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Book Review: The Shepherd’s Life

“Shepherd Wanted” ads in UK farming magazines often specify “Must be experienced. Must have two dogs.”

At the gather (when shepherds come together to bring everyone’s flocks out of the crags), James Rebanks writes, “The best men and dogs are sent to the hardest places,” and “Each of us is responsible for not letting any sheep break past us, easy with a good dog, impossible without one. Farming the fells is only possible because of the bond between men and sheepdogs.”

Rebanks was a fairly typical farm kid who loved working with his father and grandfather on their farm in England’s Lake District but for whom school was a boring waste of time. He quit when he was 15.

By chance he picked up W.H. Hudson’s 1910 classic, A Shepherd’s Life, expecting the usual silly misapprehension of the farmer’s “simple life.” But Hudson’s book was about land and work and men the dropout recognized. It was a book about him. Rebanks immersed himself in books, went back to school (finally to Oxford) and today, his farming is subsidized by his UNESCO salary.

The Shepherds Life is far from simple. It’s sheep and foxes and crows and roe deer and miserable weather and Rebanks’ children waiting to open their presents on Christmas morning, waiting until every last one of the animals has been fed. It is a beautiful, unsentimental life, and very, very hard.

“First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.”

Like his grandfather, James Rebanks loves the landscape but “his relationship with it was more like a long, tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair.”

The farm belongs to his children, too, and they are expected to help. One morning, Rebanks talks his daughter Bea through birthing a lamb. “She is small, just six years old, and the lamb coming (judging by its feet) is on the large side. But she grabs a lamb toe in each fist and pulls … She nearly stops when it resists her pressure at its hips, but she knows enough to pull it farther and get it out now so it can breathe quickly. She slops it down in front of the mother, whose tongue is already manic in its determination to lick it down. My daughter laughs because the ewe licks her bloody hands as she sets the lamb down.”

His grandfather’s dog, Ben, had been trained to “catch a single ewe on command without hurting it, holding the fleece without nipping the skin … But Ben was cheeky; he knew he couldn’t be caught by the old man, so he would taunt my grandfather by bouncing in front of him as they went to do some work, and my grandfather would shout blue murder at him.”

After the old man had a stroke, they brought Ben to see him. “He was so happy to see his beloved sheepdog that he cried.”

The Shepherd’s Life isn’t really a book about dogs. It’s about a world the dogs make possible.

It’s the best book I’ve read this year.

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Donald McCaig is a novelist, essayist, poet and sheep farmer who gained recognition with his classic man-and-dog tale, Nop's Trials, which was followed by numerous other bestsellers, including Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men and, most recently, Rhett Butler's People.

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