The objective of this designation is the conservation of natural and cultural features on farmland by voluntary (state) grant schemes in designated areas.
Article 19 of the EEC Regulation 797/85 authorises member states to introduce special national schemes in environmentally sensitive areas.
The aim of the regulation was to reduce agricultural production by encouraging the continued use (or introduction) of farming practices which are compatible with the requirements of conserving natural habitats while at the same time providing income for farmers. The scheme when introduced was as a voluntary measure under which farmers would be paid on an annual basis according to the area of their farm and the amount of conservation work undertaken.
The 797/85 regulation was modified by the 1760/87 regulation to provide for maximum reimbursement from the European agriculture guidance and Guarantee Fund of 25% of member state expenditure on per hectare payments to farmers in the range of 0 – 150 ECUs (excluding administration costs).
The last regulation adopted relating to ESAs was the 92/2078/EC, under this regulation the current ESA scheme was established where a range of 25 – 65% (of member state expenditure on per hectare) is paid to farmers. ESA lands in Northern Ireland can claim 50%.
Under the latest regulation governments may define certain areas as being important for conservation of biodiversity, landscapes or cultural features, where those qualities depend upon the survival of traditional forms of farming.
The responsible authority for E.S.As in Ireland is the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
These areas, once designated are then eligible for grants of which the EU makes a contribution to ensure that traditional farming is maintained with the appropriate safeguards in place to protect the environment. In effect a contract is made with the farmer to protect the landscape and other environmental qualities on the land in return for financial support for the farming system which sustains those qualities.