The purpose of ecological compensation areas is to supplement conservation areas with small-scale habitats for plants and animals in the cultural landscape with the aim of contributing to landscape diversity and at the same time supporting natural species diversity, avoiding the loss of species, and allowing endangered species to re-establish. Ecological compensation contributes to the maintenance of valuable habitats which no longer allow for economic agricultural production. Thanks to the direct payments to farmers, remote sites of low productivity in the mountain regions continue to be managed, preventing the spread of woodland and maintaining the mosaic-like landscape. In other areas the payments are used to maintain near-natural and valuable habitats such as traditional orchards or "Streuwiesen" (meadows mown for animal bedding). All these measures contribute to the maintenance of the diverse, historically evolved cultural landscape and contribute to people's enjoyment thereof.
Between 1993 and 2005 the area of ecological compensation sites increased from approx. 70,500 to approx. 120,000 ha. Including the traditional, extensive orchards with trees on standard rootstock, these sites today comprise approximately 11% of the total utilized agricultural area. It is unlikely that the total ecological compensation area is going to increase, unless the Swiss Confederation provides new incentives or directives, or unless the compensatory payments are increased to make them more competitive compared to product prices. The ecological compensation areas mostly comprise meadows (70%) and traditional, extensive orchards with trees on standard rootstock (20%). There has been a remarkable increase in the area of "Buntbrachen" (strips sown in wildflowers and herbs) - from 77 ha in 1994 to 2,321 ha in 2005. From 2004 to 2005, ecological compensation areas increased in 14 cantons, while they decreased in 11 cantons. Lucerne notified the greatest area of new ecological compensation sites, while the greatest decreases were recorded in Waadt, followed by Valais.
In the Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden the area of ecological compensation sites increased tenfold from 44 ha in 1993 to 554 ha in 2000. In the Canton of Tessin there has even been a twenty-fold increase in the same period from 69 ha to 1642 ha.
Data on farm holdings are collected jointly by the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) and the Federal Statistical Office (FSO). In this context data on ecological compensation in farming are also collected. The survey is conducted using standardized questionnaires which must be filled in by the farm managers. The information provided relates to a reporting date in early May. The information is checked by agricultural offices at federal and cantonal level and kept in a central database administered by FOAG. The share of ecological compensation areas is recorded both in the Swiss Biodiversity Monitoring Programme (BDM) and in the set of strategic policy guidance indicators.