Land cover, land use and landscape
- Data extracted in June 2016. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: October 2017.
This article presents statistical data on land cover, land use and landscapes. Data are available for 27 of the European Union (EU) Member States: Croatia is not covered and not included in the EU totals and averages. The data were gathered as part of the Land use/cover area frame survey (LUCAS) undertaken in the spring and summer of 2012. LUCAS is the largest harmonised land field survey implemented in the EU.
Land is the basis for most biological and human activities on Earth. Agriculture, forestry, industry, transport, housing and other services use land as a natural and/or an economic resource. Land is also an integral part of ecosystems and indispensable for biodiversity and the carbon cycle.
Land can be divided into two interlinked concepts:
- land cover refers to the bio-physical coverage of land (for example, crops, grass, broad-leaved forest, or built-up area);
- land use indicates the socioeconomic use of land (for example, agriculture, forestry, recreation or residential use).
Land cover and land use data forms the basis for spatial and territorial analyses which are increasingly important for:
- the planning and management of agricultural, forest, wetland, water and urban areas;
- nature, biodiversity and soil protection, and;
- the prevention and mitigation of natural hazards and climate change.
- 1 Main statistical findings
- 2 Data sources and availability
- 3 Context
- 4 See also
- 5 Further Eurostat information
- 6 External links
- 7 Notes
Main statistical findings
Forests and other wooded areas occupied 37.1 % of the total area of the EU-27 in 2012, cropland nearly a quarter (24.8 %) of the area, grassland just over one fifth (20.7 %) and shrubland 6.6 %, while water areas and wetland accounted for 4.8 %, just ahead of built-up and other artificial areas, such as roads and railways, which had a 4.1 % share (see Figure 1).
Land cover varies in a significant way between countries located on the one hand in southern and northern Europe and on the other hand in western and eastern Europe. Woodland was the prevailing land cover in northern parts of Europe in 2012 and for a number of EU Member States whose typography is dominated by mountains and hilly areas (see Figure 2). The share of woodland in the total area reached 60.0 % or higher in Finland, Sweden and Slovenia (Alpine); it was over 50.0 % in Estonia and Latvia and over 40.0 % in Austria (Alpine) and Slovakia (the Tatra mountains). Woodland and forests in these Member States have traditionally been very important ecologically, economically and socio-culturally.
Cropland (including both arable land and permanent crops) covered, on average, some 24.8 % of the total area of the EU-27 in 2012. Denmark and Hungary were the EU Member States that reported the highest proportion of their total area covered by cropland, its share rising close to 50.0 %. In most of the remaining Member States, the share of cropland was between 17.0 % and 35.0 % of overall land cover. At the bottom end of the range, cropland accounted for between 11.0 % and 13.0 % of the total area in Latvia, Slovenia and Estonia, while the lowest shares were recorded in Finland (6.3 %), Ireland (5.9 %) and Sweden (4.2 %).
Natural and agricultural grasslands dominate the landscape in Ireland (63.6 %) and the United Kingdom (43.2 %), and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands (38.8 %), Luxembourg (33.3 %) and Belgium (32.1 %). In most of the remaining EU Member States for which data are available, the share of grassland in the total area was between 19.0 % and 30.0 %. However, there were eight Member States below this range: six of them (Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Malta) were from southern Europe where rainfall levels are relatively low; the other two were Sweden and Finland, where grass covered less than 6.0 % of the total area.
Shrubland is a typical land cover feature of hot and arid EU Member States such as Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain and Malta; on the other hand, shrubland is also prevalent in the north of Sweden and on the moors and heathlands of northern areas of the United Kingdom; these were the only Member States to report that shrubland accounted for a higher share of their total area than the EU-27 average (6.6 %).
Overall 4.8 % of the EU-27 was covered by inland water areas or wetlands in 2012. Wetland is typically found along lakesides and in coastal areas, as well as in the form of bogs. The relative scarcity of wetlands and their importance as a habitat for various animal species (in particular, birds) often results in wetlands becoming protected areas. Finland, Sweden and Estonia reported the highest proportions (in excess of 10.0 %) of their total area accounted for by water areas and wetlands. These two Nordic Member States have hundreds of thousands of inland lakes, while in Estonia there is a large lake (Peipus) on the border with Russia as well as another large inland lake (Võrtsjärv). Ireland (8.7 %), the Netherlands (7.4 %) and Latvia (5.7 %) were the only other Member States where the share of water areas and wetlands exceeded 5.0 % and the majority of the remaining Member States recorded shares of less than 4.0 %, with the United Kingdom (4.9 %) falling between these two groups.
