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Coups, chaos and sheep on Hampstead Heath: Britain in 2019

Parliament is to be suspended, and five sheep are grazing on Hampstead Heath. It’s the Brexit version of chaos theory in a tin-pot dictatorship.

We know it was Boris Johnson, not the Queen, who dreamt up the plan to prorogue Parliament. But it was Lindy Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (also known as Lindy Guinness), who came up with the idea of re-introducing sheep to the Heath, not seen there since the 1950s.

It’s a week in which nature topped the headlines. The Amazon is burning. Three soccer pitches are disappearing every minute. Climate activist Greta Thunberg has arrived in New York and American-style rangers are being introduced to our national parks. It’s a time when connecting to nature is much needed. David Attenborough worked with the mental health charity Mind in last year’s Big Butterfly Count. As you would expect, he said, “watching butterflies is good for you”. There is lots of evidence to suggest that hugging trees and smelling the roses is good for our mental health. It makes you feel happier and healthier and being around animals can have lots of positive effects. Studies have found that Japanese forest bathing, Shirin-yoku, where you are immersed in nature, has a calming effect. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with contentment.

Wangarĩ Muta Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 (the first African woman to do so) and I interviewed her in London shortly after. A Kenyan social, environmental and political activist, one of her legacies is saving Karura, the urban forest in Nairobi, from developers. I walked there almost every day last year when I stayed nearby with a friend. While I am not spiritual, I could feel the effects of wandering amid the trees. On my first visit to Africa, I went on a five-day bush walk with Ian Player, who was instrumental in saving the white rhino from extinction in South Africa in Operation Rhino. It was the first time in my unspiritual existence that I felt connected to the land in the Umfolozi. I can still spot rhino dung at 20 paces.

Lindy Guinness was inspired by a Constable painting of cattle grazing on the Heath. The week-long experiment sprang from a lecture she gave at the Heath and Hampstead Society. “This romantic vision happily coincided with the aim of Heath staff to experiment with grazing rather than tractors to manage the landscape,” said John Beyer, vice-chair of the society. You can find the Norfolk Horns munching grass in a fenced-off area known as the Tumulus, the ancient Roman site to be found somewhere between Parliament Hill and Kenwood House. Guinness, herself a painter, has had one of those fairytale lives of extraordinary privilege – one that has consisted of grand balls, grand-dukes, and grand houses. Everyone who was anyone went to the bohemian parties she threw at her estate, Clandeboye, in County Down. Unconventional from the start, she had no objection when David Hockney went on honeymoon with her and her husband.

Somewhere a butterfly flaps its wings and we now live in a banana republic, where people are herded like sheep. This is the confluence of Brexit and mental health: chaos reigns, Boris is the lunatic who has taken over the asylum and Hampstead is once again Constable country.