We can learn a lot from Old Henry of the fells

James Rebanks and dogs
PHOTO: Andrew Heading

I don’t know how generally well-known James Rebanks is as an author, but I’d heartily recommend him, certainly to anyone with an interest in land, nature and the changing face of rural communities.

His debut book, ‘It’s A Shepherd’s Life’ — which I stumbled on by accident— went on to become a best-seller.

It’s a wonderfully evocative account of the massive challenges and privilege of being a hill farmer in the fells of the Lake District.

Like all good writing, it doesn’t feel like reading; you are just taken on an effortless journey of the imagination.

I’ve never been to the Lake District myself, but from all accounts it’s quite spectacular — a bit like our own Highlands — and Rebanks captures that vividly.

But what comes across more than anything is the sense of privilege he feels from being connected to the land, the massive challenges of trying to make a living from a harsh environment and his profound sadness that a way of life which was once the bedrock of rural communities is now fast disappearing. The parallels to our own circumstances is quite striking.

His second offering, ‘English Pastoral’, offers a bit more optimism. Once again it’s a tremendously easy read and we are back on the fells, among the distinctive Herdwick sheep, the cattle, the characters — in particular his grandfather whose farm he inherited —and the drystone dykes. Except this time we are offered a lesson, and it is one that should make us sit up and take notice.

Through charting the history of his home valley, Rebanks shows how agricultural practices have changed over the course of time and goes on to explain how similar trends have taken place throughout the UK and, indeed, across the globe.

After the Second World War, governments rigorously pursued policies of producing more and more food. Farmers were offered huge subsidies and incentives, so farms became bigger, semi unproductive land improved through mechanisation and modern practices, and on and on the juggernaut ploughed.

Then came the supermarkets. Their over-riding aim was to drive down prices, so farms had to become more efficient. Economies of scale became the mantra. Traditional family farms disappeared, swallowed up by larger businesses, machines became bigger and more expensive and farmers became captains of industry and capitalists.

None of this happened overnight, of course, but it is heartbreaking to read of the struggles of the Rebanks’ own traditional family farm, trying to stay afloat financially while competing with the drive for modernisation going on all around them. The life of a hill farmer —or crofter for that matter — can seem romantic, but the reality is often very different.

Eventually, Rebanks’ father had an epiphany – and it was something that the younger ones had also realised. And it was all to do with ‘Old Henry’.

Old Henry was a neighbouring farmer, an eccentric bachelor. As all those around him invested in new machinery and chemical fertilisers, Old Henry never bothered, or even seemed to care.

He just continued in his own stubborn way, farming the way it had been done for generations with native breeds of livestock, cutting hay well into the autumn (when other more progressive farmers were onto their second or third cut of silage), thistle and weeds adorning every nook and cranny and his old stone barns more a haven for birdlife than serving any useful practical purpose.

Rebanks always used to take more than a passing glance at this farm. With its vast array of wildlife and ancient practices, it reminded him of the way his grandfather’s farm used to be.

When Old Henry passed away, the inevitable happened and the farm was broken up and sold to larger businesses. The agronomists came with their scientific degrees to survey the land and assess what inputs were required to transform this antiquated model into profitable production. Their conclusion astounded them: never before had they seen soil so healthy. It required not a jot of chemical input.

And here’s the crux of the lesson: Old Henry was onto something, whether knowingly or not. And the Rebanks were to take heed.

Over the course of time, as the drive for greater efficiency became ever more necessary, farmers began to specialise in one or maybe two products – whether that was focusing on huge livestock numbers or on a particular crop. Traditional mixed rotation became a thing of the past. It was seen as unnecessary, as chemical fertilisers and pesticides could ensure continued productivity and profitability.

But, through time, it all led, perhaps inevitably, to the destruction of the soil and natural environment. The evidence was there all along, but perhaps no-one had the time or inclination to see. The farmland birds — the curlew, the lapwing, the corncrake — were disappearing; the earthworms, such a crucial indicator of soil health, non-existent. ‘Modernisation’ had come at a very heavy price indeed.

And so the Rebanks family began to reassess. (Just for the record, the author is not against modernisation or even artificial inputs, but it has to be used sensibly and most certainly not at the expense of the natural environment or soil health.)

Fast-forward to today and their family hill farm now derives part of its income from subsidies geared towards environmental improvement: from the hedgerows planted, the trees, the fenced off waterways, from various bits of wildlife havens dotted around the farm.

But, be under no mistake, this is still very much a working livestock business, just that the main enterprise is now dove-tailed with nature and biodiversity, just as it once was through natural occurrence back in his grandfather’s day.

There is a growing realisation that this is the way forward for agriculture and land use – and might even be a way of getting the wider populace to warmly embrace the countryside once again.

Due to simple economics and geography, a lot of the ‘modernisation’ of which the book speaks passed crofting by, so who knows maybe we could be in the vanguard of this new agricultural and land-use enlightenment – given the proper vision and the right political will, of course.

As Old Henry of the fells so ably demonstrated in his own idiosyncratic way, there’s a lot to be said for the old ways. Maybe it is time to re-connect with the past.

Murray MacLeod is a crofter and journalist who lives in Lewis