In her new BBC documentary, Kate Humble discovers the challenges of keeping animals in some of the harshest places on Earth. And what the future holds
At a time when traditional farming is under threat, presenter Kate Humble sought out the oldest and most extreme animal husbandry on the planet to learn the skills that have fed and clothed us for centuries.
The result is Wild Shepherdess, an immersive documentary series on BBC Two, that sees Kate experience the challenges facing the semi-nomadic herders of the Wakhan Corridor in northern Afghanistan, Peru's alpaca farmers in the High Andes, and Australia's Outback shepherds.
She talks to Peter Moore about sharing the lives of both small-scale, traditional shepherds and technologically and scientifically-driven industrial farmers, and what the future of global agriculture holds.
You have a sheep farm yourself. Was that why you wanted to do this series?
I do. I have a small holding with sheep in Wales. And I have another farm that is tenanted and we run courses on it. So I have sheep and I was just really interested in looking at the ancient culture of herding – where it came from and where it’s going. Basically, that’s what the series is looking at – the history and evolution of herding and this ancient relationship between human beings and domesticated livestock.
The first episode takes you out to the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. I’m guessing you got to experience shepherding as it has always been.
Yes. I was in the Wakhan Corridor with a very wonderful group of people, the Wakhi, who are shepherds and pastoralists and live in astonishingly tough conditions and manage to survive with astonishing dignity and forbearance in one of the toughest environments on the planet.
I suggested we started the series there with a very traditional shepherding culture and not far away from the Fertile Crescent, which is probably where the first sheep were domesticated. There may have been a similar domestication in South America around the same time but the domestication that would have affected Europe started in the Fertile Crescent.
It was great to be in the historical heartland of shepherding. As a group, the Wakhi are probably as authentic a way of dealing with their flocks and living with their flocks and as little affected as anywhere in the world today. That’s why we wanted to start there.
I believe you were roped into making a lot of bread...
Yes. I made quite a lot of bread, I drank quite a lot of salt tea, which luckily I quite liked!
Basically I lived with the Wakhi for the best part of three weeks. And in that area there is no means of escape – there are no hotels to go to! This was a truly immersive experience and an enormous privilege, actually, to live with these communities.
Do they have hard lives?
Extremely hard. In the summer they have a very short season to grow crops. The Wakhan Corridor is very narrow, it’s 3,000 metres high and is classed as desert, it has very low rainfall. The Wakhi, however, are masters of irrigation and they irrigate from the glaciers and the snow melts coming down from the mountains that surround them.
They can’t afford to have their livestock with them in the valley during the growing season. There’s just not room to grow crops and graze livestock, so they drive their sheep and goats and yaks up into these big wide mountain valleys, above 4,000 metres and they live in yurts in their small communities. So part of each village will stay down in the valley to cultivate the land and part of each village will go up with the flocks.
Summer is a really critical time of their year because the sheep and goats and yaks are fattening on all that wonderful mountain grass. They’re lambing or kidding – I’m not sure what the term for yaks is. Maybe yakking. They’re building up the size of their flocks, but, most importantly, they are harvesting the products which are going to keep them alive for the winter. And a very long winter it is.
What did you learn from the Wakhi?
What was a very stark lesson for me was that the way we keep animals in the west is actually incredibly wasteful. The majority of sheep kept in the west are for food and that food is meat. We have no value for wool anymore, which is a crime. We rarely milk them. My neighbours actually have a milking flock of sheep to make cheese, but that is a rarity.
These Afghan guys, however, were using everything. They don’t have wool sheep, they have hair sheep. But that hair is used to make felt, to make the yurts or to make rope. They let them lamb, but they also milk them during the time that they have lambs and make absolutely vital, essential dairy products, supplies. They make a sort of feta, with cheese that they dry in balls. That’s an essential protein during the winter. So every part, every aspect of those animals is utilised.
Did you find that was the same when you went to stay with the alpaca farmers in the High Andes in Peru?
It’s similar. We were in the Altiplano at over 4,000 metres with peasant farmers living with very little contact with the outside world, very little modern communication, no electricity. They did have access to running water, but other than that, their life is not that different from the people in the Wakhan Corridor. They’re again subsisting on potatoes, the odd guinea pig. And the Alpacas are their main form of income, mainly from the fibre.
The big difference in Peru is that there are options. Peru is a fast-developing country. It’s economy is astonishingly strong. Tourism is a big deal. A lot of the peasants living up in the Altiplano are finding that they can get a better income and regular work either working in tourism or moving to the cities.
So this is a real threat to a way of life, this ancient tradition of keeping alpaca, first started by the Incas. We might think that it’s a romantic idea to live at 4,000 metres in a potato patch with an alpaca or two. But there’s nothing romantic about their lives at all. So you can’t blame them for wanting to look at other options, for wanting their children to have a better chance in life.
Having said that, the big and really interesting story in Peru is that the alpaca fibre industry has suddenly become a global one. Peasant farmers find themselves in a situation that is driven by a market that they have had very little experience of. In Afghanistan, they are looking after themselves. They are not driven by outside influences. It’s not driven by a sudden spike in demand from Russia or China, which is what’s happening in Peru.
