I recently mentioned the strange phenomenon of those political radicals and environmentalists who reserve their keenest barbs for members of their own tribe. Well, in this post I’m going to engage with a radical environmentalist I greatly admire, one who mostly avoids internecine conflict of that sort and keeps his sights appropriately trained on the real enemy. And, yep, you guessed it – I’m going to criticise him.

But not, I hope, in an especially negative way. George Monbiot – for indeed, it is he – has made a strong case against sheep farming in the UK in general, and upland sheep farming in particular, arguing that sheep occupy a large proportion of Britain’s uplands at considerable expense to the public purse in the form of farm subsidies, while providing very little food and creating severe environmental problems – notably in preventing the tree cover that could help both in limiting the water runoff that causes flooding problems in the lowlands and in promoting the re-emergence of indigenous wildlife, two causes for which he’s advocated with commendable passion and acuity

I’ve written before on this issue, but I recently exchanged a few comments with George about it on Twitter, which is absolutely the worst place to debate anything1. So here I offer you what I hope reads as a sympathetic critique, or at least a questioning, of his case against upland sheep farming. It’s not that I think he’s necessarily wrong. I think he could well be right, or at least mostly right. I’m pretty sure he’s done more thinking and more research on the issue than I have, and I’m glad he’s raised it and spoken up for rewilding, or ‘wilding’ at any rate – a cause for which I have a lot of sympathy. It’s just that there are various aspects of his case that don’t quite convince me, a few points I think he hasn’t addressed, and a few others where the implications seem to me more complicated than he supposes. My aim isn’t to refute the case against upland pastoralism, but ideally to help make it more refined.

In my review of George’s book How Did We Get Into This Mess I made the point that there’s a tension in it between the perspective of the indigene trying to figure out how to make a living from the land, and that of the rational-bureaucratic planner trying to figure out how to deliver services to the existing population. That wasn’t intended as a criticism – on the contrary, I think it’s a credit to him as a mainstream commentator that he should even be thinking about an indigenous self-provisioning perspective. But it’s that self-provisioning perspective that mostly animates my thinking on upland pastoralism, whereas I think his critique of ‘sheepwrecking’ mostly arises from a rational service-delivery perspective. And therein, I think, lies most of the disagreement. In a crowded modern country, I think it’s impossible not to take a rational service-delivery perspective when it comes to policy prescription. On the other hand, if that perspective consistently crowds out the voice of the denizen, the self-provisioner – as it usually does – then I suspect we’re condemned to endlessly replicate the problems we’re trying to solve. And there you have the generality of it. But let me try to outline some specifics.

1. The Golden Rice corner: George points out that a huge area of Britain, especially upland Britain, is devoted to raising sheep, and yet sheep meat furnishes only a small proportion of our diet. The figure he cites is about a 50% agricultural land take for sheep, which contributes only about 1.2% to our diet. I’m shortly going to question that figure, but I’d accept that the general case he makes is almost unarguable. You can grow way, way more food per acre by tending wheat in the lowlands than by tending sheep in the uplands. But if you push that argument to its logical conclusion, you end up boxing yourself into what I’d call the golden rice corner. Why not restrict ourselves to growing what’s maximally productive of calories per acre (in Britain that would basically be wheat or potatoes) and leave it at that? Why not stop farming the lowlands too and import food from places that can grow it still more efficiently?

OK, so George doesn’t in fact push his argument that far, and I think he’s (partly) right to emphasise how pitifully productive sheep-farming is compared to lowland wheat. What he actually says is  “sheep occupy roughly the same amount of land as is used to grow all the cereals, oilseeds, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and other crops this country produces”, but we need to bear in mind that the country doesn’t produce much of the fruit and vegetables it consumes, and that these are also quite low in calorific value per unit area: almost 80% of Britain’s cropland is devoted to growing just three crops (wheat, barley and oilseed rape), and more than half of that 80% is wheat – so I’d suggest the comparison he’s making is effectively between sheep and wheat. But the bald sheep-wheat comparison doesn’t really help us decide how much land we should ‘spare’ by growing wheat, and how much we should spread out and diversify our cropping in accordance with the land uses most locally appropriate. The high per hectare productivity of cereals partly stems from the fossil-fuel intensive inputs involved in arable farming – and, as George himself has elsewhere argued, perhaps these fuels should really be left in the ground. If we did so, arable yields would decline and we’d need grass-clover leys in the crop rotation – which would best be grazed by ruminants such as, er, sheep. And if you really push back on energy intensity, then human labour input starts to be an issue – at which point the case for pastoralism strengthens. As things stand, Britain could just about feed itself with a purely organic arable agriculture, based on 50% cropland leys – admittedly, here we’d be talking about a lowland ley farming focused mostly on dairy cattle rather than sheep, but my point is that cropland/grassland productivity ratios are something of a moveable feast.