Artificial land composed 4.1 % of the total area of the EU-27 in 2012. Malta and the Benelux countries had the highest proportions of built-up areas: this was particularly true in Malta — which has the highest population density among the EU Member States —where artificial land accounted for 32.6 % of the total area. The four largest EU Member States in terms of population — Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom — also reported a higher than average share of artificial land.
Bare land (areas with no dominant vegetation cover) is relatively uncommon in the EU-27, accounting for 1.7 % of the total area in 2012. The southern EU Member States of Malta, Spain, Cyprus, Portugal and Greece recorded relatively high shares of bare land, along with Sweden and the Alpine Member State of Austria.
Agricultural land use is the most common primary  land use category in the EU-27; it accounted for 43.5 % of the total area in 2012 (see Figure 3). Areas used for forestry covered 32.4 % of the EU-27’s land area, while 5.7 % was used for services, residential and recreational purposes. Industrial, transport, energy production and mining purposes claimed a further 3.4 %, leaving a residual category accounting for the remaining 15.0 % of land; this was used, among others, for hunting and fishing, was under protection, or had no visible  use.
Land in agricultural use encompasses various land cover types: the most common are arable land, permanent crops and grassland. Small portions of other land cover types can also be in agricultural use, such as artificial land (for example, farm buildings or roads) and water (for example, irrigation ponds). In 13 out of 27 EU Member States, more than half of the land area was used for agricultural purposes in 2012 (see Figure 4). The highest share of agricultural land was recorded in Ireland (71.5 %), while Denmark, the United Kingdom, Hungary and Romania each reported shares of more than 60.0 %. In Finland and Sweden agriculture played a minor role in terms of land use, accounting for less than 10.0 % of the total land area in both of these Member States.
Unsurprisingly, forestry was often the dominant land use in those EU Member States which had a high degree of woodland land cover. However, not all of this land is used for forestry, with alternative land uses including recreation, hunting, protected areas, or no visible use. In Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia more than 50.0 % of the total land area was used for forestry purposes, a share that fell to below 10.0 % in Ireland, Cyprus, and particularly the Netherlands (4.7 %).
Commerce (distributive trades), community services, recreational and residential areas covered 5.7 % of the EU-27’s land area in 2012. Just over half (52.1 %) of this total in the EU was devoted to residential areas, more than one third (34.9 %) to recreational purposes, 8.9 % to community services, and just 4.1 % to commerce. The share of commerce, community services, recreational and residential areas rose to a level above 10 % of the total area in Malta, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark; in the Netherlands this was due to a particularly large share for recreational purposes, whereas in the other three EU Member States it was due mainly to larger than average shares for residential purposes.
Industry, mining and transport (including also energy production, waste treatment and storage, as well as construction activities) occupied 3.4 % of the EU-27’s territory in 2012. The most common use, among the various subcategories, was for transport, which averaged some 70.8 % of the total land use within this category, while around one tenth (10.1 %) of the total within this category was accounted for by mining. The highest share of industry, mining and transport in total land use was found in the Netherlands, where 11.9 % of land was used for these purposes. This very high share in the Netherlands may be linked to a high density transport network and to large storage areas for ports and logistical services. The share of mining (which includes quarrying and the extraction of peat) in land use was relatively high in Ireland and Estonia.
In total, 15.0 % of the land in the EU-27 in 2012 was used for other purposes or there was no visible use of the land. The most common economic uses were for fishing and hunting. However, large areas of land are excluded from any socioeconomic use – for example, as a result of being in protected areas where socioeconomic activities are either completely forbidden or heavily restricted; there are also remote or otherwise difficult to access areas which have not attracted socioeconomic activities.
