I am a professional shepherd in the fells (mountains/moors) of northern England, and recently wrote a book which has become a Sunday Times bestseller. My book is called The Shepherd's Life, by James Rebanks (thats me, of course).


You can follow me at @herdyshepherd1


Comments: 101 • Responses: 45  • Date: 

TheHerdwickShepherd9 karma

Thank you for all your questions and interest.

My book is called The Shepherd's Life, by James Rebanks (Helen McDonald who wrote H is for Hawk said it is 'bloody marvellous"

Is it OK if I down keyboard and go check my sheep now?

Mikecom329 karma

Do you use dogs to herd your flock? If so, what breed?

TheHerdwickShepherd9 karma

We use Border Collies. The smartest herding dogs in the world. Mine are called Floss and Tan. And Floss just had 10 puppies.

Mikecom325 karma

Do you have any pictures? Reddit loves dog (and cat) pictures.

TheHerdwickShepherd8 karma

I post thousands of pictures on my Twitter page - @herdyshepherd1 - including a new born lamb an hour ago

blackhatlinux8 karma

What are some of the challenges of being an every-day shepherd in the first place?

TheHerdwickShepherd6 karma

The weather here is very wet, often cold, and tough - so a key challenge is just toughing it out - often when you might rather be in by the fire keeping warm.

blackhatlinux4 karma

I think it's pretty neat to be a shepherd. You get to take care of sheep, which in return gives you gratification and boosts your self-esteem. It's like taking care of pets, sort of.

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

Sort of

take5hi8 karma

Did you ever read the James Herriot books? Before following you on Twitter, they were my only insight into farming in the UK. Wondered what you thought of the books.

TheHerdwickShepherd9 karma

Yes. I read those books as a kid. Some literary authors might be a bit snooty about such popular titles, but I'm not one of those... James Herriot shared the Yorkshire Dales with millions of readers and made people laugh, cry, learn and care... I admire that. They are not among my absolute favourites - but they are good books that capture a moment in time. To make so many people happy, or entertain them is not to be sniffed at.

DickTowners7 karma

Are you from a family of shepherds or did you choose to enter the profession yourself?

I'm from the Lake District and have been living abroad for many years. Following you on Twitter has really helped with my longing for home, so thanks for that.

TheHerdwickShepherd10 karma

My family have been farmers (of sheep and cattle) for as far back as we can trace (600+ years) - they were in the neighbouring parish in 1420... Ours isn't really a world in which you choose your profession... it is kind of older, and it feels like no choice at all... I would hate to not have kept our family's farm going - also, it takes so long to learn how to be useful in this way of life that you would be mostly useless if you arrived in your twenties - my kids already know loads and they are between 3-9 - you would take ages to catch up with my kids

Faceface19917 karma

I am only half way through your captivating book - so forgive me if this question is answered within it.

As someone who's first and continuing experience of rural areas, such as the lake district, is very much as a sight-seeing hiker... is there anyway I can experience the landscape in a way that bears even the slightest resemblance to you and your kin?

Your writing is both captivating, but also intimidating to a towny who finds escape by venturing into worlds/lands shaped by your folk.

The views you express surrounding integrity, local support, and a sense of belonging, are beautiful.

Thank you!

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

I love that question.

We don't make it easy do we... a good place to start is to attend the shepherding events in our landscape and ask the shepherds lots of questions, most are happy to explain and proud that anyone is interested.

TheHerdwickShepherd6 karma

Some of us need to step up and make things more accessible as well. It is a bit like two tribes at present, visitors and farming/working people... I tried to bridge that abyss in my book.

The message isn't that it is beyond other people's reach, but that if they see it, understand it, and participate in it in different ways then the place is richer and deeper than simply scenery to walk in.

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

Thank you for the comments on my writing.

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

You may also be able to make friends with the shepherding people over time, and in an ideal world you might get the chance to help them with things like clipping days or gathering the fells (difficult perhaps, but I hope you get such a chance - these are amazing things to be part of)

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

Keswick Tup Fair is next Thursday on the Town Field - thats an amazing thing to see/experience.

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

You may also be able to make friends with the shepherding people over time, and in an ideal world you might get the chance to help them with things like clipping days or gathering the fells (difficult perhaps, but I hope you get such a chance - these are amazing things to be part of)

OstritchwithaGrudge6 karma

What are your thoughts on the recent UK election? Do you think this will have any effect on the future of shepherding?

