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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.

William Welstead

This chapter is concerned with contemporary wildlife art in Britain covering the period from the formation of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) in 1964 to the present time. Over that time a considerable body of work has been produced by SWLA artists and exhibited in the Society's annual exhibitions. The chapter considers the relevance of this creative work in ecocritical discourse, both in collaboration with literary and other creative genres and considered in its own right. It explores the way that wildlife artists navigate the twin pulls of science and art in the context of the task of ecocritics to read cultural works with and against discourses from ecology and environmental science. Ecocritics are increasingly interested in the potential for biosemiotics to illuminate ecocritical discourse. The chapter concludes that wildlife art is a rich body of work that would merit further investigation by ecocritics.

in Extending ecocriticism
An ecocritical reading
William Welstead

Visitors to the countryside are increasingly faced with a variety of panels, interpretation centres and other interventions that convey selected narratives and ways of seeing our natural heritage. This chapter explores the scope for these cultural objects to be included in ecocritical enquiry. The ubiquity and undemanding nature of many displays makes for an accessible source of information about basic ecology as filtered through the viewpoint of site managers for national and country parks, nature reserves and other protected sites. Interpretation is a broad practice that embodies, creative writing and art, constructing ideas of place, explaining the natural environment and promoting a corporate identity. While projects like that on the Tweed Rivers will be immediately accessible to ecocritics, the humble but ubiquitous interpretation panel and the increasing use of technology may be more problematic.

in Extending ecocriticism
William Welstead

In the last chapter attention is turned to the pressing environmental problems of our age. During the writing of this book, warnings about the climate and biodiversity emergencies have become markedly more strident. Although the science is now warning how close we are to the tipping point where life would not be sustainable for humans and most other species, we have had plenty of previous warnings over the last sixty years. The work of Cape Farewell that brings together scientists and creatives to work together on issues relating to climate change, particularly by taking them on expeditions to the Arctic, is introduced. The response by poets including Nick Drake and Helen Mort, as well as artist Anne Campbell, are discussed. There are no sheep in these outputs, but as ruminants that belch methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, these animals are very much present in all discussions of a heating world. It seems inevitable that both poets and shepherds will have to change how they see the world in the face of impending climate disaster.

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

The context for Chapter 4 is the award in July 2017 to the English Lake District, Cumbria of UNESCO World Heritage Status as a cultural landscape. The basis of this award is both for the role played by traditional farming and the way that our ideas about landscape have been influenced by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Ruskin. Herdwick sheep, which have a long history in the Lake District, were championed by Beatrix Potter on her portfolio of hill farms that she bequeathed to the National Trust. James Rebanks, who is both a Wordsworth scholar and Herdwick shepherd, continues this tradition. Cumbria, which includes the Lake District, is home to three distinctive hill breeds: Herdwick, Swaledale and Rough Fell. The idea of a cultural landscape is proving to be contentious, and this chapter offers the opportunity to explore how the pastoral mode can be reinterpreted through the animal turn. There is a further opportunity to consider how creative writing is being deployed to conserve the place for hill farming in rural culture. Poets have played an important role in reflecting the lived experience of shepherds. Contemporary poets discussed include Meg Peacocke, Josephine Dickinson and Harriet Fraser.

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

In Chapter 6 poetry from Scotland is considered in the context of the movement of sheep from the border regions into the Highlands at the time of the Clearances. Although it happened long ago, this traumatic event still colours narratives of sheep in contemporary Scotland. The Northumberland and Scottish Borders and the Cheviot Hills played an important role in the development of sheep breeds. It was here that the Blackface and Cheviot sheep were developed to meet the requirements of the terrain and from where the breeds spread north during the improvements inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment. The arrival of these breeds in Scotland, driven by market forces as well as ideas about improvement, was sudden and violent. In the play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, first performed in 1973, the new breeds of sheep are seen as signifiers of aggressive colonialism that displaced the subsistence-farming crofters so that their lands could be converted to sheep walk. Poets considered in this chapter are Jim Carruth, who writes from first-hand experience as a farmer poet, and Hugh McMillan, whose sympathetic engagement with sheep is both humorous and insightful.

