The Shepherd’s Life Book Notes

Ryan Holiday has an excellent reading list that consistently provides leads for promising biographical/historical/philosophical books.  Recently he recommended an obscure book on shepherding and what it is like to be a modern day shepherd, called The Shepherd’s Life [public library].

But the book is not just about farming and raising sheep in the Lake District, England.  It is about the mindset of indigenous people who have a spiritual tie to the land, the contrast between “peasants” who have a sense of belonging and purpose and history, and the “civilized” modern world that works as cogs in a machine and increasingly cut away their roots to everything (tradition, family, legacy, religion, community).  It is the memoir of a man who was born the heir in a long line of sheep farmers, who only wanted to be a sheep farmer, but somehow ended up with an Oxford education and a career in London, before he was able to finally return to his roots and what he was meant to be and do.  You will learn about sheep and the economics of shepherding, about the mindset of a people like the people of the chalk in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series [public library], the spirituality of working closely with nature, morality and values in close-knit communities, and about cultural integration and misunderstandings.  This book is a longer read, but well worth the effort.


Book notes:

As a child, he experienced a lot of friction between teachers in school and the local kids–teachers (outsiders) could only see success as getting educated and going out into the world and achieving white collar success, but the kids only wanted to do what generations of their families had done working on the land and doing blue collar local jobs.  Complete disconnect between world views.  [Perhaps it would have been better if the educators could have tailored their curriculum to help the kids learn how to better work on their farms, like a vocational school, or at least to show them how learning math/how to read can make you a better farmer/businessman.]

“The idea that we, our fathers, and mothers might be proud, hardworking, and intelligent people doing something worthwhile or even admirable was beyond her [the teacher].  For a woman who saw success as being demonstrated through education, ambition, adventure, and conspicuous professional achievement we must have seemed a poor sample. …Schooling was a way out, but we didn’t want it, and we’d made our choice.”

“Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ with your life.  The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.”


“‘The village children…are convinced that they have something which none of the newcomers can ever have, some kind of mysterious life which is so perfect that it is a waste of time to search for anything else.’” –Daphne Ellington, Teacher, Quoted in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969)


Childhood hero was his grandpa:

“Even as a small child I could see that 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.”

[This kind of self-assurance, confidence from being your own boss and being self-sufficient is rare in the modern industrialized world.  More often modern men are just cogs in the machine, usually feeling low confidence from being subject to the orders/whims of arbitrary bosses or stakeholders–too many dependencies and low feelings of control.  And most often they are little fish in a big pond, rather than big fish in a little pond.  And then all the options people have for living makes them more likely to second guess choices, which causes more insecurity.]

To outsiders, Lake District is an idealized place of inspiration for the arts, a place to escape and feel things, a foil for the industrial revolution.

[Note: the author’s description of his ppl and their mentality reminds me a lot of the culture of the shepherds on the chalk plains in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series.  I wonder if he read this book or had met/spoken with these people when writing that series?]

“I smile at the thought that the entire history of our family has played out in the fields and villages stretching away beneath that fell, between Lake District and Pennines, for at least six centuries, and probably longer.  We shaped this landscape, and we were shaped by it in turn.  My people lived, worked, and died down there for countless generations.  It is what it is because of them and people like them.

It is, above all, a peopled landscape.  Every acre of it has been defined by the actions of men and women over the past ten thousand years.  …Almost everyone I am related to and care about lives within sight of that fell.  When we call it our landscape, we mean it as a physical and intellectual reality.  There is nothing chosen about it.  This landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning.  This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care.  I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.

[What must it be like to feel SUCH a sense of connection and rightness to a place?  To know in your bones that this is your destiny, where you belong?]


“There is something about this landscape that people love.  It would, in summer, seem to most people around the world to be exceptionally green and lush.  It is a pastoral landscape and temperate, a place of heavy rainfall and warm summers, an excellent place, in short, for growing grass in the summer.  As writers have long noted, it is an intimate landscape, big enough to fill the eyes, but small enough to feel intimate and knowable.  Whitewashed farmhouses hug the fell sides just beneath the ancient common land of the fells.”