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

Sadly, no - I fear all the major UK parties subscribe to the same ill-judged acceptance of how our food economy works - a supermarket cheap food model - it wasn't a major issue in the election

Frajer6 karma

what personality do the sheep have?

TheHerdwickShepherd7 karma

Herdwick sheep are a 'primitive' breed (or more so than most modern 'improved' breeds) - they are very independent and very single minded - they like to be with their own kind... and are suspicious of change... They have very expressive faces as well.

redditor_no_six2 karma

So, the Ukip of sheep?

TheHerdwickShepherd10 karma

I think they have more class than that. Suspicion of change is not the same as bigotry and ignorance. Preferring being with your own kind isn't the same thing as racism. IMHO. I think you can be conservative with a small 'c' and still tolerant, open, decent, and kind. But whether Herdwicks agree I can only speculate.

AnLorraine5 karma

Are you using the strategies you use for the UNESCO heritage site work to help promote traditional farming in the Lake District?

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

Yes - I try to learn from other places, and in my non-farming life my job is fairly simple - I'm paid to work out how you help to sustain old ways of life by doing cool new stuff.

AnLorraine2 karma

Are you also promoting the social media strategies you use so well as tools for other heritage sites to use?

TheHerdwickShepherd4 karma

A little bit... Try not to go on about me too much, the world is full of smart people doing smart stuff... I'm as much a beneficiary as an innovator in all of this

SmilerMiler5 karma

Have your or your neighbours noticed an upswing in tourism/visitors as a result of the popularity of your book?

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

There seems to be more interest in what we do, and suspicious numbers of cars slowing down as they pass my farm... but NO, I haven't noticed much of a change. But then I don't go out much - I just work at home. A friend who supplies restaurants told me yesterday that demand for our unique Herdwick meat has grown because the profile has raised - I hope that is true.

glovesfox5 karma

What's the best thing that a city dwelling, supermarket shopping, urbanite can do to help countryside industries such as your own?

PS. I love the twitter feed, I'm a Cumbrian currently living away from the mother-land so a glimpse of home is always very welcome.

TheHerdwickShepherd10 karma

Come on holiday to places like ours, but hunt out accommodation provided by farming families - pester the tourism industry to get access to what we do, and to buy/support out products, pester your supermarket to sell local products and shame them when they sell cheaper commodity stuff from elsewhere, write to your MP and ask them to support local farming and food production, and to the greatest extent possible in your busy life try and target your £ at things that are produced in ways you approve of - often the best way is to buy as direct as you can from producers online etc - I am sorry this is rather hard work - but if we don't then we get a countryside we don't really want.

IrishSchmirish5 karma

Hi James. I'm a big fan on Twitter and love following your day to day working life. My question: Are there are temporary accommodations that you could bed down in for the night if you were stuck up on the moors and have you ever gotten proper lost? Thanks!

TheHerdwickShepherd6 karma

In the old days the shepherds stayed in the fells (mountains/moors) more than they do now - and they had small shelters called 'shielings' - today we tend to head home. The shepherding here isn't like that in many other places - where the shepherd is always following a flock of sheep - our spread out across the fells and we got back for them when we need them.

IrishSchmirish2 karma

Thanks for the reply! You should take on an apprentice each year to keep the skill going.

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

We have an apprentice who comes her two days a week - we share him with other sheep farms locally - the idea being exactly what you suggest - to pass on the knowledge and skills

DarkerMyLove5 karma

Hi James! If you were forced to move to a large city in the UK, which one would you choose and why?

TheHerdwickShepherd8 karma

I'd escape. No God damn way I'd live in a city.

IKingJeremy5 karma

What obstacles did you face writing the book, and what advice would you give aspiring writers on how to stay focused on a project like this?

TheHerdwickShepherd6 karma

The biggest obstacle is finding a platform to share what you write with other people - that took me a long time to figure out. Actually writing comes fairly easily - I just write the kind of stuff I like reading - my favourite writers are people like Hemingway or Junot Diaz.

