When Lake District shepherd James Rebanks’ account of his life on the windswept fells was published last year, it became an instant and phenomenal bestseller.
His evocative paean to an existence that is fast disappearing, and his fascinating portrait of survival against the odds, is now available in paperback and this pastoral masterpiece should not be missed.
The latest incumbent of a family of Lakeland sheep farmers stretching back over 600 years, Rebanks was already a Twitter star under the name of The Herdwick Shepherd when his book brought him new fame. Simply by posting daily updates on his work with the sheep, the land and his sheepdogs, he had garnered over 60,000 avid followers.
In fact, Rebanks’ name has now become so synonymous with the Lake District’s hardy breed of sheep that he is currently helping to launch Go Herdwick, a scheme to raise funds for The Calvert Trust, a Keswick charity which specialises in adventure activities for people with disabilities.
Sixty life-size glass fibre models of Herdwick ewes are being sponsored by local businesses and will take up residence on the route from Keswick to Windermere from next month in a bid to raise £1.3m for the Trust’s 40th anniversary.
Rebanks has about 500 of his own real-life Herdwicks on a fell farm in Matterdale in the north-east of the Lakes. The sheep go to the fells to graze on common land with neighbours who also graze the same mountains. It is an ancient way of farming that has disappeared almost everywhere else but still survives here.
The Shepherd’s Life – part local history and part personal and family memoir – reveals how his work is ordered by the seasons and their different demands, and has been this way for hundreds of years.
A Viking would understand the work they do. ‘A thousand years ago we were part of a Viking trading world,’ writes Rebanks.
Indeed, his grandfather still used old Norse names like ‘mowdies’ for moles and ‘mel’ for a post hammer, and would summon his sheep by shouting the Swedish reindeer herder’s traditional words ‘cus, cus, cus.’
The Vikings would also recognise Rebanks’ shepherding tradition of sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making hay, the autumn fairs where flocks are replenished, the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.
But shepherding is tough, particularly on the merciless Lakeland fells where tragedies, like harvests ruined by rain and the devastating foot-and-mouth outbreak, can haunt families through several generations.
Immensely proud of his incredible heritage, Rebanks’ modern dispatches from an ancient landscape speak loudly of his deep-rooted attachment to his place and his work, describing a way of life that is little noticed by outsiders and yet has profoundly shaped Lake District history.
The Shepherd’s Life is a unique and riveting account of the realities of rural life and a fundamental connection with the land that most of us have lost over the centuries.
It is also Rebanks’ personal homage to the people around him… his parents, his grandparents and his own children. They are part of the people who exist and endure even as the world changes around them, and Rebanks wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘When I leave my flock in the fells surrounded by grass and come down home, I leave something of myself up there with them,’ he tells us. ‘This is my life. I want no other.’
(Penguin, paperback, £8.99)