The heterogeneity of land cover and the presence of linear features such as hedges, lines of trees, roads, railways, rivers and irrigation channels are two important elements characterising landscape structures. Some EU Member States have large continuous areas of the same land cover, while others have a diversified mosaic of land cover elements. As Figure 5 shows, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia, Cyprus, Austria and Italy had a relatively high level of land cover diversity, characterised by a varied land cover mosaic composed of different small land cover patches. In Ireland, the United Kingdom and Estonia the landscape was dominated by larger areas composed of the same land cover type.
Structural linear green elements portray the joint role of nature and mankind in shaping the countryside. Irish and British landscapes, which ranked lowest in terms of land cover diversity, had an above average number of green linear features (see Figure 6). Other EU Member States where the landscape was characterised by a high variety of green linear elements included Malta, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and France. In Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Austria and Lithuania the landscape was characterised as having relatively few structural green elements.
The density of man-made linear elements, which have a dissecting nature (such as roads, railways and aerial cables) is closely linked to population and infrastructure developments. EU Member States with relatively high population densities and which act as transit countries, such as the Benelux countries, had a relatively high number of man-made infrastructure related dissection elements (see Figure 7); this was also the case in Ireland, France and the United Kingdom (where the population was concentrated in particular areas). At the opposite end of the scale, the Baltic Member States, Sweden, Finland and the most eastern EU Member States often reported a relatively low level of man-made linear elements, with natural land cover types prevailing.
Data sources and availability
LUCAS is a field survey based on an area-frame sampling scheme carried out by Eurostat. Data on land cover and land use are collected and landscape photographs are taken to detect any changes to land cover/use or to European landscapes. The transect, a 250-meter straight line walk along which linear elements (for example, transport or communication infrastructure) and land cover changes are recorded, is used for landscape analysis. The data set is unique as it is comparable in terms of definitions and methodology.
Data refer to the LUCAS campaign carried out by Eurostat in 2012 covering all EU-27 Member States (Croatia was not an EU Member State at the time). Data on land cover, land use and landscape diversity were collected for approximately 270 000 points. These points were selected from a standard 2 km grid from a total of one million points all over the EU. The land cover and the visible land use data were classified according to the harmonised LUCAS land cover and land use nomenclatures. The most recent LUCAS field survey took place in the spring and summer of 2015 on 273 500 points and covered 28 EU Member States. The 2015 data for this article are expected to become available during 2017.
Europe is composed of a myriad of different landscapes and land uses that reflect historical changes. While these are somewhat difficult to see on a day-to-day basis, ongoing processes continually alter landscapes and the environment. Often the changes taking place may be linked to tensions arising from the conflict between the demand for more resources and infrastructure improvements on the one hand, and biodiversity and space on the other.
Land use and land cover data are important for an understanding of how environmental systems function, and their assessment over time provides a means for assessing the impact that any changes in land use may have on biodiversity and ecosystems.
Land use change is often considered to be a primary driver for changes in biodiversity and ecosystems. In recent years some of the most important land use changes have included: a decline in agricultural land use (as crop yields continue to rise); an increase in urban areas (arising from demographic and economic change); and a gradual increase in forest land areas (in part, driven by the need to meet global environmental commitments in relation to climate change). The development of roads, motorways, railways, intensive agriculture and urban developments has led to Europe’s landscape being increasingly broken up into small pieces. This pattern of fragmentation has the potential to affect levels of biodiversity and could result in negative impacts on flora and fauna.
- Agri-environmental indicators
- Biodiversity statistics
- Forestry statistics
- Land cover and land use (LUCAS) statistics
- LUCAS — Land use and land cover survey
Further Eurostat information
- Diversified landscape structure in the EU Member States — Issue number 21/2011
- New insight into land cover and land use in Europe — Issue number 33/2008
- Land cover overview (lan_lcv_ovw)
- Land covered by artificial surfaces (lan_lcv_art)
- Land use overview (lan_use_ovw)
Methodology / Metadata
- Land cover and land use, landscape (LUCAS) (ESMS metadata file — lan_esms)
Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)
- CORINE land cover data
- European Commission — Directorate-General for the Environment
- European Environment Agency
- The same area can be used in parallel for many purposes (for example, a forest can be used for forestry, hunting and recreation); the statistics presented are based on the primary use.
- The LUCAS survey is based on field visits; land use is determined on the basis of visible signs of land use.