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

If you have trouble being focused on writing a book you perhaps don't want it enough! I dreamt of being a writer for twenty years - there is no way I would lose focus when given the chance, and anyway, a bunch of other people rely upon you to deliver if you are the breadwinner in the family and your publishers need something good to sell... so all in all you just get your head down and do it :-)

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

... and you have to be willing to swing and miss... If you wait until a thing is perfect it is never going to happen... you have to be brave and have a go... a great editor is there to be brutal with you and say 'look jerk, this bit doesn't work... try again'.

02098034 karma

Would you recommend someone becoming a shepherd/crofter if they do not have that background?

TheHerdwickShepherd8 karma

Yes. But I'd urge that you approach it with a degree of humility - I'm 40 years old, have never not been involved in all this, had the help of a great father and grandfather to learn about it, and am still an absolute beginner in some elements of our way of life... anyone new is starting a long way behind me in that path of learning

sheepfight4 karma

Hypothetically, if sheep were allowed to fight in some sort of, entirely consensual, sheep-only Fight Club. Which breeds would you bet money on and why?

TheHerdwickShepherd6 karma

Great question. A Herdwick tup with big horns would likely win. They actually fight a lot when horny - and crack heads like mountain goats.

BooksandBikes444 karma

How did you get started using twitter? Your photos are beautiful!!

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

Thank you. Some friends pestered me to have a go - I was sceptical. But the reaction was immediate - so I thought 'hello, this is interesting'

wbr983 karma

It seems like your book dropped and your lambs dropped at the same time. What were your publishers thinking? Did you get extra help?

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

No, I didn't get extra help so it has been a crazy month... In all honesty we thought it through and decided that it might actually help with PR... And maybe it did... Cynical perhaps, but as most books die a sad quick death with no one noticing them, you play the cards in front of you to best effect. I am very grateful mine has caught people's attention and be so well received. Life isn't meant to be easy!

mark_i3 karma

Have you ever seen any Big Cats or other creatures on the Moors ?

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

No. The last large predators were killed here centuries ago. Some ecologists would like to reintroduce them - but I think some places are more suitable for that than others - it wouldn't be good for farmers or predators if they are put in to a small area like ours and in direct conflict - that wouldn't end well. But as a general principal I am very pro wildlife and hope it happens in many other places where their is the space to make it work.

Number-63 karma

I am currently following you on twitter, can I just say thank you for the photos. I love the times when I am commuting to London early in the morning seeing what you are doing in the countryside.

My question is, do you keep any endangered breeds on your farm?

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

Thank you. I enjoy sharing and brightening other people's day up a bit.

NO endangered breeds here, but Herdwicks are 'at risk' because although there are more than 50k breeding females they are all within 20 miles of Coniston in the Lake District - a virus like FMD on the open fells where the sheep live could destroy these flocks as in 2001 almost happened

lukinator4203 karma

As a young creative writer, what advice could you give me to keep my creativity flowing? I have already wrote like 3 chapter length novels(80+pages) in my spare time. I haven't published them or anything, they are just for my personal enjoyment. I want to know how to keep this creativity flowing into my later years.

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

I'm not in my later years - I'm 40 :-)

You need an audience for three reasons:

1) It tells you to a degree whether what you have done is any good 2) The need to keep them entertained keeps you fresh 3) an unread writer didn't write anything (like the tree in the forest)

TheHerdwickShepherd2 karma

I like twitter for this reason - and things like this AMA... It keeps you on your toes... Am I interesting today? If not, you die... so you stay on your toes

Joename3 karma

What impact do you think a more expensive/non-supermarket based food systems model will have on lower income people who already struggle with meeting basic needs and in many cases rely on "cheap" food?

PS. I am a huge fan of your Twitter feed and hope to get your book soon. Thanks!

TheHerdwickShepherd7 karma

Superficially, cheap food is a solution to poverty - but in reality it has been used by politicians and big business to mask the fact that a lot of people are left behind in our society - food prices don't make people in developed countries poor, we now spend a fraction of the money we once spent on food... In other words food has become cheaper by several times, at the same time our society has become ever more unequal - food poverty is a symptom of what is wrong not a cause of it.

The solution to poverty is people having meaningful work, that pays proper wages... cheapening food further simply degrades it, ruins the countryside, worsens animal welfare etc etc... our sheep are worth a quarter of their value when I was a kid in real terms

dawsnow2 karma

Have you any wool?

