Lessons from a life on the family farm

  • 20.12.2023
  • article
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • People
  • Small Farms
  • Julie Baber

Having been inspired by Rosamund Young’s latest book The Wisdom of Sheep, Julie Baber shares with us the magic of Kite’s Nest Farm, where “the kitchen is warm, the tea copious, the milk creamy”. Tucked into a valley on the scarp slope of the Cotswolds, and with nature in abundance, it’s no wonder the farm draws you in.

From my sleeping bag on the floor of the flat at Kite’s Nest, I can see straight up into a sky full of stars that seem to go on forever. A shaft of light from a bright moon cuts across the Velux window. From unseen trees an owl calls. The urge to go out into the soft dark of the early morning is strong, but I daren’t move for fear of waking others still asleep around me.

We blew in yesterday on the edge of Storm Ciaran, three women and a baby, to join those already preparing the memorial gathering for Richard Young, much loved and admired

Richard had lived here for over 40 years and had combined hands-on farming with tireless research and campaigning on such things as animal welfare, antibiotic misuse and soil health. That the suddenness of his passing avoided his having to leave the farm seems appropriate if untimely (and isn’t death always untimely for those that still have so much to do?)

Difficulty in leaving Kite’s Nest was a subject that came up often in tributes and conversations during the gathering. The farm draws you in, so that even when you do leave, (and like some mythical otherworld, that is often much later than anticipated), you can’t quite shake it off.

In her new book, The Wisdom of Sheep, Richard’s sister, Rosamund, describes their arrival. “We fell in love with the farm as soon as we saw it, tucked into a valley on the scarp slope of the Cotswolds, with the land rising from about three hundred feet above sea level to about nine hundred feet at the highest point.”

The beautiful scenic views of Kite's Nest Farm
The tranquil scenic views of Kite’s Nest


It’s not difficult to see why the Young family took to the farm with such enthusiasm. A sense of great age permeates the house and surrounding valley and while it feels peopled by all those that have gone before, these ghosts seem content.

The non-human residents seem content too. How much of that is the farm itself and how much of it is down to four decades of nurturing by Rosamund and Richard (plus a cast of other characters), is hard to judge.

As a visitor to Kite’s Nest, I was struck by the way all theoretical boundaries are blurred. Human, wild and domesticated inhabitants are intrinsically woven into a relaxed and vibrant tapestry of life well lived. It reminded me very much of the farms of my childhood before the industrialised mindset of modern convention tidied them up.

As a child, rambles with my grandfather invariably ended in someone’s kitchen. At Kite’s Nest too, the kitchen is warm, the tea copious, the milk creamy. Random people sit around the table and bask in the sense of welcome that the place exudes.

Always a farmer, Rosamund hadn’t thought of writing a book until the interest of a young journalist (visiting the farm to buy meat) led to her writing the The Secret Life of Cows, originally published in 2003 and becoming a bestseller when it was republished by Faber in 2017.

Her second book, The Wisdom of Sheep, reflects very much the character of both the author and the place. It’s a book that invites you in, just as Rosamund does in person. Appearing at first to be a disconnected collection of interesting anecdotes, it isn’t long before the deep connections between each chapter build seamlessly. Some of these ‘chapters’ are no more than a few lines: a quote, poem or proverb, but each developing important themes in the subtlest of ways.

To be a good farmer, in my opinion, you have to possess the abilities of observation, empathy and improvisation. You also have to be prepared to work relentlessly hard, at all hours under whatever conditions are thrown at you. These are the key threads running through The Wisdom of Sheep.

Rosamund Young
Rosamund Young tends Kite’s Nest Farm in the Cotswolds


Rosamund is an excellent observer of life in all its myriad forms. In the beautiful chapter, “The Heart of the Meadow”, she describes why you “cannot photograph the anticipation and excitement of seeing the hazy brilliance of the whole thing waving slowly”. She observes up close, while moving cattle, “an exquisitely delicate, coral pink grass vetchling”, and at midnight “by the light of a tiny torch…feathery white flowerheads and tight pink buds”.

One of the many privileges of being a farmer is getting out there, immersed in it all. Whatever the weather, whatever time of the day or night, you do what you have to do. The reward for this is the chance encounters – the guided missile that is a hunting sparrowhawk flying between the bars of a gate, the “field full of frogs”, the silhouette of a roe buck against the darkening sky. Ultimately, there is the simple joy of being alive. As Rosamund says, “I wouldn’t thank you for an office job.”

Careful observation is at the root of the empathetic approach to animal husbandry at Kite’s Nest Farm. One of the most important things any livestock farmer can do is to watch and learn – in fact, this is a skill that would benefit the general population. Too often wrong assumptions are made purely because people are not prepared to take time to watch and listen. I wonder at many of the trite little quips that regularly do the rounds. ‘Sheep mentality’, for instance, is defined as ‘unintelligent, simple-minded and dependent’. Not in my experience of sheep. Most annoyingly, ‘a sheep’s main purpose in life is to find different ways to die’. Also, not my experience of sheep – for while there are many ways in which a sheep (or any other living being) can die, there are many more ways in which death is avoided by these most resourceful animals. The people who repeat these inane sayings clearly don’t understand sheep and would benefit greatly from reading Rosamund’s book!

Sheep on Kite's Nest Farm

Like many intelligent works of literature, The Wisdom of Sheep can be read on different levels. Superficially, it is a warm, amusing, easy to read collection of snippets of life on a family farm. For a livestock farmer there is much that is familiar. Look a little deeper though and there are lessons on how to live on this planet, how to love and be loved, how to find your place in an often-broken world.

Finally, in a book of great quotes, I like this one the best, because in it lies the key to a better future for all:

“He has no farming background and started working on the farm with that admission, plus an assurance that he would do his best. This he always does, many times accomplishing impossible feats largely because he has no idea they are impossible.”

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