What to Look For in Spring,…Summer,…Autumn, and…Winter are four small books published in the early 1960s by Ladybird, a legendary British children’s publisher. The charmingly eccentric text was written by E.L. Grant Watson, a Cambridge biologist and prolific novelist, and every facing page was illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe, a renowned painter of birds whose colorful scenes captured the British Isles’ peaceable marriage of the wild and domestic: a farmer cutting hay, lambs frolicking, cows grazing, stoats hunting field mice, moorhens nesting, hares boxing during the mating season. They are a perfect image of the lost English pastoral.
In August 2020 Kerrie Ann Gardner, an artist and naturalist living in Devon, reproduced a number of Tunnicliffe’s illustrations as part of a Twitter thread (and subsequently for an essay for the Penguin website). She offered them not as an exercise in nostalgia but as poignant proof of ecosystems that now lie in tatters. In the UK, 133 species have gone extinct since the 1500s. Since the 1970s, 40 million birds have vanished from its skies.
Shocked at the contrast between the present and the recent past, Gardner said that we cannot continue to look for many of the animals in Watson’s pages, because they’re no longer there:
A rooftop covered in…swallows, house and sand martins. Beyond them were telegraph wires equally laden with these birds. The words of an elderly neighbour came to mind: “Couldn’t see the wires for the swallows” he’d told me when speaking about days gone by, and in an instant I realised that I wasn’t looking at some fanciful event—this is what Tunnicliffe had actually seen…. There were huge flocks of lapwings and swarms of eels…kaleidoscopic butterflies…swifts, grey Partridges, a turtle dove, spotted flycatcher, wood warbler and there, in all his heraldic glory, was a cuckoo, proudly perched on a post in a blossom-filled garden.
I thought back to the last time I’d heard a cuckoo, let alone seen one. It was years ago, yet I used to hear them every May.
The destruction is driven largely by modern agriculture, and no one knows this better than the British farmer and shepherd James Rebanks. As he says in his new book, Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey, he has been seeing these shifts—the steady impoverishment of rural landscapes—for most of his life, since he was a child sitting behind his grandfather on a tractor, watching seagulls descend on worms flung up by the plow. “I was a boy living through the last days of an ancient farming world,” he says. “I didn’t know what was coming, or why.”
What was coming was a global revolution in monoculture that upended their lives and those of everyone they knew. Terrifying in its destructive power, it “played out in the fields,” mowing down all before it. “I was a witness,” he says, but he is more than that. Pastoral Song, in its cri de coeur against our current state of abject agricultural illiteracy, may be the most passionate ecological corrective since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
James Rebanks was born in the summer of 1974 in the rural county of Cumbria, in North West England. Bordered to the north by Scotland and the remains of Hadrian’s Wall (the old Roman wall built in AD 122), Cumbria is one of the most sparsely populated corners of the country, home to the peaks and lakes celebrated by Wordsworth and his fellow Lake poets. The Lake District is now a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site, although much land remains under private ownership. It is not uncommon, on a summer’s day, to see enormous buses packed with international tourists towering over tiny Dove Cottage, the house on the edge of Grasmere village where Wordsworth lived with his sister, Dorothy, or pulling up beside Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top, a seventeenth-century dwelling in Near Sawrey almost as diminutive as Tom Kitten’s. With the lucre from her little books, Potter helped preserve the Lake District, buying and bequeathing four thousand acres, including fifteen farms, to the National Trust. But not even she could have predicted a day when (pre-Covid) the region was drawing close to 20 million visitors a year.
Pastoral wallpaper to the tourists, roughly three million sheep also abide in Cumbria. In his immensely popular Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth celebrated the region as “a perfect Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturists,” and it remains, as Rebanks says, “a kind of nursery for the national sheep flock,” supplying breeding stock for the rest of the country as it has “for many centuries.”
Rebanks began this story in his first book, the 2015 memoir The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. His second builds on the first, and while both stand alone, they are especially powerful when read together. The Shepherd’s Life is about the farmer; Pastoral Song is about farming.
In The Shepherd’s Life, Rebanks lays out the year as it has unfolded over the past five thousand years on a so-called mixed or rotational farm on the “fells,” or mountainsides, rocky and dangerously exposed. In summer the shepherds gather sheep off the fells for shearing; in late autumn “tups” (rams) join the ewes to perpetuate the flock. We see the cycle of planting, plowing, and making hay for the winter months; the sheep sales of late autumn and winter; the shepherding of the core flock through the harsh winter months; and spring lambing. “It is a farming pattern,” he says, “fundamentally unchanged…. You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing.”