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2. Calories, schmalories: when it comes to the aforementioned pitifulness of sheep productivity identified by George, I do think his choice of data casts sheep in an especially bad light. First, there’s the fossil energy intensity point I just made above. And then there’s the fact that George focuses only on food energy, which is but one of the many things people need from the food they eat. I concede it’s an important one, though there are those who argue that getting it from high productivity staples rich in simple carbohydrates is not nutritionally optimal. In any case, there are things you can get from sheep meat like Vitamin A that you won’t get from wheat or potatoes. That’s not to say that upland sheep farming is necessarily the best way of getting them. Still, the point is that the nutritional benefits of our food aren’t reducible to calorie-by-calorie comparisons (incidentally, the calorific value that George uses for sheep meat is a tad lower than the one I generally use, derived from McCance and Widdowson). If we were seeking national food self-sufficiency in Britain – particularly in energy-constrained scenarios with limited synthetic fertiliser – then getting enough dietary fat becomes quite an issue (unless we grew a lot of organic oilseed rape, which we probably shouldn’t). And then the case for sheep would start looking better.

Another issue with George’s calorific measure is that he looks at how many calories people actually consume (including in food imports) to show what a small proportion is furnished by sheep. That figure turns out at about 3,500 calories per person per day – about 1,000 calories more than nutritionists recommend. We know that obesity is a major contemporary issue, so I’d suggest a more apposite denominator might be how much we ought to be consuming.

There’s also the issue of mutton and offal – I’m not sure how much of this potential yield from British grass finds its way onto our plates. I suspect not much – and consumer taste is not the fault of the grazier. Having proudly produced my own home-made haggis for the first time recently from the offal of my slaughter lambs, I’d like to raise the question of what George’s analysis would look like if his sheep production figures were fully haggisified.

Maybe these various data corrections I’m suggesting wouldn’t change the land use/productivity ratio enough to convince George and his supporters to moderate their views – in which case, fine. But I think they should be in there.

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3. Only disconnect: as every statistician knows, the more you aggregate data, the more you conceal underlying variability. Let me go with my haggis example and – notorious socialist that I am – renationalise the data by allocating out the sheep meat between the populations of Scotland and England in accordance with the quantities of sheep grazing in the two countries. Doing that, we find that in Scotland sheep meat produces 14% of the population’s calorific requirements from 49% of its agricultural land (mostly of the poorer quality), and English sheep meat produces 0.1% of its population’s calorific requirements from 6% of its agricultural land (ditto). I’m not saying that this necessarily negates George’s overall argument, but it does improve the look of the figures a bit.

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4. The sheep pyramid: although it’s true that upland sheep aren’t very productive of meat, that’s not really their main purpose. Their main purpose is to provide breeding stock with the good characteristics of upland breeds (hardiness, milkiness, easy-lambing, good mothering etc.) which, when combined with meaty lowland breeds, optimises productivity – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’. In that sense, there’s a need to see upland sheep farming more holistically in symbiosis with lowland grass as an important part of an optimised system of national flock management. True, you could probably lose a lot of upland acres without affecting total productivity or flock characteristics a great deal, but you would lose something, and it would be a good idea to figure this somehow into the considerations.