in Writing on sheep
Ted Hughes and Kay Syrad
William Welstead

In Chapter 7 poems from two poets are read, against their very different experience on sheep farms: one as an owner-occupier in Devon and the other as a writer in residence on three farms in Dorset. By the time Ted Hughes acquired Moortown Farm in Devon, which he farmed jointly with his father-in-law, he had already developed his ideas about how to treat animals in his poetry. This chapter considers how domesticated animals fit into his literary practice. The case is made for Hughes to be seen as having a primary influence in the animal turn in the humanities, in a way that complements his importance in wider ecological literary criticism. In 2014 poet Kay Syrad and sculptor Chris Drury were ‘embedded’ on three organic farms in Dorset. Kay Syrad has ‘crafted a narrative which witnesses what it is to be a farmer’ through her own poetry and recorded interviews with the farmers. The chapter reads this poetry and prose from the viewpoint of the animal turn. It also explores the very different narratives and values deployed by Hughes during what he saw as a fundamental shift in Devon farming, and those of contemporary organic and naturalistic farming practice.

in Writing on sheep
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William Welstead

In Chapter 8, the reach of poetry, agricultural practice, breeds of livestock and critical analysis across the English-speaking world is examined. While reference was made to postcolonial readings in the above discussion on poetry in Wales and Scotland, this chapter follows those who were dispossessed during the Clearances or for personal or economic reasons made the journey to the new colonies. As agricultural improvement developed in Britain, so these ideas, animals and grass varieties spread to the New World. The pioneers also set about writing their own founding myths, which in many cases were contradictory. Context is provided from readings of writers and historians including Mary Hunter Austin, Marsha Weisiger, Mary Weaks-Baxter, Sally McMurry and Virginia de John Anderson. Readings of a small number of poets including Hershman John, Donald Hall and Cilla McQueen are compared with the developing narratives and implicit values of environmental discourse in the countries where they made their home. Adding a colonial perspective greatly increases the complexity of what is already a complex field of study.

in Writing on sheep
Sheep and people in the Welsh uplands
William Welstead

Chapter 5 covers the Welsh mountains from Snowdon to the Brecon Beacons. The agro-pastoral society of this region is central to the concept of Welsh identity and language. The poets discussed in this chapter write in English, but 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 as an example of the damage done to the landscape by sheep. This chapter argues for a more nuanced reading of Webb’s designation, linked as it is to the concept of ‘terra incognita’. It is argued that a postcolonial reading would be more appropriate. It will take note of readings of Webb’s poetry by Morris (1993), Jarvis (2008) and Bohata (2004), but with particular reference to how sheep farming is now under pressure. Welsh Mountain sheep and closely related mountain breeds are the mainstay of the Welsh-speaking hill farmers in Snowdonia and the northern Cambrian Mountains. Authors include Ffion Jones (2014) and poets Owen Sheers (2000), Christopher Meredith (2011), Gillian Clarke (1997) and Christine Evans (2006).

in Writing on sheep
Abstract only
William Welstead

Sheep have been associated with humans for over 10,000 years, but are poorly represented in poetry and criticism. The animal turn has the potential to rectify this marginalisation of a species that has played an important part in the formation of both the landscape and the agro-pastoral culture. Concepts such as natureculture allow for the exchange across the species boundary to be acknowledged. New readings of poems about sheep can provoke new ways of interrogating the natural world. Sheep, in common with other ruminants, emit methane which, as a powerful greenhouse gas, is an important contributor to global heating. The animal turn recognises the sentience and agency of other species, but also brings with it a need to reconsider whether it is right to eat meat. There is no escaping the complexity of the moral implications which require a choice between the welfare of the individual animal or the extinction of the whole species. This book claims a place for sheep in the literary discussion of the animal turn and shows how this turn can complicate ecocritical discussion of the pastoral.

in Writing on sheep