EDWARD Whitley's seems like the easiest job in the world. While everyone else scrambles around trying to earn money, he gives it away.

Every year Edward, a 31-year-old former banker, and the rest of the Whitleys unload about half a million pounds from the family's brewing fortune. You may think this involves nothing more onerous than sitting at a desk signing large numbers of cheques. But on Monday in the rain, there was Edward Whitley, nose tormented by hay fever, trousers water- logged, hopelessly inadequate shoes shipping gallons, marching across 23 acres of Hampshire chalk downland in the vain pursuit of the Small Blue butterfly, deciding whether the man who had brought him there should benefit from his bounty. This was the modern philanthropist in action.

'You have to be cautious,' he said, as rain-loving snails cracked underfoot. 'There is so much to be done, you don't want to waste any money.'

Edward Whitley spends at least two days a week like this, working for the Whitley Trust. It was established in 1961 by his grandfather, who set aside a wad of shares in the family firm, the North-west brewers Greenall Whitley. The profits were to be used solely for animal protection.

'It's not a very fashionable cause at the moment,' Mr Whitley explained. 'Smart journalists think conservation's very much last year's news. Mind you, conservationists are their own worst enemy. They are so dedicated they become boring. And they all have beards. Even the men.'

George York, who was a typical conservationist after Edward Whitley's money, had a beard. He also had stickers supporting the RSPCA, the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation on the back window of his car, and, unlike his potential benefactor, a stout pair of wellies.

'It's no use messing around with flag days to support the kind of work we're doing,' said Mr York, as he led Mr Whitley around his sodden conservation project in Hampshire. 'You have to go straight for the jugular. Go after the chaps with real money.'

Mr York, a retired lawyer, has done remarkable things to Magdelene Hill, a mile from Winchester city centre, directly across the valley from where the M3 extension is cutting a concrete swathe through Twyford Down. Over four years he has turned 23 acres of abandoned hillside back into chalk downland, the sort of place where threatened species of butterfly thrive.

'People don't like to hear it,' said Mr York, 'but much more chalk downland has been lost to neglect than to bulldozers.'

Mr York and his team of enthusiasts spent hundreds of hours of back- breaking toil on the site, clearing away the scrub, strimming the brambles, bringing in sheep to keep the grass down, making it more butterfly friendly.

'I used prisoners quite a lot, usually the chaps in the last six months of their sentence,' he explained. 'They're much better than those awful people on probation who won't do a stroke unless you stand over them. I'm as busy now in my retirement on this as when I was a lawyer. Unfortunately, it's not chargeable time. You a botanist? This is kidney vetch. Small Blues only eat this plant. Terribly conservative things, butterflies.'

Mr York needs about pounds 5,000 a year to manage his hill and provide a chance for beleaguered species to re- establish themselves. He had raised pounds 50,000 himself in the past, but was now running short of sources of income. He was understandably anxious to impress Edward Whitley. But a cold June morning in Hampshire is the butterfly equivalent of a foggy January night at Heathrow. All the specimens on Mr York's hill were grounded, hidden in the undergrowth, wings closed against the chill.

'Aha, what have we here,' he said suddenly, bounding enthusiastically into the dripping undergrowth in pursuit of a small, flapping object. 'Oh no. It's a moth.'

For more than a quarter of a century the Whitley Trust bundled along, supporting donkey sanctuaries and cats homes, not aware that anything as exotic as the Small Blue butterfly in Hampshire might require its assistance. And then, in 1988, Edward Whitley was made a trustee.

At the time he was working in the City. 'The golden era of banking,' he said. 'There was huge money to be made, it was so easy. I worked in corporate takeovers, great fun.'

On taking up his position, Mr Whitley immediately backed a proposal that the trust's low-yielding brewery shares be sold and the money reinvested in a wider portfolio which gave enormously better returns. Thereafter the family had some real dosh to dispose of.

About the same time, Mr Whitley was having some success with his hobby: writing. He wrote a book called Graduates, a series of interviews with people who had been to his college at Oxford. It gained him a commission to write an article about eccentric English zoo-keepers for the Spectator. The first was Gerald Durrell, of Jersey Zoo.

'He told me about this amazingly successful scheme he has which trains animal conservationists from around the world and sends them back to their home countries to start up small-scale projects. Nobody appeared to know anything about it.'

Mr Whitley, with characteristic dispatch, secured himself an advance from Pan Books, left the City and set off around the world to research a book about the scheme, entitled Gerald Durrell's Army. He became fascinated by the way committed operations of only two or three people can often make a bigger contribution to saving animals than costly government schemes. Back in England, he decided that the Whitley Trust should try to support projects like these and he dedicated himself to finding them.

'We do give money to big plans,' he explained. 'Last year we gave pounds 250,000 towards a debt-for-nature swap in Guatemala. But also I'm very keen to back the sort of people for whom relatively small sums will make the world of difference. For instance, there's a girl I'm funding in Madagascar researching black lemurs. It costs only pounds 9,000 to support her entirely. It means she doesn't have to worry about money and can get on with saving the black lemurs.

'And I wanted to get much more involved than just handing out cheques. Because I was a banker, I can help conservationists sort out their finances. These people tend to be wonderful at preserving animals but pretty hopeless at money.'

He also became aware that species closer to home required some of his benevolence. To that end, he thought up the idea of the Whitley Prize, a pounds 15,000 award to be granted annually to a British-based project.

'The little animals we get in Britain may not be so glamorous,' he said, 'but they're disappearing. That's partly why I'm here, to find out what needs to be done on our doorstep.'

Back on Magdalene Hill, George York, brusque and businesslike, was anxious to tell him. 'I'm awfully sorry,' Mr York apologised profusely, handing Edward a wad of information about his work as they parted. 'Here I am a butterfly man and I haven't shown you a single butterfly.'

He needn't have worried. 'He's precisely the kind of person we want to fund,' Mr Whitley said, wringing out a pair of sodden socks in preparation for the journey to Dorset, where he was to spend the afternoon with a man who researches Marsh Fritillary butterflies. 'It's marvellous to see one person making such a difference.'

Details of the Whitley Award are available from the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR (071-589 5466).

(Photograph omitted)