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HomeEditor's PicksJanet White: A trail-blazing shepherding woman decades before her time
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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Janet White: A trail-blazing shepherding woman decades before her time

From an early age, Janet White was a trailblazer, decades ahead of her time, as portrayed in a memoir of her self-determined life entitled The Sheep Stell.

Turning her back on convention, determined to make her own life away from the constrictions of expectation, Janet had an early affinity with nature and wildlife and the desire to carve out her own living utopia.

Her quest would take her from the Cheviot Hills to Sussex and Somerset via the savage beauty of rural New Zealand.

Evacuated to the countryside in the Second World War, Janet White fell in love with nature and rural life.

Defying expectations of what a middle-class, academic young woman should do, she headed to the Cheviot Hills to tend sheep, met with bewilderment by the other shepherds who eventually accepted her as one of their own.

After a year at agriculture college, she left Britain to eventually live on an uninhabited island off the coast of New Zealand.

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A bonfire was her only means of communication with the mainland and only her farm animals for company.

After a brutal attack by an obsessed young man, she left her beloved island a year later, returning reluctantly to England.

Here, she married, became a smallholder in Sussex, and finally purchased a hill farm in Somerset, where she still resides today.

Janet White

According to the publishing company, Piatkus, Constable and Robinson – a division of Little, Brown Book Group, The Sheep Stell tells the tale of a woman before her time, a woman with incredible courage and determination, who wants only peace and solitude in nature and a life with animals.

Underpinning The Sheep Stell is Janet’s devotion to the land and her total commitment to combining the principles of conservation with successful farming.

“The book is a testament to an extraordinary woman, and it is a homage to the nature we are so rapidly losing touch with, a true celebration of the pastoral and pure escapism to a simpler life.”

Over twenty years ago, well before the current trend for nature writing, Janet White wrote The Sheep Stell, a beautiful and evocative memoir about her life as a shepherd.

First published by a small imprint which closed down soon after publication and then published as a small self-published edition, The Sheep Stell is republished with a new foreword by Colin Thubron, an updated afterword and an extended section to Janet’s life as an emigrant to New Zealand, exploring her challenging years farming alone on a remote island.

Book reviews 

In reviewing the book, Philip Marsden, author of Rising Ground, described this as an “extraordinary” memoir.

He said, “Janet White has lived a life of ceaseless devotion – to the land, to the loving grind of husbandry, to the beauty of the natural world.”

The Sheep Stell is pure joy, one of the most moving books I have read in a long time,” Marsden remarked.

John Barrington, author of Red Sky at Night, said she shows herself to be “a true exponent” of the world’s second-oldest profession, shepherding.

“Wherever she sets her feet, Janet White becomes seamlessly stitched into the landscape, becoming part of the ecosystem in which she practices her husbandry.”

“From her observations of surrounding wildlife to her exasperation at the dying ability of sheep, Janet White’s book should be compulsory reading for every member of parliament. I am sure that our world would become a much better place.”

After seventy lambings, one marriage and a big family, Janet White is now in her eighties and continues to farm in the West Country, aided by a quadbike and her devoted Border Collie, Moss.

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