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5. Defending the commons: read virtually any environmentalist treatise these days and odds are that’ll it wax lyrical about the commons as a vital way of managing society’s resources effectively (perhaps a little too lyrical, as I’ve argued here), and it’ll probably bemoan the way that modern industrial society rode roughshod over the commons of the past. Well, about a quarter of Britain’s (upland) rough grazing is managed as commons – pretty much the only functioning agricultural commons we still have, and with a finely-graded agricultural way of life attached to it. I’m not saying that it should be preserved in aspic just for that reason if other imperatives present themselves. But I am saying that people ought to think carefully before consigning it to oblivion out of some perceived greater contemporary need. It would be very easy to venerate commoners of the past whose voices are lost to us and bewail the forces that overwhelmed them due to their putative inefficiency…and then to visit the same fate on contemporary people for the exact same reason. And these would be real, complex, ornery, flesh-and-blood people, who don’t necessarily sing to the same tune as us. That’s long been the fate of many a peasant farming community, and it surely delivers a historical lesson worth pondering. It’s true that there may be more and better jobs available for upland residents in tourism than in sheep-farming in a post-pastoral, rewilded future. I’m just not sure that in the long run an economy based around a pastoral heritage is better than one based on actual pastoralism.

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6. The destruction of the kingdom: …and talking of pastoral heritage, I do feel the need to take issue somewhat with George’s historical take on pastoralism, in which he blames Theocritus for inventing in the third century BC the pastoral literary tradition that associates sheep-keeping with virtue, tracing it in Britain through what he calls the “beautiful nonsense” of the Elizabethan poets to contemporary television programmes exalting a country life of sheepdog trials, adorable lambs and so forth.

In George’s alternative history, sheep occupy a malevolent role as shock troops of enclosure, dispossessing indigenous peasantries, who were providing for themselves, in favour of a monocultural ovine cash-crop. Well, there’s certainly some truth in that. Then again, there’s always been an oscillation between grassland and cropland in British history, with complex implications for agricultural output and social relations. Elizabethan poets may have exalted pastoralism, but Elizabethan statesmen did not: converting cropland to pasture was denounced in 1597 as a “turning of the earth to sloth and idleness”. In 1601, William Cecil said “whosoever doth not maintain the plough destroys this kingdom”2. Whereas now the plough itself is regarded as a destroyer, and the issue of which kind of farming is most carbon-and-wildlife friendly – grassland or cropland – gets ever more baroque.

Another point worth making is that the late medieval and early modern turn to commercial sheep-farming by the aristocracy led to a release of peasants from corvée arable labour on the demesnes, which arguably fostered the rise of an independent yeomanry3. There is neither crop nor beast which can be allotted the status of an unalloyed historical bad. Well, maybe sugar? Anyway, if there’s a case against sheep, it has to be a contemporary case. History has got nothing to do with it. Though I’m loth myself to underestimate the importance of the accumulated cultural capital in sheepdog trials, livestock markets and the plethora of finely adapted sheep breeds. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about nostalgia or television programmes – it’s about the possible lives that we can lead, which are necessarily built on the shoulders of our forebears and can easily be diminished when we turn our backs too readily on their achievements.

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7. Aiming high by aiming low: I think I get George’s point about targeting the uplands for rewilding – they don’t produce much food, so why not devote them to something else? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be the case that these areas are among the least propitious for wildlife for the same reasons that they’re the least propitious for farming? If rewilding is the name of the game, why not aim higher by first developing proposals for lowland rewilding, where there are richer possibilities which will be better integrated with where most people live? After all, lowland arable deserts are no less dreary than upland grass deserts, are equally if not more destructive of wildlife, and produce an over-abundance of commodity crops that aren’t good for us. My alternative proposal, which I’ve been examining in some detail in my Peasant Republic of Wessex series, would be to look to feed ourselves first with vegetables and fruit, second with grass-fed and waste-fed livestock, and only third with starchy arable staple crops to make up the shortfall – with almost no place at all for grain-fed meat. I’d keep most of the grassy uplands for meat and reduce lowland arable as much as possible, starting my rewilding there. Ultimately, to feed the nation you’d probably have to trade off some lowland productivity for some rewilding, but why not at least start there?

