Leading the field

James Rebanks has 900 sheep—and a 97,000-strong flock of Twitter followers. We drive to the Lake District in an Audi Q3 to lend him a hand during lambing season.

Emma Barlow (copy) & Alexander Rhind (photo) for Audi UK

Centuries of effort have gone into this farm and this flock.

The Audi Q3 2.0 TDI quattro Black Edition is doing a fine job of handling the narrow lanes and rough road surface, but it’s hard to fully appreciate the smooth ride with the Cumbrian countryside just outside the window. Green fields, stone walls, sleepy villages and rolling hills speckled with sheep—it’s mesmerising.

No wonder then that, over the centuries, this landscape has inspired writers from Wordsworth to Wainwright. Those stellar ranks have recently been swelled by a new name: that of farmer James Rebanks. He found fame with his bestselling book, The Shepherd’s Life, and the photographs of his sheep and dogs that he shares with his 97,000 followers on Twitter. So meteoric was his rise that, within a year, he had published a second, with another to come.

I glide up the drive of the Rebanks farm, past the famous Herdwick and Swaledale sheep, and am welcomed warmly by the entire family. The Q3 elicits a quizzical look from James­­—he’s probably wondering if it will be able to keep up with his quad bike. I can see he’s sceptical, but I suspect I might be able to change his mind.

It’s just as well that I’m confident, as we get straight to work. The onslaught of the lambing season—which happens relatively late in the Lake District—is only just drawing to a close, so there’s plenty to do. “I’m putting farming first right now,” James tells me as I select dynamic mode and steer the car off the track and across a steep field near to the farmhouse. “Being a good farmer and a good writer – those are difficult things to try to juggle.”And there’s a lot of pressure to get the first right, not to mention the second. Not only are there some 900 sheep to tend, but there’s the weight of history, too. “Centuries of effort have gone into this farm and this flock,” he says. “It’s a really special thing to be a small part in a long chain and to keep it all going.”

The Herdwicks are indigenous to the Lake District, having been selectively bred for thousands of years to be able to survive the harsh winters on the fells with minimal input. James has become one of the country’s best breeders.

 

But how did a sheep farmer become a Twitter celebrity? “I realised that many of the things I cared about—the landscape, sustainability and my way of farming – were messages worth sharing,” he says. “And it’s been great. I’ve found that other people do care—they want to know where their food comes from and how the animals were treated, and that’s a really important conversation to have.”

 

The books have been equally important—James had harboured ambitions to write ever since he was a teenager. “I wanted to put my father and grandfather back into the literature of the Lakes,” he tells me as we watch sheepdog super-team Tan, Floss and Meg at work. “When I first read literature set in this part of the world, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Where is all the work, all the stuff I love?’”

 

Later, over lunch in the farmhouse, I ask, “So how did the Audi do?” “Very well,” says James. “It handles more like a 4x4.” That’ll be the quattro system, I tell him.

 

So, what of his plans for the future? “More than anyone I know, I’ve been a man with a plan. And the plan was to write a successful book and live in this farmhouse and run this farm.” Sounds like mission accomplished. But with a third account of Lake District life on the way, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from this farmer who’s fallen for the fells.

Audi Q3 2.0 TDI quattro black edition

Engine 2.0 TDI 150PS
Transmissionsix-speed manual
Drivetrainquattro all-wheel drive
0-62 mph39.3 seconds
Top speed126 mph

The Rebanks way of farming has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. But it’s handy to be able to call on the tough Audi Q3 Black Edition to help out.

Audi Q3 fuel consumption urban/extra-urban/combined (in l/100 km): 6,0/4,8/5,2. CO2 emissions combined (in g/km): 138. Where stated in ranges, fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and efficiency classes depend on tires/wheels used.