Natural England - 2012 marks the silver jubilee of the nation’s agri-environment schemes

2012 marks the silver jubilee of the nation’s agri-environment schemes

9 November 2012

The first agri-environment schemes were set up in 1987, with the introduction of the Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme (ESAs), to help conserve and improve the rural environment by encouraging environmentally friendly farming methods.

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Original poster from 1985 campaign aimed at securing ESA status for the South Downs © Phil Belden (South Downs National Park)

The five initial areas were soon expanded to include a total of 22 ESAs which covered some of our best loved areas of countryside, including the Broads, the South Downs, most of our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) such as the Pennine Dales.

In 1991, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) was launched to operate in areas outside ESAs.  Both schemes involved 10 year agreements with farmers.  These schemes closed in 2004 and were replaced by Environmental Stewardship (ES) in 2005, although 7,289 ESA/CSS agreements still remain.

From small beginnings 25 years ago, today almost 6.35 million hectares of farmland (68% of the available farmland in England) are covered by one of the agri-environment schemes managed by Natural England.

The design of the schemes has constantly evolved in the light of experience gained.  However, the natural environment is complex, and sometimes responds in slow or unpredicted ways.  The current scheme, Environmental Stewardship, builds on the experience, evaluation and monitoring of earlier schemes and a wealth of evidence from research. The main schemes are two strands of Environmental Stewardship (ES): Entry-Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher-Level Stewardship (HLS), and the older schemes Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) and Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA).

Harry Goring of the Wiston Estate on the South Downs of West Sussex was one of the first farmers in the country to sign up to the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) Scheme in 1987.

The Goring family have owned the Wiston Estate since 1743 and their land includes Chanctonbury Ring - an iconic ring of beech trees on the South Downs Way National Trail – along with the surrounding farmland.  Harry says: “I was very happy to sign up to the ESA scheme straight away as it reflected the way we wanted to look after the land.  We run an 800 hectare mixed farm with arable land, sheep and cattle and through the ESA scheme we were able to take steep slopes out of arable cropping and revert them back to traditional chalk grassland.  By limiting the amount of fertiliser we use, we’ve been able to provide the right conditions for rare orchids and other species to thrive.”

The recent transition from ESA to HLS has also been welcomed by Harry.  He explains, “Under the ESA scheme the focus was just on the grassland.  Now under our Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme we’ve been able to provide nesting and food sources for various farmland birds.  It’s been wonderful to see increased numbers of lapwings, corn buntings and grey partridges.”

Harry Goring’s son, Rick, was only nine when his father Harry signed up for the ESA scheme, but he has now taken on the management of the estate from his father.  Rick adds “The nature of farming has changed over the last 25 years: it is much more intensive than when I was growing up.  One of the challenges facing farmers today is the volatility of commodity prices.  However, being in a long term agreement with Natural England means we receive a stable income in return for our commitment to the environment.  I can see the results and it is amazingly positive.  It is a wonderful legacy to take on and look after for future generations.” 

Discover more about five farms that were in at the start of England’s agri-environment schemes and find about more about the evolution of the schemes with our online timelineexternal link.