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8. Songs of the uplands: a rare breed hoop: As I’ve already said, I’m sympathetic to the idea of rewilding, but I have a nagging feeling that the general public might get behind it as ‘a good thing’ without much clarity of objective, while continuing to know or care very little about how their food is produced. This will buttress the land sparing/sharing tension I’ve mentioned – big agri in the lowlands, no agri in the uplands. Or, worse, ‘wild’ uplands in Britain and lots of imported lamb from places like New Zealand that didn’t even have terrestrial mammals prior to human colonisation. So I’d like to know more about the kinds of wildness the re-wilders are proposing and why they want it. I’m not necessarily opposed to it – I appreciate how degraded the wild places are compared to the past – but how do we evaluate its qualities and trade them off against present agricultural practices? I’m less inclined than George to write off the symbiosis of human, dog and sheep in upland pastoralism. I see it as a thing of beauty, another fine song of the uplands, just as the song of eagle, marten or rowan has its beauty. I don’t dispute that upland sheep farming isn’t always beautiful – I agree that it’s possible for land indeed to be ‘sheepwrecked’. Still, wilding the uplands involves making a human value judgment that the songs of the wild (and which songs, exactly…?) are so superior to the song of the shepherd that it justifies essentially terminating a historic upland industry. It’s a strong claim – maybe a plausible one, I’m not sure. I think I’d like to hear a lot more about the wilding that’s planned and its putative advantages.

So how about this as an interim measure to test the public’s resolve? Before adopting full-on, sheep-vanquishing upland rewilding, why not promote silvo-pasture using traditional, locally-appropriate, lower-productivity rare sheep breeds – a situation that could create ‘wilder’ uplands than at present, and would force the public to reach into their pockets to support it if they wanted? Consider it a rare breed hoop to jump through, a wallet-test for rewilding that would probably generate more accurate feedback than public opinion surveys.

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9. Multi-functionality: in our contemporary cash-crop farm system, sheep basically have the single function of producing meat. But in a self-reliant economy they have what Philip Walling calls a ‘tenfold purpose’ – meat, fat, blood, wool, milk, skin, gut, horn, bone, manure. In the past this provided “food, clothing, housing, heating and light, all manner of domestic implements, soil fertility and parchment”4. Perhaps we should think about some of those possibilities again in creating a more sustainable agro-ecology. Would they make a difference to George’s argument? I don’t know – maybe not much. But it’s worth pondering.

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10. Money: George is probably right that upland sheep farming in its present form is only propped up by a generous EU subsidy regimen (so maybe it’s already a goner, though peasant peoples historically have been pretty good at weathering the storms raised against them from the political centres). Then again, our contemporary food system in its entirety is only propped up by a generous set of explicit and implicit subsidies, and the price the public pays or farmers receive for their food bears next to no relation to its costs. I take George’s point that upland sheep farming may not be the best use for precious public money, but since the whole food system needs rethinking across the board I personally wouldn’t single out upland pastoralism for special opprobrium. In the long-term, I think we need a human ecosystem more closely fitted to its surroundings and I’d imagine that in Britain upland sheep farming in some form would have a role there. In the short-term, I’d say that the fiscal balance sheet of sheep farming is largely irrelevant to the case for or against it.

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11. Flooding vs. rewilding: the flood abatement case against upland sheep-farming seems to me rather different to the rewilding case. In the former, it’s surely possible to develop silvo-pastoral systems which adequately combine the purposes of sheep-keeping and flood abatement5. Whereas in the latter, each sheep is one small extra quantum of human affliction against the kingdom of the wild (full disclosure: I plead a total of six offences currently on this score, as pictured – though I’d argue that they do contribute to the productivity of the holding, which still has it wild spaces…) It’s reasonable to make a both…and case against sheep, but others might want to make an either…or defence which finds an ongoing role for sheep in the uplands.

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So there we have it. I salute George for sticking his head above the parapet as few others are prepared to do and making his case against upland sheep in Britain. But I’m not quite yet ready to throw my lot in with it. First, I’d like to see someone work through the doubts I’ve expressed here and convincingly defuse them.

Notes

  1. George’s main writings on sheep farming, the uplands and related issues are in his book Feral (Allen Lane, 2013) and in articles here, here and here. I’ve written previously on upland sheep farming here, and on rewilding here.
  1. See Thirsk, Joan (1997). Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford, pp.23-4.
  1. Duby, Georges (1974). The Early Growth of the European Economy. Cornell.
  1. Walling, Philip (2015). Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain. Profile, (pp. xix-xx).
  1. As I argue in a little more detail here.