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

Yes - we clip (shear) out 450 sheep each July and sell the wool. Increasingly we sell direct to spinners/weavers

knittingbee3 karma

I've heard sheep-shearing is in danger of becoming a lost skill also. Is that your impression? How long does it take to become proficient at shearing?

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

It takes people a few years - maybe 5 to become good. Lots of lads and lasses here do it to supplement their farming income in the summer when the farm work eases - my dad did this and clipped over 6000 sheep in a season when he was in his sixties

touchee-trainee2 karma

Hi James, I know that the CAP has changed recently (finally). How has the new legislation affected/will affect you and your business? Awesome book as well, any plans for future publications?

TheHerdwickShepherd7 karma

The subsidy system we live in is weird to say the least... I only pretend to understand it... Most odd... It is a small part of our income now, but the good it does (thank you taxpayer) is mitigated by the inflationary effects it has - everyone we compete to buy sheep, or buy or rent land gets it too so it simply inflates prices etc... Having said that, for all its madness it is not all bad - fell farms produce a range of public benefits that the price of food doesn't reflect so it redresses that... and as the average income of a hill farmer here is £8500 it has become essential - the bottom line is no one wants our landscape to be industrial... so we don't rip our hedges/walls etc... and that means something needs to be done to keep it going. Our landscape generates £1.1 billion a year in tourism revenue, and attracts 16 million visitors so the case here is exceptional and not the same as in many other places.

Yes - future books will happen. Maybe 2-3. Then I will retire and be an old codger.

splorpuk2 karma

Read your book last month when holidaying in Cumbria - thought it was a modern classic. Any plans for a book of your photographs?

TheHerdwickShepherd4 karma

I'd tell you... but then I'd have to kill you...

Rest assured - other interesting things will follow.

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

And thank you for your kind judgment - time will tell whether people read it in the future. Its a tough school this writing game... you can disappear as fast as you rise to notice.

knittingbee3 karma

Well FWIW here in Denver our library's 7 copies of your book are all checked out and there is a long waiting list for them.

TheHerdwickShepherd7 karma

I have always aspired to be massive in the Denver library system. Ambition - tick

Seriously, hope people like it - if they don't they should stop reading. I've always thought life is too short for books you don't enjoy - there is no obligation on anyone to read anything - so the writer has to make you want to finish the line, paragraph, page, book... Hopefully folk do with mine, but they'll judge for themselves.

knittingbee2 karma

I am glad to have helped complete your bucket list! Seriously though there are quite a few folk in Denver that are interested in micro-farming (I know, quite different from what you do!). Regionally, we have a fair bit of alpaca ranching up in the mountain areas, and even some yak and bison ranching as well. There is a fairly large annual Wool Festival in Estes Park Colorado, with sheep shearing demos, agility coursing for llamas and their brethren, wool judging (I am fascinated by that - really quite technical), etc. Now that you are internationally famous, perhaps you could do a book tour and swing by! (Actually while I realize that farming of any kind does not allow for long breaks away are there any plans for you to do a book tour?)

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

In truth, it depends... If the book gets a big audience in the U.S. I'm sure I will be invited across... So tell your friends about it and I will try and come!

splorpuk3 karma

I thought that it captured a time, place and a way of life very well. Also, I thought I knew the Lakes reasonably well (we have family there and visit frequently) but you unveiled a whole new universe.

TheHerdwickShepherd5 karma

Thanks. That was the hope. Love and passion can blind people to other perspectives. I wanted to share how my family see the world - partly just because I did, and partly because I think it matters that people are heard in their own landscapes.

richthebadger2 karma

What's the most disturbing thing you’ve seen when lambing? My family will often use dead lambs as organic dog food during lambing, this means several decapitated lambs heads are littering the garden, we look mental.

TheHerdwickShepherd2 karma

had a lamb that was deformed this year with legs, head and tail all very close to each other in a mad mix. Was a bit Alien. sad, as both lamb and mother eventually died - getting it out was hard.

ReverseGusty2 karma

How do you feel about Barrow-in-Furness?

TheHerdwickShepherd3 karma

Tempted to go for the joke and answer - 'ambiguous'

But the truth is I think barrow in Furness is quite a cool place - mad mix of industrial and amazing coastal/lakeland scenery.