IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE: The information on this site is subject to a disclaimer and a copyright notice.

European FlagEuropa
The European Commission

agriculture and environment

Agricultural landscapes: over half of Europe's territory maintained by farmers

Yann CARADEC, Stéphanie LUCAS, Claude VIDAL (Eurostat)

The physical components of the landscape can be described using indicators. For the moment, only indicators based on land use and the way different types of land use are applied are in operation throughout the European Union. The analysis of these indicators, with the aid of maps, makes it possible to depict the trend in landscapes over the past 20 years and the current trend since the reform of the CAP in 1992. Several national studies based on more elaborate indicators are presented. Landscape indicators are some of the tools needed to assess commitments relating to landscapes, especially those put forward in the Agenda 2000 proposals.

The landscape fulfils three main functions: a social, an economic and an environmental function. Though complex, the landscape requires an overall approach combining all the individual perceptions relating to an area seen at a glance. This general perception makes it necessary to consider a whole series of indicators at the same time. A patchwork of cultural references is superimposed on it, most of them relating to visual perception, resulting in value judgments, and in particular aesthetic judgments.

The development of the major land use aggregates between 1975 and 1995

Agricultural land covered 44% of the EU's territory or 137 million hectares (EU15) in 1997 (Figure 1). The share was 53% in 1975 or 95 million hectares (EU9). This apparent decline is largely due to a different distribution of land use in the new Member States. Agricultural land covers less than 10% of the territory in some of them such as Finland and Sweden, where wooded areas are predominant, whereas agricultural land accounts for 70% in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

A slightly declining UAA over two distinct periods: 1975-1989, 1989-1995

In most countries, the UAA declined slightly between 1975 and 1995. The national figures show trends ranging from -12% (United Kingdom) to -1.5% (Luxembourg). By examining data at regional level two stages can be distinguished in this development. First, from 1975 to 1989, agricultural land declined in almost all regions (Map 1-1). This decline is especially large in a number of Italian regions (Piemont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Calabria and Sardinia) but also in Hesse (D). Between 1988 and 1995, the trend was reversed (Map 1-2). In general, the UAA increased, especially in Brittany (F), in a large part of Spain, in the east of England and the north of Italy. This increase was more in field crop regions, whereas in the traditional livestock breeding areas, the UAA continued to decline as in the period between 1975 and 1989. This increase in the UAA in field crop areas can be linked with the CAP reform of 1992 and compulsory setting-aside of land . Spain should be considered a separate case because there the UAA fluctuated sharply depending on whether or not certain parts of the territory were used for farming because of the weather conditions. For example, during the drought of 1989 and 1990, the UAA declined considerably. It has increased since thanks to improved weather conditions.

During these twenty years, European agriculture seems to have developed on the most productive land whilst abandoning certain less-favoured areas (mountainous areas, foothills etc.) or areas traditionally devoted to livestock rearing. It has also abandoned some of its area to urbanisation, including good-quality agricultural land. 

Wooded areas on the increase

Wooded areas have a very uneven distribution within the EU (Map 1-3). They form over 50% of the territory in Finland and most of Sweden, as well as in the Pyrenees and some of Spain's Mediterranean and Atlantic areas. However, it should be remembered that these wooded areas represent different situations. They correspond to forests in Scandinavia, but in the Mediterranean countries they include shrubland and maquis. This proportion of wooded areas falls below 15% in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Generally speaking, wooded areas are slightly on the increase. This trend is partly linked with the European measures favouring the afforestation of land. Council Regulation No. 2080/92, has allowed half a million hectares to be afforested since 1992. In Ireland, 60 000 ha of UAA have thus been afforested, representing an increase of 16% of the total wooded area of the country. Better maintenance of forests in particular to prevent fires in the south of Europe has also favoured this increase. Finally, the abandonment of agricultural land may lead to land becoming fallow and subject to natural afforestation, which leads to the landscapes becoming closed off in some regions.

Profound changes in the UAA

Although the UAA only declined slightly between 1975 and 1995, major changes took place in its distribution (Map 2).

A regular decline in permanent grasslands

Permanent grasslands have been in constant decline since 1975: 51 million ha in 1997 (EU15); 43 million ha in 1975 (EU9). Between 1975 and 1990 only a few livestock breeding regions: Ireland, the Limousin (F) and Umbria (I), saw an increase in their grassland areas. On the other hand, the decline was over 5% in France's west and in the Netherlands south-west, in a large part of Italy, Flanders (B) and Hesse (D). As from 1990, this decline in permanent grasslands levelled off. However, it increased by over 2% in Denmark and in several regions of Italy, Spain and Portugal. In Castilla-León (E) the drought of 1989-1990 caused a decline in permanent grasslands as a result of the non-use of some of these areas).

The declines are sometimes linked with specific political measures and in some regions the trends are the opposite to those of the previous period. For example, the land reafforestation measures mentioned above are largely responsible for the sharp decline in permanent grasslands in Ireland, but no doubt also in other parts of Europe (especially Scotland and parts of England). In the less-favoured areas, mountainous areas and foothills, where only stock-raising activities are possible, the measures to support 5b areas, the CAP reform (the extensification and nursing cow premiums) have allowed this decline in permanent grasslands to be limited and in some cases even reversed. On the other hand, in areas where permanent grasslands can be cultivated, the grasslands have been worked and converted into arable land. In France in particular, the extension of field crops to the fringes of the Parisian Basin, which could already be observed between 1975 and 1990, has continued and permanent grassland ncontinues to decline sharply.

