The ESA scheme was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1987 following the passage of enabling legislation although a pilot scheme ran in an area of the Norfolk Broads in 1985/6. The main distinguishing characteristics of these schemes (compared with previous approaches) are that they are based on 5 or 10 year contracts with farmers to carry out a defined set of beneficial agricultural practices in return for fixed annual area based payments, and are voluntary and open to all managing suitable land within targeted areas. Each ESA is designed to meet local agricultural and environmental requirements, with the result that the management prescriptions and payments differ from ESA to ESA. The ESA approach has subsequently been adopted elsewhere in Europe under the EU Agri-environment Regulation 2078/92/EEC.
The overall policy objective of the ESA programme is to maintain, protect and enhance the wildlife, landscape and historic environmental value of the designated areas, through the encouragement of appropriate agricultural practices.
In 1994 the English Stage IV ESAs came into force. The areas designated were: Blackdown Hills, Cotswold Hills, Dartmoor, Essex Coast, Shropshire Hills and Upper Thames Tributaries.