Are the peasant farmers capable of meeting this demand?
Peru supplies 90% of the alpaca fibre used in the world, most of it coming from the peasant farmers. It has to. The economics of it means that it doesn’t make sense to set up huge, commercial alpaca farms. There are a few of them. But the way that alpacas work – they have an incredibly long gestation period of 11 months, they only ever have one off-spring – it is a massive investment to build up a herd.
The worrying thing is that alpaca fibre is regarded as a luxury product. It’s a product very much in flux, one that comes in and out of fashion. You could put loads of money into alpaca fibre and then the whole bottom drops out.
So you’re looking at a really interesting case study in the history of herding and then suddenly there are other options with these herders. We might beg them to not go and work in the cities and live in a slum because it will be dreadful and it will kill them. But who are we to make that judgement?
And then you go to Australia...
Australia is absolutely the other end of the scale. You’re looking at a country that is producing food for its own population, but actually, the money, the market, is driven by an overseas' one. Australia is responding to a burgeoning world population, a population that is actually getting more affluent and more urban based. So you’ve got these markets in the Middle East and Indonesia, where you’ve got more people living in cites, more people with more money, more people wanting to eat more meat.
What challenges are they facing?
In Australia, they’ve got this vast market, but then they look back to the land that they’re dealing with, the land they are having to raise sheep on, and they are dealing with the absolute realities of climate change and the extreme weather that often brings.
Look at Western Australia, for example. I worked on a sheep station out there, a sheep farm the size of Kent. A million acres, 22,000 sheep and they had just emerged from ten years of drought, of really extreme drought, followed by massive flooding, followed by a plague of locusts, and lightening strikes that wiped out 250,000 acres. You're dealing with absolutely extreme conditions.
The conditions there are so extreme that the traditional Australian sheep, the Merino, is no longer practical to keep in that area. They’ve had to import an African breed of sheep called the Damara, a fat tailed sheep. That’s a sheep that nobody in Australia wants to eat but plenty of people in the Middle East do. So great, you’ve got your market. You can make livelihood work. Except that you’ve then got people in Australia protesting against the live export of animals. That then adds another layer of complexity into sheep farming.
What's the bigger picture?
I think we've got to ask ourselves whether this land can actually sustain this number of animals and this amount of demand from the world. And, I think, the bottom line is that if we keep going the way we are going the answer is that it can't.
What's the answer to meeting this growing demand?
We have two very stark choices. One is that we completely change the way that we eat and the way that we view meat in the western world and in the very fast-developing world as well. At the moment, in the UK and other Western nations, we think that it is entirely reasonable and acceptable to eat meat three times a day. We might have a bacon sandwich for breakfast, a chicken salad for lunch and a steak for dinner. Well that’s three different animals right there. And we don’t expect to pay very much money for it. The fact is that the world won’t be able to support that demand for very much longer. Certainly not at the prices that we expect to pay.
The second is to look to science and the things that many of us are either nervous and suspicious about or downright against – things like genetic modification, things like cloning, things like embryo transfer. I had a fascinating insight into the science of basically producing food for a world that is increasing in population but decreasing in areas where it can actually be produced. It was a glimpse into a future where it is not beyond the realms of possibility to think that it will be scientists who will be our new farmers.
It seems that the overriding commonalty between each of these places is the harshness of the environment. Is that because as we’re becoming more urbanised, farmers are being pushed out onto the peripheries?
I don’t think it is so much that. I think it is just the fact that we have become disconnected with the way the natural environment works. People are still skeptical about things like climate change and yet if you are living cheek by jowl with nature you can’t fail to see that the signs are there.
I think the challenges are not that farmers are being pushed out to marginal land, it’s the fact that we are going along this seemingly one-way path where the environment that is changing ever faster because of climate change than the other effects that build on to that make a farmer's life harder and harder. The other effects are more and more demand, more and more demand without wanting to pay the real value of the thing. I think that the kind of root problem is this level of disconnect between the people who produce our food and the consumers.
Finally, did you learn anything on your travels that you’ve taken back to your own farm?
I do feel guilty about not milking my sheep. And, actually, my neighbours have been trying to teach me. I’m very, very bad at it, despite my three weeks in Afghanistan attempting to do it every day.
What I’m trying to do is look at my animals as more than something that will end up in my freezer. I’m attempting to do more with the wool, for example. I have Badger Face Welsh Mountain sheep. They have coloured wool, black and white wool, and the wool board isn’t interested in coloured wool. So I’m working with a Dorset-based mattress company who make mattresses stuffed with wool.
What I would really like to see is the ability for small-holders like me to find outlets for wool, wool we have to shear. You don’t shear for fun or to make socks, it’s a welfare issue for sheep. If you don’t shear them, they can’t cope. They get fly-strike and all those kind of things.
So I guess what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to adopt from my travels, is that we really make the most of these animals and don’t just see them as Sunday Lunch. They can be used to make cheese, to breed stock that you can then sell on, a way of utilising every part of them, not wasting them, seeing them as the luxury they should be.