ESA
Environmentally Sensitive Area

E

nvironmentally Sensitive Areas were introduced in 1987 to offer incentives to encourage farmers to adopt agricultural practices which would safeguard and enhance parts of the country of particularly high landscape, wildlife or historic value. The scheme has now closed to new applicants.

ESAs were introduced under Section 18 of the 1986 Agriculture Act to help safeguard areas where the landscape, wildlife or historic interest is of national importance; and because it was recognised that agriculture can have a major influence on the conservation and enhancement of the landscape, wildlife and historical features. An ESA has no planning status and therefore cannot be used as a reason for refusing planning applications.

The Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) scheme has now closed to new applicants. DEFRA introduced a new Environmental Stewardship Scheme on 3 March 2005 which superseded the ESA and Countryside Stewardship Schemes.

Our Living Heritage

* © Crown copyright, 1993 PB 1360
Copies of this booklet and lots of other stuff about ESAs can be obtained free from MAFF Publication, LONDON SE99 7TP

Highlights of a MAFF booklet called 'Our Living Heritage' *(see box to right for details) about ESAs. Note: MAFF no longer exists, it has been superceded by DEFRA. However the information below is still relevent.

What are ESAs and why have them?
Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) are particular parts of the countryside where the landscape, wildlife and historic interest are of national importance. Many features of our countryside - hedges, walls, ditches, field barns, hay meadows, heather moorland and river valley grasslands - have been created by traditional farming methods over hundreds of years. These features are highly valued, both for their scenic beauty and for the habitats they provide for plants and wildlife.

Incentives to increase food production in the past have led to changes in farming practices. There has been a shift from mixed farming and traditional stock-farming to more intensive methods of livestock production and crop farming. This has resulted in a loss of wildlife habitats and landscape features. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) wants to help farmers to conserve the best landscape, wildlife and historic features of our countryside. Farmers too are keen to conserve the countryside in which they live and work. The ESA scheme is the corner-stone of this policy.

How did the scheme originate?
In partnership with the Countryside AgencyPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet, MAFF set up a scheme known as the Broads Grazing Marshes Conservation Scheme (BGMCS) at Halvergate in the Norfolk Broads in 1985, This area of marshland had changed little since it was painted by artists more than a century ago. Traditionally, cattle had been taken there to graze during the summer months from as far afield as Scotland.

FarmingBy the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, it had become less profitable to farm stock and many farmers changed to arable farming. As a result, marshland was drained, ploughed and cropped. But the changes in the appearance of the area and the loss of a variety of plants and wildlife in the grasslands and dykes caused great local concern. The BGMCS sought to halt the increase in drainage works and encourage farmers to revert to pastoral farming. The scheme succeeded in attracting over 90 per cent of farmers in the area.

On the strength of the success of the BGMCS, MAFF looked at other parts of the countryside threatened by changes in farming methods. As a result, the ESA scheme was introduced in 1987 in five designated areas of England. Under the scheme, incentives are provided to farmers in these areas to manage their land in ways which conserve wildlife, landscape and historic features. The following year, a further five areas were designated ESAs.

The first 10 designated ESAs were:

Breckland
The Broads
Clun
North Peak
The Pennine Dales
The Somerset Levels and Moors
The South Downs
Suffolk River Valleys
Test Valley
West Penwith.

Monitoring of the first schemes showed by 1991 that they were very largely achieving their objectives. So much so that in January 1993 MAFF decided to designate a further 12 areas.

The Avon Valley
Exmoor
The Lake District
The North Kent Marshes
The South Wessex Downs
The South West Peak

And from March 1994:

The Blackdown Hills
The Cotswold Hills
Dartmoor
The Essex Coast
The Shropshire Hills
The Upper Thames Tributaries

Meanwhile, the first 10 schemes were substantially improved and, in some cases, extended. In all the ESAs, farmers are offered financial incentives not only to conserve, but also to enhance and, where possible, re-create valued landscape features and wildlife habitats. Additionally, farmers are now encouraged to provide new opportunities for public access for walking and other quiet recreation.

How were ESAs chosen?
With the help of the Department of the Environment, the Countryside Agency and English Nature, MAFF drew up the criteria for selecting ESAs:

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

Taking these criteria, the Countryside Agency and English Nature prepared a shortlist of areas worthy of designation. This list was then put before the then Minister of Agriculture for selection.

MAFF then published proposals describing the areas to be covered, the features to be protected, and the agricultural practices to be followed for each area's conservation and enhancement, Farmers, environmental organisations and other local interested parties were consulted. Once the schemes were finalised, farmers were invited to participate.

How did the scheme work?
The ESA scheme was voluntary. Farmers who wished to participate agreed to enter into a l0-year management agreement with MAFF. They were paid according to the amount and type of land they enter into the scheme. Since no two ESAs are the same, the land management practices which farmers in the scheme followed are tailored to suit the needs of each particular ESA. Most ESAs have more than one level or tier of entry. In general, farmers received increased payments for accepting the requirements of the higher tiers which imposed stricter management conditions.