The uplands of England and Wales are among Europe's most appealing - but most imperiled - wilderness areas. Now the government has been handed a 30-point formula for rescuing hundreds of villages from decay and ensuring that wildlife in areas above 800 feet in altitude continues to enjoy a rich and enduring natural habitat.
Like so many parts of Britain, the uplands are falling victim to the efficiency of farmers who believe the best way to ''improve'' land is to drain it, choke it with chemicals, and let stock animals supplant wild creatures.
The Countryside Commission has warned that unless these practices stop, uplands in such splendid wilderness areas as the Pennines and the Peak District will end up eroded and barren - victims of well-meant but ultimately destructive land-use policies.
One of the most telling statistics cited by the commission as evidence of upland decay shows that heather moors - once the glory of elevated ground in many parts of the country - have been disappear-ing at the rate of 27,000 hectares a year over the past four decades.
Since 1976 the rate of disappearance has doubled. And with the heather in many places have gone hedgerows and a wide variety of animal and birdlife.
In many cases the culprits have been farmers encouraged by the government to produce more food and actually paid subsidies by the European Community to pursue policies that do violence to the uplands.
The Countryside Commission suggests the counterattack on despoliation of the uplands should be on a wide front. Key measures proposed include:
* Laws and regulations requiring upland farmers to put conservation among their top priorities.
* The imposition of local planning controls on farm and forestry development.
* Greater access to upland areas for visitors.
* A policy encouraging more tourism, which the commission says is a beneficial growth industry if properly handled.
Predictably, upland farmers objected to the commission's recommendations. The national farmers' union has always opposed planning controls for agricultural land.
But more enlightened hill farmers recognize that their profits are marginal already and would be threatened further if erosion took over. They would like to see support for farmers who accept conservation guidelines and limit how many hay meadows and hedgerows they destroy in the chase after quick profits.
Perhaps the best service the Countryside Commission has rendered with its report is to provide a compelling word picture of what the upthrusting parts of England and Wales could look like in a few more decades. It suggests entire villages will disappear, stone walls crumble, woodlands fall beneath saw and ax, turning the present wilderness into a wasteland.
An outlay of some (STR)20 million ($26 million) over the next few years could avert this.