English Pastoral by James Rebanks: farmer’s plea to save our precious countryside

James Rebanks’s fierce, personal description of what has gone wrong with the way we farm and eat, and how we can put it right, gets my vote as the most important book of the year.

If you think of the countryside as a place to walk in and enjoy, read it to learn about the obliteration of nature. If you care about food, and try to shop responsibly, read it to find out why this matters. If you’ve given up hope that we can reverse decline, read it to renew your faith in the future.

Written with the raw power of a three-act Ibsen play, Rebanks shows how good people end up doing bad things to their world without meaning to. Farmers flattened hedges, trashed the soil in their fields and fell into debt chasing ever higher yields because that is what they were asked to do.The result was cheap food at the cost of a system which could not be sustained because it suffocated the natural environment which supported production in the first place. We are burning through our inheritance, not replacing it.

What makes this book sing is not its argument — which is not unique — but Rebanks’s right to say it. He is a farmer. Unlike many dreamier books about nature aimed at townies, he uses hard facts, he manages his own land, and he has fired his potent prose in the furnace of his own experience. But it is more than a polemic. It is also a book full of love: of his grandfather, of his children and of the Lake District valley where he lives and farms.

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On television now there’s a remake of the James Herriot books, All Creatures Great and Small, a happy pretence of how country life might once have been. Think of this book as the tougher sequel.

It starts with Rebanks as “a boy living through the last days of an ancient farm world”. It tells of what happened to the land and communities as “a radical and ill-thought-out experiment was conducted in our fields”. It shows what industrial farming means, in the US — and maybe here if the Government is gulled into a bad US trade deal. And it shows how we can do better, as Rebanks is today. I’ve seen his fields and met his sheep. The hope is real. He’s not the only one doing it but he’s leading the way by example and by telling the story. Some books change our world. I hope this turns out to be one of them.

English Pastoral by James Rebanks (Allen Lane, £20), buy it here.


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