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Ecology, the animal turn and sheep in poetry

Sheep have been closely associated with humans for at least 10,000 years, but despite their ubiquity and association with agro-pastoral cultural landscapes, they are poorly represented in both poetry and in critical readings of pastoral texts. This book addresses that omission by applying concepts from the still emerging field of animal studies to an ecologically focused reading of poetry referencing sheep. The distinction between wild and domesticated species is called into question, with particular attention to Tim Ingold’s ideas about how hunters and pastoralists differ in the relations they have with animals. Pastoral literature is compared with what pastoralism means in agriculture and how it can produce landscapes with a high nature value. Poetry from the upland sheep-farming areas of western Britain is read from the viewpoint of the animal turn. The sheep-breeding practices of Dorset and Devon are explored through the poetry of Ted Hughes and Kay Syrad. Sheep and sheep keeping have been heavily involved in emigration of people, sheep and agricultural practice to the settler colonies, so readings of a small selection of poems from the USA and New Zealand are included to open the important topic of postcolonial reading of sheep poetry. The final chapter opens the question of whether sheep and poets have a future as the crisis deepens. The book makes a contribution to the literature of animal studies and ends with the question of whether the ethical case for a vegan lifestyle and low emissions means that the whole species is destined for extinction.

Sheep and people in the Welsh uplands
William Welstead

As in Cumbria, the Welsh uplands are home to an agro-pastoral society of sheep, cattle and people whose presence over centuries has helped to shape the distinctive landscape of the uplands from Snowdonia in the north, along the Cambrian Mountains to the Black Mountains in the south. The dominant breed of purebred sheep of this region is the hardy Welsh Mountain sheep that at the 2012 census was recorded at 1,800 flocks with 644,000 ewes. Although the ewes were purebred, some forty per cent were not mated to rams of the same breed. This can be

in Writing on sheep
Abstract only
William Welstead

Beacons. The agro-pastoral society of this region is central to the concept of Welsh identity and language. Although the poets discussed write in English, this dual heritage is always present. The Welsh poet Harri Webb chose the title The Green Desert for his 1969 collection of poems. The idea that the Cambrian Mountains are seen as some sort of desert has been cited by environmentalists such as George Monbiot as an example of the damage done to the landscape by sheep (Monbiot 2014: 62–89). This chapter argues for a more nuanced reading of Webb's designation, linked

in Writing on sheep
Abstract only
William Welstead

narratives that I explore in this chapter. I also read a small number of poems by writers in what were the settler countries, to identify common themes and influences on the way we think about the natureculture of agro-pastoral societies. These readings will further complicate what is already a complex field of study, with competing narratives, values and environmental issues that require our urgent attention. Our own farm in Wales had a fascinating history. A Roman road ran through our yard and the farmhouse had been home to a Quaker meeting in the

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

careful to understand the people of the agro-pastoral society whose activities over centuries had been responsible for creating the distinctive patterns in this landscape. Inevitably there are competing narratives in all landscapes – there will be those who love the fells without any perception that their present form owes so much to centuries of farming, and those who farm without ever seeing the fells as a place to go for recreation. The challenge for contemporary poets is to produce work that is sensitive to the sometimes competing cultures that have to coexist in

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

– but others see it as an important reminder of this infamous period in Scottish history. While McMillan takes a light-hearted view of the artist's interventions, it is significant that his collection about sheep makes reference to the Clearances as an ever-present background to any discussion of natureculture in the agro-pastoral society of the Scottish Highlands. In another poem, ‘A very small miracle’, McMillan focuses more on the sheep. This poem concerns the birth of a lamb without ‘even a farmer there / to count this a triumph for finance

in Writing on sheep
Ted Hughes and Kay Syrad
William Welstead

. Ted Hughes felt that his own time as an active farmer was one where over a decade fundamental changes were taking place in the agro-pastoral society of North Devon. Contemporary farmers feel equally besieged as they try to adapt their shepherding practice to new demands to deliver environmental services. As attention shifts to the carbon-capture potential of organic and naturalistic grazing methods, farmers once more face a challenge. Both organic and low-intensity farming that manages the manure inputs to permanent grassland can contribute to carbon capture if

in Writing on sheep