Rooted in land and culture, Rebanks is no tourist, and he instructs us in the specialized language of his work. In this world, a “commoner” is a farmer who has rights to graze on the common land, ceded long ago by feudal aristocrats. A “gimmer” is a ewe lamb; “fog” is “the sweet regrowth after cropping that we use for the lambs that are weaned.” He drills us in the fine points of an eminent Lake District breed, the Herdwick, hardy in winter, crafty, tough, and “hefted” to the place, “taught their sense of belonging by their mothers as lambs.” Potter bred them at Hill Top, stipulating that the National Trust continue to stock her farms with the “pure Herdwick breed.” A hefted sheep knows its mountainside much the way a salmon knows its stream; it can traverse rocky slopes and find shelter from the storm.
From the beginning, James was taken under the wing of his paternal grandfather, William Hugh Rebanks, who had “only one yellow tooth,” with which he could “clean the meat off a lamb chop…like a jackal.” While clashing with his taciturn father, he worshiped his granddad:
From my first memories until his dying day, I thought the sun shone out of his backside…. He was the king of his own world, like a biblical patriarch. He doffed his cap to no man. No one told him what to do. He lived a modest life but was proud and free and independent, with a presence that said he belonged in this place in the world. My first memories are of him, and knowing I wanted to be just like him someday.
Literate if unlettered, his peasant grandfather, he says, had probably never read Wordsworth. He had a single book in his home, and “it was about horse ailments.” Except for a tractor and bits of other machinery, W.H. Rebanks hewed to the old ways and knew bygone names for everything from moles (“mowdies”) to ewes (“yows”).
It was from this man that Rebanks absorbed a kind of nobility that had nothing to do with class. “We owned the earth,” he learned. “We’d been here forever. And we always would be.” At the age of eight he began learning how to rebuild stone walls and an endless series of other duties: “Worming lambs. Moving sheep between fields. Running sheep through the footbath. Laying hedges (only in months with an ‘R’ in them, or the sap will not run and the hedge will die). Hanging gates.”
Among his lessons in shepherding, Rebanks weaves a darker, personal story of his other education. At the local comprehensive, a nonselective state school, he grew to despise the teachers’ attitude of casual indifference toward those, like himself, deemed not intelligent, not destined for the world of higher education, the children of “farmworkers, joiners, brickies, electricians, and hairdressers.”
He joined in the general hooliganism, telling “our dumbfounded headmaster” that the institution was a violation of “human rights.” It was at school that he first heard of Wordsworth, astonished that the teachers valued the Lake District in a way “completely alien to my family,” as a romantic “playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers, and daydreamers.” Resenting the notion that “the story of our landscape wasn’t about us,” he quit before the legal age of sixteen to work on the farm.
But by the mid-1990s, modern farms were ballooning in scale, and after half a dozen years of hard labor trying to hold to tradition, Rebanks could see that his family was barely breaking even. At the same time, he was stung by a growing realization that educated people “mattered” in a way he did not. He was beginning to feel the influence of his other grandfather, who died before he was born, a grammar school teacher who left a small library that included W.H. Hudson’s classic A Shepherd’s Life, a reminiscence in the naturalist tradition about a nineteenth-century shepherd, a life steeped in old ballads and tales of poachers, beloved sheepdogs, foxes, adders, and talented rat-killing cats. Reading it was a revelation to someone who had believed that “books were always about other people, other places, other lives. This book, in all its glory, was about us.” It would, of course, prove the precursor to his own.
At twenty-one, after a bitter argument with his father “about a tup he bought,” Rebanks was ready to return to school. Taking night classes for two years, he prepared for his A levels, “on a mission” to prove to himself that he could do it. Helen, the girl he was dating, helped him learn legible handwriting to take the tests, and although he claims he never hankered after a university education, he decided to apply to Oxford. He was accepted to that school’s Magdalen College, realizing that being “a bit northern and weird was my greatest strength” and separated him from the general run of Oxbridge sophisticates. He eventually took a double first in history.
He never stopped yearning to return to the farm, waking up among the “dreaming spires” disoriented by “empty days” with no animals to tend. But the experience transformed him, instilling confidence and a gift for class code-switching. “When I left Oxford I was bulletproof,” he writes, no longer intimidated by “posh” people. His degree led him to outside opportunities, including a part-time job as an expert adviser to UNESCO on sustainable tourism, which required travel to farming communities around the world. His newfound self-assurance eased the bad blood with his father, and he returned home invigorated. He and Helen married and began a family.
