Shepherds Forgotten Again

BY JIM WEBSTER

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 upon. Even more so than the rest of us involved in agriculture, shepherds were shunned. (Even now ‘peasant’ is an insult in the mouths of people who couldn’t feed themselves if Ocado stopped delivering.) 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.”

And to quote Diodorus Siculus:

“ 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.”

Shepherds and similar were traditionally a rough lot. 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’ phrase was in this period used to mean people who were rustic, ignorant and boorish.

But anyway, back to our shepherds. ‘The people of the land.’ Do you remember how back in 2020, those people who had shunned them, who had given them no thought at all ever in their lives, suddenly became intensely worried about them?

Now I have helped out with FCN (Farming Community Network) and I’ve seen the real problems at lot of shepherd 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.

Shepherds. One way or another they’ve had a lot of hassle thrown at them over recent years. Then at one point in December 2020, 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 suddenly 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?

Forgotten. Ignored.

All those desperately concerned new friends of the shepherds have abandoned them again.

When do you ever see any stories in the mainstream media about shepherds?

You don’t. Google search shepherds and all the recent stories are about Shepherds Bush and Shepherd Huts not shepherds.

Shepherds are still having a tough time of things. Still, sheep are as ever far better off following shepherds and ignoring fairweather friends.

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.