The Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) scheme has now closed to new applicants and has been superseded by the Environmental Stewardship scheme. Some existing agreements will, however, continue until 2014.
The Somerset Levels and Moors ESA extends over 27,678 ha of the central Somerset lowlands, bounded by the Mendips to the north, low limestone escarpments to the east, the Blackdown Hills to the south and the Quantock Hills to the west. The moors are an extensive very low-lying basin peat, with a few remnants of raised bog, surrounded by alluvial silt and clay. The peat is overlain in places by a varying thickness of riverine clay. Extending westwards from the moors to the coast of the Bristol Channel lies an extensive area of slightly higher estuarine alluvium known as the Levels, most of which is excluded from the ESA.
The whole area forms the largest lowland grazing marsh system in Britain and is, consequently, of outstanding environmental interest. The landscape value lies within the rectilinear pattern of traditionally managed fields and drainage channels within a low-lying, generally wet and open grassland landscape, containing scattered trees and scrub. The archaeology and history of the area is internationally famous, with many prehistoric wooden trackways that have been preserved for millennia in the waterlogged ground.
There are 34 Sites of Special Scientific Interest within the ESA, the ecological interest is principally associated with wet, often species-rich pastures and meadows that support overwintering and breeding birds. The network of ditches is of special interest for aquatic flora and invertebrates.
There were three main management options available within the Somerset Levels and Moors ESA:
Maintenance of extensive grassland by restrictions on cultivation, under-drainage and the use of inorganic fertilisers, and the maintenance of water levels, ditches, gutters, trees and pollarded willows. No features of historical interest must be damaged or destroyed.
The enhancement of wet grassland by controlling water levels, and in addition to the restrictions above there are also restrictions on stocking rates, winter sheep grazing, cultivation, mowing dates and fertiliser use.
The maintenance of grassland by raised water levels (such that splash areas are maintained during the spring) and no fertiliser input.
Natural England's Somerset office