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English Pastoral: An inheritance, James Rebanks

Author: David Missen

Published: 07 Jan 2021

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“English pastoral” is perhaps a strange book to find on the 2020 bestseller lists. Set in Cumbria, and largely autobiographical, it describes farming life on mixed family farms over three generations. Seen through the eyes of the author, and by proxy, his father and grandfather, we are taken from the end of era of the carthorse up to modern day.

Rebanks describes the changes which took place on his family farms in terms of specialisation, mechanisation, manpower changes and eventually the disintegration of age old communities. Hay and farmyard manure were replaced by multiple silage cuts and intensive nitrogen applications, traditional cattle breeds by heavyweight continentals, and the whole structure of farming life by ever increasing reliance on volume production. He portrays the end of an era of farming history which is rapidly passing from living memory in the hill farming areas, and which disappeared a generation or more ago across the arable regions.

In the second half of the book we are taken through the arguments in favour of a more environmentally friendly approach, in some ways reverting to the policies of his grandfather rather than his father or his contemporaries, but against this is balanced the practicalities of trying to make a living on a small hill farm. One feels that this, and books like it, may feature heavily in the thinking behind the new Environmental Land Management schemes, when they eventually arrive, but Rebanks makes his points more powerfully from the perspective of a working hill farmer.

The book is about farming, pure and simple. Bank managers and solicitors are given a cursory role here and there, but accountants do not feature at all – one suspects that the Rebanks family had neither the time nor money to spare for such luxuries.

This is a good read, interesting and practical. It is by no means a textbook on what to do and how to do it – it just describes the author’s experiences and thoughts over his farming life. For those trying to understand the arguments about green policies, natural capital and the fourth agricultural revolution, or indeed those who practice primarily in lowland areas and wish to understand more about hill farming, it is a very  good place to start. If it didn’t arrive in the Christmas stocking, it is definitely a “must have” to help you through the next lockdown.

*The views expressed are the author's and not ICAEW's.