“My grandfather was, quite simply, one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who live, work, love, and die without leaving much written trace that they were ever here.  He was, and his descendants remain, essentially nobodies as far as anyone else is concerned.  But that’s the point.  Landscapes like ours were created by and survive through the efforts of nobodies.  …This is a landscape of modest hardworking people.  The real history of our landscape should be the history of the nobodies.”


Sheep raising is done on the commons–shared land on the mountainside called the “fells”.  Sheep are tied to a particular location so don’t wander even without fences.

“Beyond our common lies other unfenced areas of mountain land, other fells, farmed by other commoners, so in theory our sheep could wander right across the Lake District.  But they don’t because they know their place on the mountains.  They are ‘hefted’, taught their sense of belonging by their mothers as lambs–an unbroken chain of learning that goes back thousands of years. …This is, they say, the greatest concentration of common land in Western Europe; and it survives on an older kind of farming that that which exists across much of the world now.”

[Sheep hefting is like how the ppl there are hefted to the land–they also stay.]


The land is owned by the National Trust or private landowners who allow the commoners (people who live on the commons) grazing rights.  There are things called “stints”, which are shares of the common rights to grazing, and each stint you own lets you graze a certain # of sheep.  These stints can be bought/sold/rented.

“This is all a strange hangover from a feudal past when we paid dues (including bearing arms) to the lord of the manor in return for the right to graze the poor mountain land. …The aristocrats either disappeared or couldn’t be bothered to contest our rights, because we are troublesome and stubborn when crossed.  It was more effort than it was worth, so we, the peasants, won.”


For the most part, the sheep are left to graze and do their thing (no natural predators in the area).  They are gathered and brought down to the lowlands a few times a year to do shearing, lambing, etc.  Gathering is a team affair and all the shepherds in the same commons work together to gather all their sheep down.  Good sheepdogs are a requirement for being a shepherd.


“Ghylls” are long deep ravines, “carved out by the beck over many centuries, on the left-hand arm of the gather where our common meets the next one.”

“Peat hags”: “raised peat bogs that rise up out of the sward, like green, or brown, islands slowly emerging out of the earth.  They form a sea of raised mounds, some twenty or thirty feet across, others acres in size; they are carved apart by little gulleys and valleys worn by the water, forming dangerous cliffs of black peat the height of a man, or deeper, that you can tumble into.  The sheep rub their backs on these peaty cliff faces, giving their fleeces a coal-black hue that tells us this is where they live.”


“I see my world stretched beneath me, the three kinds of farmland that make up our world: inbye (meadow), intake (the lower slopes of the fells which aren’t common land because they have been enclosed by walls or fences), and fells.  The farming year here revolves around the managed movement of the sheep between these three kinds of land.”

[This reminds me of that organic farm Michael Pollan wrote about where the farmer said he grew grass and then merely rotated animals around his farm to eat/excrete good fertilizer for the grass.]

“A fell farm is at heart a simple thing.  It is a way of farming that evolved to take advantage of the summer growth of grass in the mountains to produce things that farmers can consume themselves, in a subsistence model, or sell to earn their keep.”

Basic structure of the year:

“Midsummer we keep the lambs healthy, gather the ewes and lambs down from the fells or intakes for clipping the sheep (we do this even though the wool is largely worthless now, because it is needed for their welfare), and make the hay for the winter.

Autumn sees us bring the sheep down from the fells or higher ground again for the autumn sales and shows, taking the lambs from their mothers (who can then recover from their efforts), and preparing and selling the surplus ewe lambs and ewes in the harvest of the fells.  In these few short weeks we make most of our annual income, from selling surplus breeding females to the lowlands, and a handful of breeding males (tups) that are good enough to be sold to other breeders at a premium.

