Unfashionable Shepherds


I’ve worked with sheep, but I’d never call myself a shepherd. I’ve not got that level of expertise. But one of the things about shepherds is that they tend not to be centre stage. Historically they were always looked down on. Even more than the rest of us involved in agriculture, they were shunned. (Even now ‘peasant’ is an insult in the mouths of people who couldn’t feed themselves if Ocado stopped delivering.)

Take the Christmas story. We are accustomed to a bowdlerised version. Somewhere in this house there is a photo of me (and thirty other children) dressed up for our School Nativity. Nearly sixty years ago now, the sweet girls were angels. (Memory insists that having blonde hair and a mother who could sew seems to have been part of how you got the job but I couldn’t swear to it.) The rest of the girls and all the boys were shepherds. We wore dressing gowns and had tea towels on our heads.

Back in the day, things would have been a bit different. Herdsmen, whether they herded cattle or sheep, were very much looked down on.

Varro in his work ‘On Agriculture’ looks at herd slaves and states:

“those who work the cattle trails must be stronger than those who return to the home farm of the estate every day, which is of course, why you see young men, almost always armed, out on the trails. You should choose quick, surefooted men of powerful physique who move with agility, men who are able not just to follow the herd, but also to defend it from wild animals and bandits. They should be men who can lift heavy loads onto the backs of pack animals, men who can run fast and are skilled at throwing spears.”

To quote Diodorus Siculus 34:

The young men they used as cowherds, the others in such ways as they happened to be useful. But they treated them with a heavy hand in their service, and granted them the most meagre care, the bare minimum for food and clothing. As a result most of them made their livelihood by brigandage, and there was bloodshed everywhere, since the brigands were like scattered bands of soldiers. The governors (praetores) attempted to repress them, but since they did not dare to punish them because of the power and prestige of the gentry who owned the brigands, they were forced to connive at the pillaging of the province. For most of the landowners were Roman knights (equites), and since it was the knights who acted as judges when charges arising from provincial affairs were brought against the governors, the magistrates stood in awe of them.

So shepherds and similar were a pretty rough lot. Indeed even our dressing-gown and tea-towel wearing Judean shepherds would have been very much below the salt. Living with their flocks, wandering from grazing to grazing, unable to fulfil strict religious duties, they’d be regarded by respectable people as thieves and worse. ‘The people of the land’ was in this period used to mean people who were rustic, ignorant and boorish.

(As an aside the Angels were if anything worse. Forget cute girls dressed in white, in Luke it says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” In the English of the King James, a Host is an army. In the Greek the word is stratias, which is at the root of the Greek words for army, soldier, general, and we still use strategy. So rather than delightful children, you want to imagine something more like the massed singing you get from Cardiff Arms Park.)

Oh and whilst we’re wandering about in the Greek, The word “idiot” comes from the Greek noun ἰδιώτης (transliterated as idiōtēs). This means ‘a private person, an individual’, ‘a private citizen’ as opposed to a public servant. The ordinary soldiers in the army were ‘idiōtēs’ (as were most of the angels, but I’m not volunteering to tell them.) This was taken up in Latin. The literary classes borrowed idiota to mean ‘uneducated’, ‘ignorant’, ‘common’, and in Late Latin it came to mean ‘crude, illiterate, ignorant’. Because after all, private soldiers and ordinary people are, aren’t they? We got the word via French and it remains an insult to this day.

But anyway, back to our shepherds. ‘The people of the land.’ In the last month, suddenly, people who had shunned them, who had given them no thought at all, became intensely worried about them.

Now I have helped out with FCN and I’ve seen the real problems at lot of families have had. I’ve talked to families whose environmental payments have been delayed over a year because of some IT issue. I wonder what would happen in a government department if the staff were told that because of IT problems they weren’t going to be paid for eighteen months?

I’ve talked to others who weren’t getting paid their basic payment because they had common land and the government IT system couldn’t cope with common land. (And remember these aren’t nice extras, these are payments which government has contracted to pay because farmers have undertaken to farm in a certain way. A way which means they can no longer get an adequate income from the market but which produces environmental benefits.)

I was told by somebody in RPA that their problem stemmed from the fact that they’d purchased an Italian IT system which worked really well, but the Italians don’t have common land (and England is apparently 3% common land) and thus when the RPA ran the system it just couldn’t cope with a lot of hill farmers. Whether this is accurate or not I cannot say, but frankly, anybody who has been surprised that our civil service has made such of bog of coronavirus really needs to get out more.

Still as I was saying. Shepherds. One way or another they’ve had a lot of hassle thrown at them. Then at one point in December, the zoom classes, the commentariat, the ones who hadn’t given a tuppenny damn about shepherds when they were being screwed over by government IT and regulation, suddenly discovered that they could be hit by a no-deal Brexit. In simple terms, we’re one of the world’s major exporters of sheep meat. We have the terrain, the weather, the skills, the breeds. It means that sheep meat is about the only agricultural commodity we are net exporters of.

Suddenly all these people who’d discovered shepherds were all over social media saying how terrible Brexiteers were and how the shepherds were being sacrificed for the political whims of a lot of thicko racists.

And now there’s a deal and things might or might not be OK, all those desperately concerned new friends of the shepherds have abandoned them again. But don’t worry, you’ll probably meet them at the next fashionable rewilding conference. But actually you’ll probably not be invited to the conference anyway … idiōtēs.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.