In the early months of 2001, however, a catastrophic epidemic of infectious foot-and-mouth disease broke out across the UK. To contain it, the government required the destruction of more than six million cows, pigs, and sheep. Cumbria was the center of the outbreak:
They came to collect our sheep at lambing time. We loaded pregnant ewes into the wagons. The few lambs that had been born were loaded as well. I have never done anything that felt so wrong, so against everything I was ever taught to do.
A police sniper shot their cattle in the fields. His father couldn’t bear to watch and went in the house. Cleaning up afterward, Rebanks wrote, “I felt dirty and ashamed,” and when the last wagon stacked with corpses left the premises, “I went into the barn, away from everyone, sat down in the shadows, held my head in my hands, and sobbed big fat dusty tears.”
In two hours, sixty years’ work had been destroyed. Their flock, many of them “descendants of the good ewes my grandfather had bought in the 1940s,” represented decades of care and attention to breeding. No one who reads this book, whatever their dietary practices or beliefs, can come away without an understanding that, outside of factories, most farmers treasure their livestock, or that Rebanks, like all good shepherds, loves his sheep, individually and collectively. He describes one from happier days dubbed “the Queen of the Flock,” an animal with “a sense of her own importance.” When visitors were brought to admire the fields, she would pose for them, “standing like a statue.”
The epidemic serves as a segue to his next book:
The choice for our wider society is not whether we farm, but how we farm. Do we want a countryside that is entirely shaped by industrial-scale cheap food production with some little islands of wilderness dotted in amongst it, or do we, in at least some places, also value the traditional landscape as shaped by traditional family farms?
Pastoral Song, published as English Pastoral in the UK, compels us to grapple with that question, and it is, if anything, even more urgent and eloquent than its predecessor.
An international best seller, The Shepherd’s Life brought Rebanks a fame intensified by his popular Twitter account, @herdyshepherd1, which has more than 150,000 followers. The online audience has grown accustomed to glimpses of his four children, skilled shepherds all, and the keen pack of border collies perched on the back of a “quad,” an all-terrain vehicle used to navigate fields. On Twitter, he has documented the lambing season in graphic detail, confronting many a city dweller or suburbanite with the afterbirth of actual farming life, although last summer he refrained from depicting the fate of two highly photogenic pigs, dubbed Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish by his daughters, after a season in which the swine were seen joyously munching apples and having their backs scratched. He has not hesitated, however, to relocate them to the dinner plate.
Rebanks has been profiled in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and his rise was not without controversy. In 2018, shortly after agreeing to join a government review of England’s national parks, he resigned when critics opposed the presence of a shepherd on the panel. He and his consulting work on the Lake District’s World Heritage bid were attacked by The Guardian’s gadfly columnist and TED talker George Monbiot, who denounced the area as a “sheep museum” where “woolly maggots” grazed in a “slow-burning ecological disaster.”
Rebanks has what Wordsworth might have termed “powerful feelings” on such charges, but in Pastoral Song he has a more important task: a wide-ranging defense of traditional farming grounded in history and biology. He begins by contemplating the foundational soil-building component of all agriculture, which is to say, shit. His opening parable on manure begins as “streaks of white seagull shit splatter like milk down onto the soil,” a sign of its fertility. “Where there was muck there was money,” he says of his grandfather’s view, and the microbial health of soil, its renewal through a restoration of the age-old interconnection between livestock and crops, is his theme.
He retraces his indoctrination into the lowliest of farming jobs, the midwinter work of shoveling muck behind the cows in the barns. His grandfather treated the black bounty like gold:
He piled up a giant mountainous midden of straw and muck across the yard. He brushed around it each day so that it was neat and tidy. Its steep sides and its brushed-back edges showed that he cared about his work. It gently steamed and was the only place that wasn’t being buried in snow, as it generated so much heat that the snow simply melted. He thought that pride in your work, no matter how modest the task, was the mark of a good man, so he mucked the cows out as if he was being judged on it every day.
Thus preserved, the manure was then spread on the fields, restoring fertility. Every task on the farm was dedicated to regeneration: young James once earned a stern side-eye when he complained about pulling turnips in the bitter cold, learning that they were “good sheep feed,” the rows also serving as “a refuge and a larder for wild things when the other fields were cold and bare…. Hares and partridges and countless other small birds seemed to find food and shelter among them.”
