of simple, unchanging actions and of habits like instincts, of hard labor in sun and wind and rain from day to day, with its weekly break and rest, and of but few comforts and no luxuries.”

Rebanks echoes Hudson with the title he chose for his own work of sheep-writing, consciously placing his book in dialogue with it. He documents the profound effect that reading Hudson’s account of shepherding had on him as a teenager.

“Until I read this book, I thought books were always about other people, other places, other lives. This book, in all its glory, was about us (or at least the old Wiltshire version of us)…I felt I as if I could have worked with Caleb and talked sheepdogs, lame sheep, or the weather.”

The reason that Rebanks had grown up feeling excluded like this, despite living in the Lake District — one of the most written-about places in Britain — is because the popular image of his area does not include its farmers and laborers. It is a “landscape of the imagination,” as he puts it, created by William Wordsworth’s poetry, Alfred Wainwright’s walking guides, and countless other works. The Lakes are a “playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers,” not the home of hard-working shepherds who build walls, mend fences, and tend their flocks. When he first realised this, he pointed it out to his dad, concerned about what their invisibility to writers and politicians might mean for their future. His father replied: “Don’t tell them, they’ll only ruin it.”

In order to persuade tourists to visit areas where shepherds still work in the old, traditional ways like the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, these places are promoted as empty, lonely, even though the reality is anything but. It may look so to the visiting Lone Enraptured Male, transfixed by the sight of a shepherd cresting a hill surrounded by his charges, but the reality is very different. When shepherds write about their work, family and community are there on every page. Amanda Owen makes this abundantly clear in The Yorkshire Shepherdess, her book about Ravenseat, the remote hill farm in the Dales where she and her husband live and work. In her words, it is a breathless hive of activity, with life never slowing down for a second. As Owen puts it, they are “restocking Ravenseat with people,” and not just through their seven children:

We have guests staying in our shepherd’s hut, we have walkers stopping for a break and other visitors just driving up to sit in the sunshine, or the barn if it’s raining, and eat my cream teas. During the shooting season, we’ll see the shooting parties come up through the farmyards and out onto the moor, a real cross-section of people from beaters through to the well-heeled set who have come to spend the day grouse shooting.

The landscape is alive with people, working and visiting and living in among the sheep and their attendants. The empty vista on the postcards and in the poems is just a fantasy — an imagined topography that carefully excludes the people who make the landscape the way it is.

Writing about these places and their origins has long been part of the way shepherds interact with their land. They are not passing through, absorbing details to turn into extravagant, writerly prose. This writing is rooted, straightforward, connected to the place that inspired it. Janet White, in her own tale of a life lived with sheep, explains how she really came into her own as a writer once her Somerset farmhouse had a study with a view:

Working at my typewriter, I could look out over the sheep pens and fields to the high hills where the woods gave way to heathland and scattered holly trees were trimmed into hour-glass shapes by deer and ponies.

Aside from these longer narratives, all shepherds write about their sheep in something called a flock book, a record of the health and breeding pedigrees of all the individual animals. If the flock is sold, the book goes with it. They aren’t consulted that regularly though — experienced shepherds will carry most of this information in their heads. It gives shepherds the ability to “read” a flock, which amounts to so much more than just being able to estimate its monetary value. With a glance, they can assess the hundreds of tiny genetic variations on view and compute how they might mix with and improve the breed. They can see the history, the work, the choices that made those sheep the way they are.

The day I spent shepherding with James Rebanks, he tried to teach me what to look for in his best specimens. Nothing made him laugh more than my failure to tell a “Rolls Royce of a tup” from an indifferent woolly lump destined for sale as meat. Even with all my reading, there was only so much I could see as an outsider looking in.

is the web editor at the New Statesman magazine, where she also writes about books, music and politics. For more, visit or follow her on Twitter at @c_crampton.