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British farmers, ecologists sowing accord

Can there be common ground between conservationists who want to protect and nurture England's fields and pastures, and farmers who work to extract a comfortable living from the land?

A new society has been set up with British government help to try to reconcile the interests of the two groups. It is called the Society for Responsible Use of Resources in Agriculture and on the Land (RURAL). It is the first concerted attempt to break through the barriers of suspicion that have so far prevented a satisfactory dialogue between conservationists and England's highly efficient farmers.

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The main aims of RURAL are to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, encourage profitable reuse of farm byproducts, promote a proper balance between crop growing and wildlife, and foster rural employment.

RURAL is the brainchild of a group of conservationists who accept that farming is an essential and growing element in the British economy, but have watched with rising dismay as farmers and ecological enthusiasts have clashed about the use of the land.

A notable example occurred in the county of Somerset, where the Nature Conservancy Council declared a stretch of land to be of special scientific interest. It happened to be farming land. Farmers in Somerset got so angry about what they saw as official hijacking of their rural heritage that a group of them burned likenesses of the of conservancy council members in effigy.

In other areas, the problem has been one of simmering tension. Conservationists complain about the use of chemical fertilizers, while farmers insist they must use modern methods if the land is to yield enough produce for them to make a living.

So far RURAL has had to operate without the direct participation of the National Farmers' Union, which sees itself as a political pressure group rather than an instrument of education. But from his contacts so far, RURAL director Michael Wilkinson believes individual farmers will come to accept the merits of an approach to rural conservation that does not assume the farming community is ruthlessly exploiting the land and destroying natural heritage.

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