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IT’S THE TOUGHNESS OF A LAND THAT MAKES ITS BEAUTY.
TOUGHLANDS STORIES EXPLORES THE TOUGHLANDS AND THOSE WHO TAME IT TO INSPIRE YOUR RIDES.

EPISODE 1

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MEET JAMES REBANKS

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James Rebanks was born and raised in a farming family from the Lake District, North of England. A landscape tourists come to visit for its wild and pure beauty, but that actually is full of real functional implications. It’s a tough land locals have to deal with every single day, a landscape they’ve been bounded to by their work and roots for over 3 thousand years.

He takes us to the barn where his quad bike is waiting all set. James prepares his quad bike every night for the day after so it’s ready for the morning. Every minute counts, the sheep don’t wait.

Floss, Tan and Meg, his three border collies, know that it’s time to go to work. James opens the kennels and they immediately jump on the quad bike. They know their place. Shepherds have a special relationship with their dogs and a good sheepdog is a shepherd’s pride.
They’re « an extension of my brain and arms » he says. 

« The way we farm our land nowadays is pretty similar to the way we farmed it a thousand years ago… but some things have made it easier, that’s for sure. The quad bike is one of them. When you have to tour between all your flocks several times a day, bring some lambs back to the farm through muddy fields, rainy fells, even snow sometimes… let me tell you you’re happy you have a bike. »

James takes us on the road to see his best Tup Hoggs, last year’s male lambs. They’re Herdwicks, a native breed of this landscape and probably the toughest mountain sheep in Britain. Local myth has it that they came with the Vikings. James is well known for his Herdwicks.

 «My sheep are more like pedigree sheep. I breed the best I can and I sell them to other Herdwick breeders for them to improve their flock.» These are his best ones, he will present them to the shows this autumn to try and earn a prize.

It’s crazy to see James and his dogs at work. It seems all the dogs want is to know what James wants. They’re so reactive they’re moving almost before he utters his commands. There’s a unique connexion between a shepherd and his sheepdogs.
Definitely an extension of his brains and arms.

Back on the road, James wants to take us to another flock and show us a different breed. Swaledales. A native breed from the Pennines, the next lot of mountains. They have slightly different attributes, to suit slightly different landscapes. They too, can withstand long wet winters, damp cold that gets in your bones… they’re tailored made for English weather.

Enough for the morning, we go back to the farm. There, James takes care of an orphan lamb he keeps in a pen because he lost his mother too late and none other ewes would take him now. 

Helen, his wife, is waiting for us with food supplies that are more than welcome. The walls of the barn are pinned with prizes. James has been showing sheep at local shows since he was a kid, helping and learning from his grandfather. The shows enable the breeders to present their sheep and compete for the pride of having the best ones. A winning sheep is always a plus when the time of the sales come.

James takes advantage of lunch break to go through his mailbox. From 1 to 3pm, he manages his « other working life ». Beside being a shepherd, James is a writer (he’s the author of « the Shepherd’s life » a New York Times best-seller),  an expert adviser to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris, and kind of an influencer for his strong following on twitter and instagram. He explains that shepherds have always done small jobs to make the ends meet, and that he wouldn’t have been able to build the house he lives in if it wasn’t for it.

After lunch we go back outside. Lambing time might be over, there’s still much work to do. Summer is a time for maintenance, mainly : chopping logs, treating lame sheep, moving sheep between fields, hanging gates, making hay, clipping, looking after ewes and lambs.
Boredom is a luxury a shepherd can’t afford.

Earlier this morning, James spotted a broken fence and he needs to go back and fix it. « Good fences make good neighbours » he says. We load a quad with everything we’ll need and head to the field. A few minutes later, fence is sheep proof again.

The walls are fully part of this landscape, and they have been for thousands of years, some of them even still stand up.

James’ grandfather taught him how to put the stones when he was seven years old. A knowledge that has been passed on for generations.

We end the day going to the fells. The Lake District farming system is very peculiar. The low lands in the valley bottom is privately farmed but the mountains are common land, shared by everyone. That’s why each farm marks its sheep with different colors. So they know which is whose. It’s a very strange corner of England, where the normal rules don’t apply, a living anachronism.

And that’s what makes it so unique. The conditions are hard, the weather as well, even if « there is no bad weather, only bad clothes ».
It’s a tough land, but its people is tougher.