Review: The Shepherd’s Life

I wanted to read this 2015 book because it touched on two areas of interest: manual labor (check this review or this one) and sustainable agriculture (read this, this or this).

In the book, James Rebanks’s vignettes and observations are collected into the seasons, from summer to fall and winter and back to spring. These seasons matter because Rebanks herds sheep in England’s Lake District.

The book is delightful for its insights into traditions, community and the ever-present and ever-varied (with seasonal variation) tasks facing farmers and herders.

But the book is far more limited for its insights into sustainability or current practices for rearing the animals that give us meat and fibers. Since Rebanks is talking about his own farm and close-knit community, which represents neither intensive, on-farm practices nor extensive, scale-of-farming realities, his perspectives should not be generalized to livestock management by other herders in the area, let alone elsewhere in the UK or world.

With respect to the intensive margin, there are many farms or livestock operations run on slimmer margins, with less respect for future sustainability over current profits, and on larger scales that disconnect man from animal, farm from community.

With respect to the extensive margin, humans are using too much land for producing meat, milk and fibers. Put differently, it doesn’t matter how much you love your sheep if there are too many sheep. (The same can be said for parents’ love for too many children.) We’re just so far over carrying capacity that Nature cannot sustain all humans and the consumption that they see as normal, prudent or justified.

For more on those themes, read my post on biblical notions delusions regarding sustainable land management, read this recent article on England’s unsustainable park management (or this one), or listen to this podcast on land use (it’s flawed for offering an Overton window that is far too narrow — focussing on the sustainable, small-scale end of farming rather than the large-scale norm).

But, putting those qualms aside (most of them far beyond the control of Rebanks and his neighors), this is a very fine book for its insights into a hands-on life that is not easy and not (often) profitable but rewarding. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Shepherd’s Life”

  1. Is there a failure of incentives if as you said, it is not an easy life and often not profitable, and still shepherds continue to cultivate sheep in unsustainable numbers? Perhaps it is still profitable compared to alternative uses of the land? Which means conservationists should be focusing on how these alternatives can become more attractive options.

    1. Good question Mike. I think that some shepherds are sustainable, but others (larger scale) are not.

      In many cases, subsidies (direct and indirect) may encourage too many sheep, by turning losses into profits.

      So, remove the subsidies, and other options will be (relatively) more attractive.

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