Special Environmental Sites and Schemes

2. Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs)

ESAs are countryside areas where landscape, wildlife and historic interest are of national importance. Many countryside features like hedges, walls, ditches, field barns, hay meadows, heather moorland and river valley grasslands have been created by traditional farming methods over hundreds of years. Such features are highly valued both for their scenic beauty and for the habitats they provide for plants and wildlife. Intensive methods of livestock and crop production have resulted in the loss and decline of these traditional landscape features. The ESA scheme was set up by the DEFRA (formerly MAFF) to help farmers conserve the best landscape, wildlife and historic features of the countryside. The ESAs were chosen using the following criteria:-

  • the area must be of national significance;
  • conservation of the area must depend on adopting, maintaining or extending particular farming practices;
  • farming practices must have changed or be likely to do so, in ways that pose a threat to the environment;
  • it must be a distinct area of environmental interest.

The first ten ESAs designated by 1988 were Breckland, the Broads, Clun, North Peak, the Pennine Dales, the Somerset Levels and Moors, the South Downs, Suffolk River Valleys, Test Valley, and West Penwith. A survey completed in 1991 showed that the scheme was generally achieving its objectives and DEFRA as MAFF decided to designate a further 12 areas in 1993/4 giving a total of 22. These included the Avon Valley, Exmoor, the Lake District, the North Kent Marshes, the South Wessex Downs and the South West Peak, the Blackdown Hills, the Cotswold Hills, Dartmoor, the Essex Coast, the Shropshire Hills and the Upper Thames Tributaries.

As part of the ESA scheme farmers are offered financial incentives to conserve, enhance and even re-create landscape features and wildlife habitats. Additionally, farmers are also encouraged to provide opportunities for public access for walking and recreation.

The ESA scheme is voluntary and farmers wishing to participate agree a 10-year management plan with DEFRA. An optional break clause allows exit after 5 years if required. They are paid according to the type and amount of land entered into the scheme. As no two ESAs are the same the management practices that the farmers agree to follow are tailored to suit each ESA. Most ESAs have more than one tier of entry and farmers receive increased payments for accepting the requirements of the higher tiers, which impose stricter management conditions.

Annual grants in 1999/2000 ranged from 8 per hectare to 500 per hectare depending on the entry tier. One-off capital grants are also available.  The application period for a management agreement under the Stage I, II and III ESAs is normally from February to April each year, and for Stage IV ESAs it is normally June to August. 

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