A sharp increase in arable land areas after 1990

Between 1975 and 1990, arable land area increased sharply, especially in Ireland, in the plains of France and in the Netherlands and Sardinia (I). The trend intensified after 1990. This trend affected the same regions and affected almost all of France, Belgium and Denmark. Similarly, most of Spain and some regions of Italy and Germany saw increases in their arable land areas. This phenomenon can be linked with the CAP reform of 1992. The cultivation of a maximum area of land proved financially advantageous, even though some had poor farming potential. For some countries (especially France), the share of arable land grew continuously between 1975 and 1995. Other countries experienced a decline, for example Italy.

An extension of arable land in landscape terms takes the form of large areas of open fields, but these become more and more bleak and uniform. This trend is further accentuated by increased mechanisation and attempts to improve productivity, causing farmers to increase their land, take down their walls, remove hedges and grub up isolated trees as well as removing fences. These large parcels of land are often without vegetation cover for part of the year, which poses increasing problems for the environment, such as soil erosion or the leaching of nitrates.

The CORINE Land Cover (CLC) tool for analysing land use in Europe

The headings of the CLC classification have been grouped into six major types of land use: land which has become "artificial", field crop lands (arable or permanent crop lands), mixed agricultural lands and grasslands, forests and semi-natural environments (Box 1). The sixth type, wetlands and areas under water, which are never substantial in size either alone or combined with other types, have been purposely neglected. A map of the EU at NUTS3 level has been drawn up to depict the main types of land use. The five previous main categories are represented with uniform colour when one of them forms over 50% of the total area. The "majority" combined types (when two or exceptionally three types are present in over 50% of the territory) are identified by hatching (the colour of the hatching corresponds to the types of land use).

Because of the large size of the geographical units (25 ha), and the existence of mixed classes in the classification, and because of the length of the period for collecting data (over ten years), the results obtained must be examined and interpreted with a maximum of caution.

Arable land plays a major role in many European regions

The CLC data refer to all EU countries except Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom, which have not carried out the survey, as well as some regions of north-western Italy and several Greek islands.

An initial analysis shows that of 435 regions, some 40% are characterised by a single majority land use (at this scale of representation). For the rest of the territory (except for the department of Bouches du Rhône), the combination of two major types always leads to a dominant situation (Map 3 and Figure 2).

Land under field crops (including permanent crops) is very widespread. This type of majority use of land represents a sixth of NUTS3 units and is located mainly in the major fertile plains of the Parisian Basin, the north of France, the east of Germany and Denmark.

Mixed farming areasand grasslands (about 9%) are above all located in the west in the livestock breeding areas, such as the whole of Ireland, the west of France in general, the Massif Central (F) and part of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Forest areas (5.5%) are sparse in the territory as a whole, but abundant in the east of Austria.

Semi-natural environments (5.5%) are mainly located on the periphery of the Mediterranean (Corsica, the Alpes Maritimes (F) and in the mountainous areas (some NUTS3 units in alpine areas). The first-mentioned contain scrub and maquis vegetation, whereas the second are covered by alpine grassland and rock, or a combination of both (Alpes Maritimes (F)).

As far as the combined types are concerned, the same trends can be identified, but with several explanatory elements. The semi-natural environments, for example, are highly evident in mountainous areas, on the fringes of the Mediterranean and along part of the southern coast of the Atlantic, but also in the dry areas within Spain. Towards the west and north, the combined types are mainly agricultural, since they are often the result of a combination of field crops with mixed agricultural land and grasslands. Forest areas, which are predominant on their own in only a few NUTS3 units, are present in combined environments in almost a third of NUTS3 units, associated with field crops in the east of Europe and mixed agricultural land and grasslands in the mountainous areas and foothills.

No indicators drawn up yet for level 1, highly diverse national tools for level 2

Up to now, only simple first level indicators have been analysed. More complex indicators at this level ("natural" areas, "green" areas, "open" areas) cannot be analysed because the necessary data are not yet available. In actual fact, at European level information collected is not yet precise enough or sufficiently uniform from country to country.

Extensive work on landscape is under way in certain Member States, such as the installation of a national system for characterising landscapes or examples of upgrading existing tools to gear them to landscape aspects.

In all these cases, developments are progressively becoming established. Although precise data on land occupation and/or use are available in many countries, this is not the case with regard to the organisation of land occupation in terms of space. The landscape is rarely studied as such, but it is analysed via (or jointly with) other indicators: biodiversity in Germany, environmental studies in the United Kingdom (Box 2), cultural heritage in Sweden (Box 3). These various exercises are interesting but at the moment it is not possible to put them together to obtain a composite picture.

Research work on small tracts of land are often more thorough and result in more elaborate indicators. The example can be cited of the development of land use in the region of Greater Lisbon and in the Gironde (Box 4), the study of land set aside in the Franche-Comté, the study of the planting of hedges in the region of Beden, Sweden, or in the Orne department in France. Such studies respond to local or regional needs, often in order to improve town and country planning. These studies are costly (price/area) and have been implemented only where there are very precise objectives.


Agriculture ] - [ Contents ] - [ Soil at the Interface between Agriculture and Environment ] - [ Rural realities in the European Union ]

What's New ?
Key Issues