ROY and Irene Newhouse farm one of the most environmentally important farms in Britain.

Their 65-acre tenanted holding is on the National Trust's Malham Tarn estate and has four upland hay meadows described as the best in Northern England.

This week they became the first to join a new, £1.27m project to return traditional hardy breeds of cattle to the internationally-important limestone area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The five-year Limestone Country Project encourages the return of mixed livestock farming to get away from the domination of sheep. It wants to work with farmers to reintroduce breeds such as the Galloway, Dexter and Beef Shorthorn, stocked at low levels, in the Malham, Arncliffe and Ingleborough areas of the park.

The project hopes to attract 15 to 20 farms to the scheme, which could provide a model for similar projects in other upland areas.

Mr and Mrs Newhouse moved to New House Farm six years ago, after it had been farmed by the same tenant for more than 40 years. The meadows and limestone scar are a site of special scientific interest and the meadows are also proposed as special areas of conservation under the European Habitats Directive.

It is also planned to designate the farm a National Nature Reserve, something of which the Newhouses are rightly proud as their sole aim since moving there has been to continue the traditional farming practices which make it such a haven.

The Limestone Project wants to redress the balance between cattle and sheep to stop the decline of plant life in the area. Sheep prefer the tastier grasses, which can lead to an imbalance in the plant life.

Traditional hardy cattle, however, do not discriminate among the types of grasses, leading to a richer diversity of lime-loving grasses and wild flowers.

The Newhouses run a flock of 35 Cheviot sheep which they will keep, and did have a small herd of Limousin cattle but grant aid from the project has enabled them to sell those and switch to ten of the smaller, hardy, Dexter breed.

Their long term aim is to develop a market for organic beef and lamb. The land already has organic status and the project is providing grant aid for new winter housing for the cattle to be built to organic standards. The project will also help the Newhouses to develop a market for their organic meat.

The restoration of walls and stock proof boundaries will be carried out.

"The National Trust brought the scheme to our attention and we are very pleased with it," said Mr Newhouse.

The fact that the farm has received such designations and accolades for its species rich meadows - an average of 30 plants per square metre - speaks volumes for the way it has always been farmed.

The Newhouses' sole aim is to continue with, and enhance, the practices which have played such a fundamental role in achieving that, but the farm is heavily dependant on the help it receives from the new scheme and others. "It would not be a viable farm if it was not for them," said Mr Newhouse.

Louise Williams, project officer with the YDNPA, explained that the new scheme was due to start a couple of years ago but was postponed when foot-and-mouth struck.

Although New House Farm was the first to sign up to the project, two others had joined and five more had expressed interest.

Stocking levels will be worked out for each farm but project officers estimate there could be up to 500 hardy cattle involved by the end of the project.

Each farm will enter into a whole-farm conservation plan and a project officer will help to draw up the scheme and act as the contact between the farmer and different agencies.

Half the £1.27m has come from the European LIFE Fund grant and the rest from the park authority, English Nature, the National Trust and the National Beef Association. The project will provide financial aid for any necessary building conversions, purchase of stock, transport costs, the provision of water on more remote land and overall management costs.

Further aid will be available to top up existing agri-environmental grants as managing a hardy breed on remote land will always cost extra money.

The fund will also pay for research and monitoring of the project, with a view to applying the methods more widely across the uplands of England.

The scheme wants farmers to have a viable return and any stock they breed from the herd can be sold either for meat or as store stock. By working with the National Beef Association and local marts it is hoped to develop specialist markets for the beef which would attract a premium price over the more commercial, intensively produced beef cattle