Book Review – ‘English Pastoral – An Inheritance’ by James Rebank

Dear Readers, there is a lot to love about this book. James Rebank is the third generation to have farmed an area in the Lake District, and he tells of the way that farming has changed in that time, from the mixed-use farm of his grandfather to the more intensive methods that were chosen by his father, and to the way that he is trying to balance the need to make enough money for the farm to survive with the urgency of preserving and enhancing the soil and the habitat. I’ve read many books about the way that the industrialisation of agriculture has impacted the countryside, but this one is deeply personal, and is written by someone who knows the Lake District, and observes it closely. Here’s a lovely description of the goldfinches feeding on the thistles that he’s scything, for example:

Twenty feet away a goldfinch swayed gently on the purple flower of a burr thistle, and rocked back and forth, its little gold wing-bars flashing in the sunshine as it plucked at the thistledown’. 

Or his father, shooting one of the rooks who have been demolishing the barley crop:

A black speck, wings outstretched, moving slowly but so high it seemed tiny. He pulled the trigger gently. The gun recoil sent a shudder through him to me. The shot had gone, but he was still peering up the little sight on the top of the gun. The air smelt of cordite. Then, high above him, the bird crumpled into something smaller and fell from the sky. It landed about five feet from where we were crouching on the bone-hard ground with a feathery thud. All hell had broken loose. The crows knew that we were there now and had a shotgun. They fled like a kind of storm wind that sucked the air from the field’. 

But his grandfather is the last of a generation. The drive to modernise has come to this corner of the Lake District, with its pesticides, its fertilizers, its new crops and its new breeds of animals. Rebanks douses the thistles with herbicide, and they die without all the back-breaking work of scything them down. Is this the future? For a while it looks like it.

And in place of an old patchwork landscape full of working people, diverse farm animals and crops, with lots of farmland wildlife, a blander, barer, simpler denatured and unpeopled landscape had emerged“.

But Rebanks’s father is never convinced. A local man, Henry, who farmed traditionally dies, and when his soil is tested, it’s found that it needs absolutely nothing added to it – the soil is alive, rich and fertile. Everything starts to look less like a revolution, and more like a disaster.

A mile or two past Henry’s land my father pointed to a field being ploughed up by the roadside. A giant red tractor was pulling a huge blue plough. I could sense that he was alarmed by something. ‘Look’, he said, ‘there are no seagulls or crows following the plough’. This was a shocking thing to him. ‘There must be no worms in those fields.”

But the turning point for Rebanks is when he reads a copy of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’.

The morning after I had sprayed my first field of thistles, I went down the lane to check on a robin’s nest that I’d found a few days earlier. It was close to where the thistles had curled over from the chemical spray. The chicks were 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 that it was wrong. I think I told myself that three or four chicks were a one-off cost to get a big problem sorted, that they might have been killed by us mowing thistles some other way. I’m not sure I believed it, because when I remembered those dead chicks, I felt ashamed. And now, after reading ‘Silent Spring’, I knew we had been sleepwalking”.

How Rebanks decides to try to farm in a more balanced way takes up the final third of the book, and it is full of  concern for both the environment and the community of the Lake District.  I loved the deeply personal stories and observation that Rebanks brings to this work, and you can feel his passion thrumming through every page. However, when the book moves away from the personal I feel that it’s less successful – I found myself turning the pages at speed at various points when the author starts to move away from the particulars of his story into the more general. I did learn a lot from this book (I had no idea, for example, that slurry was so much worse for the soil than the traditional aged manure and straw mixes that would have been spread), but there was a lot that I already knew, so maybe the problem is with the reader rather than the author.

Let me know what you think, if you’ve had a chance to read it! It’s on to ‘Featherhood’ by Charlie Gilmour next, which promises to be a very different kind of book….



1 thought on “Book Review – ‘English Pastoral – An Inheritance’ by James Rebank

  1. Anne

    … “a blander, barer, simpler denatured and unpeopled landscape had emerged“: we see far too much of this in the agricultural sector, leaving passersby wondering how the crops manage to grow in such perfect formations without a soul around! ‘… ‘Look’, he said, ‘there are no seagulls or crows following the plough’. This was a shocking thing to him. ‘There must be no worms in those fields”: my father loved seeing the birds following him as he ploughed the lands and often made similar remarks about fellow farmers – especially those who grew tobacco – for he eschewed using pesticides, claiming that the guineafowl and others would make short shrift of the boll-worms or the pests attacking the maize. This is a book I feel sure I would feel at home with.


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