The overall policy objective of the ESA programme is to maintain, protect and enhance the wildlife, landscape and historic environmental value of the ESA designated areas, through the encouragement of appropriate agricultural practices. Following the introduction of Regulation 2078/92/EEC, a recreation (public access) option was added but is being evaluated under a separate contract in 1997.
The Government's specialist advisers (countryside agencies) have legal responsibility for advising MAFF on the designation of ESAs, and their concerns have focused on responding to threats from agricultural changes to the environmental value of key areas.
In 1988 the English Stage II ESAs came into force. The areas designated were:Breckland, Clun, North Peak, Suffolk River Valleys and Test Valley. In 1993 the six English Stage III ESAs were launched: Avon Valley, Exmoor, Lake District, North Kent Marshes, South Wessex Downs and South West Peak.