The figures in a landscape that simply don't add up

At 1,000ft above sea level, and a few hundred feet higher than the River Ribble down below, Lower Winskill Farm is low only in relative terms.

It was established by the monks of Sawley Abbey in medieval times as part of their extensive sheep pastures in the area.

This is high limestone country in North Yorkshire. A few miles away is the market town of Settle – though the market today is for tourism rather than livestock.

Tom Lord was lecturing in archaeology and history before the call of his mother's farming roots lured him to take over at Winskill 12 years ago. It had last been farmed in 1970. Between then and 1990 it had been let for grazing and in farming terms had "got rather run down".

Its 140 acres are utterly enchanting. You would probably do anything legal to live here. The ancient field pattern remains, segregated by walls which Tom Lord has discovered can be more than 700 years old. He decided to get the place back to a traditional upland farm while looking after the needs of the birds and moths, butterflies and beetles, wild flowers and grasses, nettles and thistles – the species which need each other to thrive.

In 1997, in return for an annual 12-year grant under the Government's Countryside Stewardship Scheme, he set aside 25 acres of meadow and 14 of limestone pasture. This agreement protects the abundance of herbs and flowering plants from mowing and grazing between spring and autumn. There are also funds for restoring the field walls and free access for educational groups.

All fine and dandy. By the late 1990s, Lower Winskill supports the Lord family and is nourished by grants. In return, Tom Lord gives the farm his best shot, while looking after the birds, grasses, moths etc. In 1998 he was co-author The Romano-British Archaeology of Victoria Cave. This is a cavern in the limestone above Settle. His grandfather, the late Tot Lord, was involved in the discoveries, and had his own museum in Settle. His exhibits are now in store at the Natural History Museum.

In February 2001, foot-and-mouth disease erupted. The Settle area looked like escaping the scourge. In May, Tom Lord lost his animals: some 50 cattle and 200 sheep. Do you remember, or have you forgotten? In Devon that month I saw the smoke from the funeral pyres. A few miles further on the stench reached the road and blew in to the car. Tom Lord hasn't fully restocked yet. Whether he will is one of those dilemmas facing thousands of farmers. Right now he is considering how his time should be spent between educational tourism (my phrase, not his), ecological progress, and livestock.

He is not alone. The European farm subsidy system is finally being shaken and winnowed in to something which looks more like common sense – but only, one feels, because even Brussels realises that grants to incoming Eastern Bloc farmers would bust its treasury coffers. Lord Haskins, Tony Blair's rural guru, is proposing a single governmental English landscape agency instead of the several that manage rural issues. It would recognise the switch of public money towards agricultural grants that had a heavy environmental twist. A model is already seen in the Countryside Agency for Wales which promotes "green" farming practices. Last month the Campaign to Protect Rural England got lots of ink and airtime with its polite demand that the erosion of our countryside's character had to stop. Villains included out-of-town shopping centres, new roads, phone relay masts.

"Wensleydale cheese would mean little to consumers if the fells were bare of cattle and sheep and the stone walls were fallen," said CPRE's chief executive, Kate Parminter in her foreword to the report Lie of the Land.

It is a moot point. Too many "consumers" do not give a fig about how their cheese or milk or meat is produced. Too many of them are responsible for scrambling over walls and sending topstones tumbling, climbing gates at the sneck end imposing maximum strain on the hinges, leaving litter.

Tom Lord is big on walls. He has identified a type, still standing in areas with sound limestone bedrock footings, which "could be" 13th century. It has a less tapered end profile and overhanging top stones to prevent stock jumping out, and wolves jumping in. The majority of upland walls are the type which are narrower at the top. These were built from the 17th century to the later 19th century.

Dilemma: does he restore the 13th century wall to its original style, or rebuild when necessary using 21st century skills? And what about the zinc mesh fence which prevents sheep scrambling over dilapidated walls? What about it? Rain leeches out the zinc and drips drips on to the stone and destroys the mosses and lichens. After 10 or 15 years, the rusted wire has to go to landfill dumps because it jams the machines at scrap yards. In the long term it is better to spend more money at the outset repairing the walls.

Clearly, careful conservation is full of nooks and crannies. Take the chimney sweep, a daytime flying moth, a small flutter of charcoal wings which lays its eggs on the herb pignut, and only pignut. Even rarer is the Northern brown argus. This is a small dark butterfly that thrives alongside the chimney sweep (and dozens of other insect species) in the 12-acre hay meadow which Tom Lord leaves untouched from March to September. It lays its eggs on rock rose, a small yellow-flowered plant, from late June until early August. Grazers seek it out, so the answer at Lower Winskill is no grazing until September. By then the butterfly larvae have emerged. "They detect the vibration from approaching livestock and drop off the rock rose to the safety of the detritus at the base of the plant whenever they sense danger", says Tom Lord.

What does he think about foxhunting? He allows foot packs on his land, regards it as "purely recreational" but would not like to see it banned. On organic farming: in principle, yes, but Lower Winskill is not totally organic. "We are very pragmatic, but we are not intensive and stock at a natural carrying capacity of the land which is good for stock and good for wildlife". On shooting: he no longer shoots but permits controlled rabbit shooting. What annoys him? "The increasing assumption that if a field is empty someone can let their dog run loose. People don't realise what an effect their dogs can have on ground nesting birds. We have gone to great lengths to look after wildlife and letting dogs out can upset what can be a lot of work". He adds that local residents are often to blame.

Clearly Tom Lord is better informed than the majority of farmers on conservation, flora, fauna and agricultural archaeology. Few farmers gather and sell their wild flower seeds. His courses on things such as the use of traditional lime mortar are popular but with three young children his wife's income as a teacher is vital to support the household.

"The margins from livestock have been falling steadily but diversification is not for everybody. What do you say to the chap of 55 who has been farming for 40 years? You can't tell him to go into leisure and tourism. Farmers will get to 60 or 65 and fall off the edge, pack up. Who's going to be left? This farm will not provide an income for a family".

He remarks wryly on the traffic flow in Littondale, virtually a dead-end spur valley off Wharfedale. "In the morning all the big new cars are going down the dale to work (in the towns and cities) and all the old bangers are coming up carrying the workers who look after things".

His point: traditional farm and rural workers can no longer afford to live in the countryside. Their homes and birthplaces are now occupied and enjoyed by high-earning newcomers.

"The big question – can landscape continue as a farming area, or must it change to conservation".

Further information: Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, North Yorkshire office, Tel 01609 783632. Advice on grants, schemes, Countryside Stewardship and other advisory agencies.

Lower Winskill Farm Visitor Centre, Langcliffe, Settle, North Yorkshire. Educational and vocational courses for students and artisans.

Butterfly Conservation: Manor Yard, East Lulworth, Dorset BH20 5QP.