Midwives of the fells – lessons from a Herdwick sheep farmer

Maybe we need to be woken up to our cultural ignorance and our compliance with a medical model of birth. Following my earlier blog ‘A midwife for Kate: The silence that demands a roar’, this is a look at maternity issues from a different perspective…

I’m heading for Cumbria. I’ve been reading The Shepherd’s Life: A tale of the Lake District. So I’m even more excited than usual. I’m a Cumbrian by childhood and went to school with sheep farmer’s daughters and sons.

James Rebanks is author of The Shepherd’s Life and @herdyshepherd1. At this time of year, he’s posting wonderful photographs of lambing sheep, as well as images of sunrise over the fells and sheepdog pups. He’s followed by over 60 thousand people. The story and images of ‘our shepherding year’ have captured the imagination of people who know nothing about the harsh realities of a Lakeland winter or Herdwick sheep. What’s more his book is currently the number one best-selling hardback. With that many followers, you can tell it’s not just a small clique of aficionados who are keeping company with Rebanks.

I’ve retweeted some of the lambing images. Just as I’ve shared on Facebook amazing photographs of human births in domestic or ‘social’ rather than ‘medicalised’ settings, and ordinary instinctive – rather than ‘stranded beetle’ – birthing postures. I feel there is much that we can learn from reflecting on humans as mammals, and thinking about long-standing ways of living and working that have evolved through the evidence of experience.

I’m struck by so many messages from Rebanks’s book. The birth of healthy lambs each year is fundamental to the success of the farm and the wellbeing of the flock. So birth really matters. Birth in human society has been side-lined as a core activity that we all respect. Instead of being seen as fundamental to our society’s success and to community wellbeing, culturally we do not prioritise quality of birth, either for women or for babies. In societies with less access to drugs and surgery – medical aid – better attention tends to be paid to nurturing women during and after birth, to making them feel protected and enabled to birth and to mother. Medicalisation of birth often swiftly follows on from industrialisation and privatisation of healthcare. But the drugs and surgery seem an odd way to go about a healthy, normal process and there is growing evidence that the unintentional consequences are stacking up.

Societal success is often reduced to growth in GDP. Keeping up with the neighbours is about acquisition of material goods and marketed experiences. More stuff rather than better stuff. Throughput. Commerce is a trump card. The Herdwick farmer knows he or she will never become wealthy through shepherding and will work long hours in tough conditions for what they earn. But the way of life is full of riches of a different kind. The Shepherds’s Life narrative and the tweeted photographs are inspiring because they demonstrate values and a way of life that is different from the modern mainstream. A different culture that needs to be lived out in order to be known, and preserved. A culture – or way of thinking, feeling, behaving and doing things – that needs to be explained. Outsiders just do not ‘get it’ otherwise. Normal midwifery is threatened by the modern values of being risk-averse, ‘outcome’-focused and preoccupied by cost and cost-saving. Less tangible but nevertheless important values and experiences get overlooked.

I don’t want to overdo the analogy between fell-side shepherding and midwifery. But there are some parallels. I find this Lakeland shepherd’s story inspiring because it is a challenge to received thinking. Rebanks communicates the excitement and reward of working in a more traditional way. By presenting mountain-farming as a distinctive culture with a nobility of its own, he opens our eyes to the possibility of seeing the world differently. Rebanks invites the reader to see, to appreciate, then to come to respect and to value ways of living and being that have evolved and been practiced over thousands of years. The fact that he had to struggle against the teaching at school and attitudes of the teenage girls he fancied, and then decline other opportunities after graduating, makes his commitment all the more powerful.

Another message with a strong parallel is that it’s not all or nothing. Like a resourceful midwife or a clued up pregnant woman, Rebanks adapts to and takes advantage of modern technologies. But he does so on his own terms and without disturbing too much of the equilibrium. The quad bike enables him to get around the ewes efficiently. Antibiotics are used when there is infection. Sick sheep and freezing lambs are brought inside the barn – ‘like the maternity ward and A&E rolled into one’ (p245). But his aim is to enhance shepherding and the fortunes of the flock without losing the knowledge of the old ways. The resourcefulness and endurance of sheep and farmer bring rewards and pleasures. After a long, bitter winter comes a glorious summer with new lambs, sheep free on the fell tops, and the valley bottoms alive with swallows and hay-time flowers.

Do we need a shepherd’s story to inspire? Maybe not. Growing numbers of women and midwives convey the wonder and majesty of human birth. Working with our physiology rather than against it, birth can be simple and joyful, even ecstatic. Photography and film add to the message. Check out the wisdom and fabulous images at Normal birth for lone nuts, Apple Blossom Families photographer, and also at Birth without fear.

But maybe we do need to be woken up to our cultural ignorance and our compliance with a medical model… first thing this morning, Kensington Palace announced that Kate and William were off to hospital for the birth of their second child. While the names of obstetricians (surgeons) were provided and duly reported by the media, there has so far been complete silence about Kate’s midwifery care. (See my earlier blog ‘A midwife for Kate: The silence that demands a roar’).

End note

Here are some quotes from The Shepherd’s Life which I particularly enjoyed. They may sound strangely familiar…

‘I find myself talking to the ewe, telling her she has done well’ (p242)

‘I always marvel at how gentle some of the men (shepherds) are at this time of year…’(p244)

‘Mountain sheep like ours are healthiest and most settled lambing outside, but that means a lot of ground to cover each day in the valley bottom fields.’ (p246)

‘My grandfather and father taught me that we have a range of options and the trick is to know which one to resort to, depending on the situation. …you can do more harm than good, they say, unsettling the ewes. My grandfather had incredible patience with the lambing ewes, and would leave them and leave them as long as all seemed well. He’s stand and watch, leaning on his crook, seeming to know when it was better to act, or when to leave well alone.’ (p251)

‘I… leave [the lambs] to their mother’s attention… she is an old experienced ewe and knows the game’. (p248)

There are ‘well-mothered and healthy lambs that don’t need my help’ but also sheep who become separated from their lambs and uncertain how to behave ‘like the thread between them has broken.’ (p248)

Rebanks quotes William Wordsworth on ‘an ideal society or an organised community, whose constitution had been imposed and regulated by the mountains which protected it. Neither high-born nobleman, knight nor squire was here; but many of these humble sons of the hills had a consciousness that the land, which they walked over and tilled, had for more than five hundred years been possessed by men of their name and blood…’ (1810)

This sense of history, and our lives being connected to those who went before us, reminds me of my midwife.

When I was in labour and felt I couldn’t go on, Caroline Flint said to me ‘Yes, you can, Mary. Women have been doing this for thousands of years.’

Her sense of calm and confidence soothed me, and soon my baby was born.

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