Late autumn is about starting the breeding cycle by putting the tups with the ewes…It is also when the retained lambs (those required for the future of the flock) are sent away for the winter to lowland farms.  Through late autumn (and winter) we also fatten and sell our spare male (wether) lambs to butchers for meat.  Our farming is largely about producing breeding sheep for sale to other farmers (who value the daughters of the fell flocks because they are tough and productive on lower ground), and male lambs for meat from the abundance of grass in the mountains between May and October (there is an intermediate trade in these lambs called selling them ‘store’ which has a middleman buy them and fatten them). …

Winter is about looking after the core breeding flock through the worst weather of the year, feeding them when needed (our sheep eat grass for much of the year until it disappears in the winter months, when we need to feed them the hay).

Late winter/early spring we tend the pregnant ewes and prepare for lambing time.

Spring revolves around lambing the ewes on the best land we have (the inbye) and looking after hundreds of young lambs.

Late spring/early summer we are marking, vaccinating, and worming the ewes and lambs and pushing them to the fells and intakes to take advantage of the summer growth of grass, freeing the valley bottoms to grow the hay for winter.

And then we do it all again, just as our forefathers did before us.  It is a farming pattern, fundamentally unchanged from many centuries ago.  It has changed in scale (as farms have amalgamated to survive, so there are fewer of us) but not in its basic content. …Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, not by our will.”


Local types of knowledge and solidity/predictability of life there:

“My grandfather and father could go just about anywhere in northern England and they’d usually know who farmed the land they had passed by and often who was there previously or who farmed next door.  The whole landscape here is a complex web of relationships between farms, flocks, and families.”

“Individuals live and die, but the farms, the flocks, and the old families go on.”


Rumors and reputation are the de facto rule of law.  People won’t do business with untrustworthy characters.

“THere is an unwritten code of honour between shepherds here.  I remember my grandfather telling me about his friend buying some sheep privately from another farmer for what he thought was a fair price.  Weeks later he attended some sheep sales and realized that he had got the sheep very cheap indeed, too cheap… He felt that this was unfair to the seller because he’d trusted him.  He didn’t want to be greedy, or perhaps as important, to be seen to be greedy.  So he sent the farmer a cheque for the difference and apologized.  But the farmer who’d sold them then politely refused to cash it, on the grounds that the original deal was an honourable one.  They’d shaken hands on it.  Stalemate.

The only way out was to go back the next year and buy his sheep and pay over the odds to make up for it, so he did.  Neither of these men cared remotely about ‘maximizing profit’ in the short-term in the way a modern business person in a city would; they both valued their good names and their reputations for integrity far more highly than making a quick buck.  If you said you would do a thing, you’d better do it.”

People are known by the reputations of their families, and their farms.

“Anyone new to the community or common would be watched carefully until they showed themselves to have integrity and play by the rules.  They say you have to be here for three generations before you are a local (people laugh when they say that, but it carries a lot of truth).”


People rarely praise, and when they do it’s high praise indeed.  After a sheepdog had done well, “He made me look good.  She [an old shepherdess] said he had done all right, which from her is the highest praise.”


Tough work builds character:
“But tough work knocks the silliness out of you when you grow up in places like ours.  It teaches you to get tougher or get lost.  Them that are all talk are soon found out.  Left sitting feeling sorry for themselves exhausted by mid-afternoon whilst the older men are grafting away like they have only just started.”


Another way of talking about the sense of history/belonging/roots:

“The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives, overlapping and intertwining, until it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other starts.  Each annual task is also a memory of the many times we have done it before and the people we did it with.  As long as the work goes on, the men and women that once did it with us live on as well, part of what we are doing, part of our stories and memories, part of how and why we do those things.”

“Some people’s lives are entirely their own creation.

Mine isn’t.”


“I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we had seen just enough of the wider world to know we liked our own old ways and independence best.  My grandfather went as far afield as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once.  He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous, and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control.  The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.”


