Jason Goodwin: ‘Thousands of awkward plots could be rootled and manured, raising livestock and improving the soil’

Jason Goodwin suggests the revitalisation of the city's plots, the installation of a two-month-long enviromental conscription for 18-year-olds and the addition of Dorset Longhorns to Hampstead Heath.

I like to arrive in London with all the facts, so I often read a paper on the train.

I was happy to turn from stabbing updates to the news that cattle will be brought back to graze on Hampstead Heath for the first time in a century. Constable painted them there, under cloudy skies, with London in the distance.

It only remains to decide on a suitable breed, one that won’t bridle at frisbees or the colour red and takes dogs and joggers in its stride. A small part-time herd, carefully enclosed, will start the business, but there are hopes eventually to have large parts of the heath naturally grazed.

I’ve seen a photo from the 1930s of sheep being driven down Piccadilly and on to Green Park to crop the grass. A century ago, animals dropped tons of fresh manure onto our cities’ streets and squares, which went to enrich the soil of parks and gardens. Now that this soil is compacted and starved, flocks of municipal sheep would improve matters no end, I thought, gazing out of the window to watch at the countryside roll by. This must be why it’s called a train of thought.

The City of London from Parliament Hill on a summers day.

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It’s not only our cities that need animal care. From a train, you’re well placed to see those weird-shaped snippets of land carved out and left behind by roads and railways. A brambly triangle lost between railway cuttings, scrubby woods straggling into life between an embankment and a reservoir and those ragged river banks meandering beneath the motorway pillars are all sad pockets of neglect, but ones that would make good plots for pigs.

Thousands of these awkward, pocket-handkerchief plots could be rootled and manured, raising livestock to feed the nation and improve the soil. Goats might substitute for pigs if there were religious grounds for objection. Geese would add to the mix. You could run barnyard fowl behind the electric wire. More could live in sewage works, I observed, as one flashed by, stoutly fenced against fox and badger. You might call it micro-husbandry or Refarming Britain.

My train of thought had got up steam now. You’d need people to check the fences and the troughs, decide when it was time to move on and to take the animals about. As I drowsed at the window,

I devised conscription for the 21st century. There’s nothing remotely Colonel Blimp about Natural Service. At the age of 18, everyone will undertake paid and useful work for two months.

In summer, they’ll clear ditches. At the appropriate time, they will lay hedges. Ponds will be cleaned, litter picked, brambles cleared, nests protected.

The Natural Service people will get around on bicycles, sleep in recyclable cardboard tents and enjoy a cider ration. They’ll take censuses of wildlife, count butterflies and orchids and swim and play guitars, cocooned in the great protective bubble of teenage goodwill that comes to the fore so strongly at festivals and parties.

Some will grumble, of course, but, given the magnificent uprush of ecological awareness that has swept through our schoolchildren this year, pushing them to bunk off double chemistry and demonstrate in town squares, I think many young people would relish the opportunity to get to know the country and each other and to learn about the natural world. They could be the saving of the planet. Sir David Attenborough might be their Commander-in-Chief.

I pursued this train all the way to London and, by the time I stepped onto the platform at Waterloo, I saw that we need only decide whether Dorset Longhorns or White Parks are more appropriate for the Heath and we’re off.