The work was his early lesson in the interdependence of wild and domestic creatures, but Rebanks soon saw the breaking of that chain. He began to sense the financial pressures weighing on his father and to face the fact that, economically, “everything was wrong with our farm.” When his grandfather died, his father returned from the solicitor with the sickening news that they were near bankruptcy and some land must be relinquished. In a desperate effort to save what remained, the family was soon tempted by “shop-bought” fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, while neighbors, likewise, frantically enlarged old fields and eradicated barns in the rush to modernize and expand everything.
Rebanks traces the revolution in man-made chemicals back to its origins early in the twentieth century, when the German chemist Fritz Haber “unpicked nature’s lock” on fertility by artificially fixing atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen. (Haber’s work, which won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918, also enabled the invention of chemical weapons.) In previous centuries, fixing nitrogen in soil was a glacially slow process, accomplished chiefly by resting fields or planting nitrogen-boosting crops such as clover, which were then trampled into the soil by cattle or sheep as they grazed, killing weeds and enriching exhausted earth in a process called the “golden hoof.” After Haber, nobody wanted the golden hoof; they wanted the golden chemicals.
By the postwar 1950s, after years when hunger stalked the globe, the “great simplification” had begun, Rebanks writes—a “stripping away” as farmers “shed layers of rotation.” Possessed by “a kind of arms race” of intensification, farmers rid themselves of everything superfluous: horses, pigs, turkeys, and hens, as well as the crops that supported them—oats, turnips, and barley. But the simplification created new life the way Dr. Frankenstein did, setting monsters loose upon the land. Rebanks and his father began supplying artificial high-protein feed to their cows, who instead of producing solid waste began squirting “jets of slurry out of their rears” that had to be prevented from oozing down out of the barn and into the streams and rivers, polluting as it went.
“I understood now that my grandfather had fussed over the muck from his cows because it was an important part of the nutrient cycle of the farm,” Rebanks writes. “The new farming had taken two mutually beneficial things—grazing animals and fertilizing fields—and separated them to create two massive industrial-scale problems in separate places.” Farms grew in size but were emptied of skilled workers, leading to despair, suicide, and the fracturing of communities.
He himself underwent a violent re-indoctrination, first into the new ways and then back to the old. At the age of twenty, he took a job for a few months in Australia, driving a tractor across a “deep red Martian landscape” at night, when the air was cooler. Astounded by the inhuman scale of monoculture and farming intensification, he saw “tens of thousands of sheep ranched in fields bigger than our entire farm.” He returned to the Lake District filled with shame at his family’s broken-down operation, “embarrassed” that they “hadn’t managed to keep up. We were too small, too old-fashioned, too conservative, too poor, and now, probably, too late to find a place in this brave new world.” The old ways his grandfather taught seemed “prehistoric.”
But industrialized farming made for horrific sights, as when one of the heifers drowned in a neighboring dairy farm’s slurry pit. Rebanks sprayed pesticides on thistles and nettles, damaging weeds that are inedible to sheep and had once taken days to clear out by hand. “We were heading for the future,” he recalls, yet soon after, he revisited a robin’s nest caught in the spray, finding the chicks “dead in the nest, cold bundles of pink skin and bone and scruffy feather stubs. I knew this was my fault. A tiny voice inside me had said it was wrong.” Again, he says, “I felt ashamed.”
Over the years, he and his family witnessed the vanishing of other birds that had once thrived in their fields, the corncrake and the curlew. Fields had become a “killing zone for their chicks,” the intensified edge-to-edge mowing destroying nests. Seagulls no longer followed the plow, the worms having been killed off by the toxic slurry. The Rebankses’ epiphany about “what the new farming was doing to the land” came upon the death of a farming neighbor, Henry, who had rejected all the newfangled products. A soil analyst, sent to test Henry’s fields to determine how much artificial fertilizer or lime would be needed to get it up to “efficient production,” reported that the soil was “some of the best he had ever tested.” Down at the pub, the farmers mulled the irony of the “revelation.” Another shock to Rebanks was Carson’s Silent Spring: reading it as a young man, decades after it was first published, he felt he had “woken up from a long coma.”
The months after Rebanks’s father’s death, in 2015, he writes, “were the hardest of my life.” He had always wanted to “be the farmer,” but the inheritance of his grandfather’s 185 acres, “too big for a hobby, too small to make much money,” left him feeling “empty [and] lost” at a time when the country itself was “divided and broken.” Moving forward, he began to pursue a kind of “utopia,” a return to his first principles.