Wool used to be an economic factor in raising sheep, but now the costs no longer justify shearing and selling (b/c manmade fabrics are cheaper).  So sometimes shepherds just burn the wool(!!) and have bred sheep to have less wool b/c now the clipping only happens for the health of the sheep.


On values:

“He [grandfather] loves to tell stories.  True stories.  This is how he passes on his values.  How he tells me who we are.  They have morals, these stories.

We don’t give up, even when things are bad.

We pay our debts.

We work hard.

We act decently.

We help our neighbours if they need it.

We do what we say we will do.

We don’t want much attention.

We look after our own.

We are proud of what we do.

We try to be quietly smart.

We take chances sometimes to get on.

We will fail sometimes.

We will be affected by the wider world…

But we hold on to who we are.

It was clear from his stories that we were part of a tradition, that long pre-dated us, and would long exist after us.  The stories left you feeling proud to be part of that tradition, but very aware that as individuals we were bound by duty to carry it on, bound to try and live by those values.  His main lesson was above all to get along with people; don’t burn your bridges or they will stay down for a long time.  Having the same families live and work alongside each other for many centuries created a unique kind of society with special values.

In my grandfather’s world, a person’s life was not a thing of his own invention, a new thing on a blank slate.  We are bound by our landscape.  Shaped by it.  Defined by it.”

“We are, I guess, all of us, built out of stories.”


“From the beginning my grandfather taught me the classic worldview of what Europeans would call a peasant, and we would simply call a farmer.  We owned the earth.  We’d been here forever.  And we always would be.  We would get battered from time to time, but we would endure and win.  There was also a strong sense of what others would call egalitarianism, which exists in many pastoral communities in northern Europe, that judged a man or woman on their work, their livestock, and their participation.”


On education and the younger generation: his grandparents actively discouraged him from reading

“The gist of it was that there couldn’t possibly be so little else of value to do on the farm that I could justify reading a book in daylight hours.  Books were considered a sign of idleness at best and dangerous at worst.  My school successes…also seemed to worry my grandfather, like a flashing warning light that he might lose his heir to another culture.”


“My grandfather was aware of the modern world, and could adapt to it.  But he also held its values and newfangled inventions at arm’s length.”


More criticisms of modern life:

“It [school] also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people.  How few choices it gives them.  How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend.  How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.”


Author went to Oxford(!!) after he fought with his dad and wanted to leave the farm for a few years to do his own thing.  He played up his northern hick background to get in (education bit was covered by taking night classes and reading craptons of books).  But he always felt a bit out of place with the other students:

“They were okay, but they were all very similar; they struggled to have different opinions because they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies, and they thought they would always win.  But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.  He [the prof] asked me what could be done about it.  I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year to do some dead-end job like working in a chicken processing plant or spreading muck with a tractor.  It would do more good than a gap year in Peru.”


Since farming doesn’t make money, he works as a whitecollar remote worker (expert advisor to the UNESCO world heritage centre in Paris) freelance to ensure that tourism benefits host communities.  He gets to travel and do random things.  But at the end of the day, he comes back to the farm.


Ending thoughts on freedom and shepherding:

“There is nothing like the feeling of freedom and space that you get when you are working with the flock and the dogs in the fells.  I escape the nonsense that tries to consume me below.  My life has a purpose, an earthy, sensible meaning. …This is an ancient, hard-earned, local kind of freedom that was stolen from people elsewhere…Ours is a rooted and local kind of freedom tied to working common land, the freedom of the commoner, a community-based relationship with land.  By remaining in a place, working on it, and paying my dues, I am entitled to a share of its commonwealth. …There is a thrill in the timelessness up there; I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time.  To work there is a humbling thing, the opposite of conquering a mountain if you like; it liberates you from any illusion of self-importance.  I am only one of the current graziers on our fell…a small link in a very long chain.”


If you visit Lake District, go during spring/summer–snow may still be there as late as May, but by April it should be OK.


Reading rec/inspirational text:

A Shepherd’s Life by W.H. Hudson

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