Farmers, he has come to believe, had done “great damage,” and factory farming was “an illusion, an industrial arrogance…a dystopia.” The economists, he concludes, were wrong: farming can never be “a business like any other because, crucially, it takes place in a natural setting and affects the natural world directly and profoundly.” He is building on a venerable genre, exemplified by Wendell Berry’s 1980 autobiographical essay “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” a sober Thoreauvian reflection on the “restoration and healing” of his acreage in the Kentucky River Valley. But unlike Berry, a cool rhetorician, Rebanks is neither a philosopher nor a Jeffersonian agrarian idealist. A product of centuries of righteous peasant judgment, he speaks with blunt, unmatched authority.
He is also a fine writer with descriptive power and a gift for characterization. Pastoral Song is full of memorable portraits of his children, parents, and grandparents: “Grandma did her housework with an intensity that suggested something else was on her mind” (her husband’s infidelity, he suspects), while Tom, his youngest son, is “obsessed with the farm” at age two. Denied the opportunity to accompany his dad on farming rounds, the toddler “stands at the door, tears flowing down his cheeks, or shakes the garden gate in his fury, howling at the injustice of it all.” Sheepdogs drip “candles of saliva onto my legs”; cobwebs hang from barn rafters “like tangled pairs of women’s tights.” A mare giving birth stares at her side distended by the leg of a foal “as if she had swallowed a stepladder.”
Pastoral Song takes up the great debate over the question of eating organic, local, or vegetarian and broadens it. Rebanks does not balk at confronting readers with the brutality of all farming, and, by extension, human existence: “We have to farm to eat, and we have to kill (or displace life, which amounts to the same thing) to farm.” It is a “cultural disaster,” he argues, that shoppers are continually worrying “about what they should eat” while missing the whole picture: “how their local landscapes should be farmed.” Consumers, he argues, must become fluent in what it takes to produce food; they should know what it costs in every sense.
He is not proposing a simpleminded return to medieval methods and knows that monoculture will not disappear, calling instead for a balance between wild and domestic. Wherever possible, he suggests, farmers should be looking for ways to achieve “no-till farming,” by drilling seeds into the ground without causing erosion and altering soil temperature, and by restoring the “golden hoof” through “mob” grazing (what bison do in the wild), in which cows and sheep graze an area briefly and evenly, trampling waste and organic matter into the ground for fertility. Both methods store carbon.
More broadly, he has railed against the UK’s post-Brexit embrace of cheap imports from the US and Australia, destined to slash profits for the homegrown to the bone. His declaration that “the field is the base layer on which our entire civilisation is built” should be tattooed on politicians’ foreheads, because the bill for our lethal synthetic infatuation is coming due as topsoil and freshwater are lost to drought and poisons concentrated in the environment. The agrochemical giant Monsanto (now absorbed by Bayer) is not a name that appears here, but it’s the grinning skull behind every sentence. Having seen for himself the “sterile” depopulated “black fields of Iowa,” Rebanks rightly calls the American model “broken,” touting instead “healthier real food systems” of urban farms and supermarkets trading with local farmers.
So long as government subsidies favor production of mass-produced cheap food, “farming for nature,” he says, “is economic suicide,” requiring small farmers to carry debt and juggle multiple jobs. Waiting for sanity to return, he hopes his upland valley may be a model for a “beautiful compromise” between tradition and advanced ecological knowledge, as he glories in the return of swallows, curlews, bees, and butterflies. He has restored his grandfather’s mixed rotational model but with a difference, guided by expertise from biologists, naturalists, and hydrologists. With volunteer assistance, he has “re-wiggled” streams to slow water and restore the floodplain, planted thousands of trees, presided over the reseeding and regrowth of two hundred species of wildflowers and grasses, rested fields, and restored hedgerows. He lends his black-and-white Belted Galloways, the cattle that replaced those shot in 2001, to neighbors to help enrich their own soil.
When, toward the end of Pastoral Song, Rebanks lifts dried cowpats in his hands and crumbles them, he finds they are “riddled with life—fat gray grubs, little black dung beetles, tiny turquoise beetles, and insect shells that sparkle in the sunshine.” This is the new English pastoral, in which the “best new sustainable ‘technologies’” are cows and sheep. These, and much else, he has in abundance.