Land cover and land use
- Data extracted in October 2017. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: October 2018.
This article presents statistical data on land cover and land use within the European Union (EU). The data were gathered as part of the land use/cover area frame survey (LUCAS) undertaken between March and October 2015. LUCAS is the largest harmonised land field survey implemented in the EU.
Land is the basis for most biological and human activities on the 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 biophysical coverage of land (for example, crops, grass, broad-leaved woods, or built-up areas);
- land use indicates the socioeconomic use of land (for example, agriculture, forestry, recreation or residential use).
Land cover and land use data form 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.
Main statistical findings
Forests and other wooded areas occupied more than one third (37.7 %) of the total area of the EU-28 in 2015 (see Figure 1), while more than one fifth of the total area was covered by cropland (22.2 %) and by grassland (20.7 %). The remaining types of land cover in the EU-28 were much less prevalent, as shrubland occupied 7.1 % of the total area, followed by artificial land — which includes built-up areas, roads and railways — which had a 4.2 % share. The lowest shares of EU-28 land use were recorded for bare land (3.3 %), water areas (3.0 %) and wetland areas (1.7 %).
Land cover varies considerably between the EU Member States. For example, contrast the principal forms of land use between countries located in southern and northern Europe with those in western and eastern Europe. Woodland was the prevailing land cover in northern parts of Europe in 2015 and for a number of EU Member States whose typography is dominated by mountains and hilly areas, for example, Alpine areas (see Figure 2). Woodland accounted for more than three fifths of the total area in Slovenia, Sweden and Finland (where a peak of 68.0 % was recorded); it also accounted for more than half of the total land cover in Estonia and Latvia, and for more than 40.0 % in Croatia, Slovakia, Austria and Bulgaria. Woodland and forests in these Member States have traditionally been very important ecologically, economically and socio-culturally.
The distribution of cropland (including both arable land and permanent crops) reflects a range of factors, including: average temperature, the growing season, altitude, rainfall, soil type and terrain. Cropland covered, on average, some 22.2 % of the total area of the EU-28 in 2015. Denmark (50.6 %) was the only EU Member State where cropland accounted for more than half of the total land cover, while a relatively high proportion (43.7 %) of the land in Hungary was also occupied by crops. In most of the remaining Member States, the share of cropland was between 10 % and 35 % of overall land cover. However, at the bottom end of the range, cropland accounted for 9.5 % of total land area in Slovenia, 5.9 % in Finland, 5.8 % in Ireland and 4.2 % in Sweden.
Natural and agricultural grasslands dominate the landscape in Ireland (56.3 %; the only EU Member State where more than half of the total land cover was attributed to grassland), the Netherlands (36.3 %) and the United Kingdom (36.2 %), and to a lesser extent in Belgium (31.0 %), Luxembourg (28.9 %), Romania (27.1 %) and France (26.7 %). In most of the remaining EU Member States, the share of grassland in the total area was between 15 % and 25 %. However, there were three Member States below this range: Cyprus (13.2 %; where rainfall levels are relatively low), and the two northern Member States of Sweden (5.4 %) and Finland (4.4 %), where grass covered around one twentieth of total land area, predominantly in areas characterised by a maritime climate.
Shrubland is a typical land cover feature of hot and arid EU Member States such as Greece (where the highest share was recorded, 24.8 %), Cyprus, Portugal, Spain, Malta and Croatia; on the other hand, shrubland is also prevalent on the moors and heathlands of northern areas of the United Kingdom and across parts of Ireland; these were the only Member States to report that shrubland accounted for a higher share of their total area than the EU-28 average (7.1 %).
Artificial land composed 4.2 % of the total area of the EU-28 in 2015. Malta had by far the highest proportion of its area covered by artificial land (primarily built-up areas) and perhaps unsurprisingly also had the highest population density among the EU Member States. The next highest shares of artificial land were recorded in the Benelux countries, where population density was also relatively high — as was also true to a lesser degree in Denmark and Cyprus — while 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 (with no dominant vegetation cover) is relatively uncommon in the EU-28, accounting for 3.3 % of the total area in 2015. The southern EU Member States (especially Cyprus, Spain and Malta) recorded relatively high shares of bare land, as did the Alpine Member State of Austria; each of these had shares of more than 5.0 %.
Some 3.0 % of the EU-28 was covered by inland water areas and 1.7 % by wetlands in 2015. The prevalence of water areas was generally more widespread than wetlands and this was particularly true in the Netherlands (characterised by its polders, dikes, canals and lakes) and in Finland and Sweden (which have hundreds of thousands of inland lakes), while inland water areas also accounted for a relatively high share of the total area in Estonia (in part due to two large inland lakes, Peipus (which is shared with Russia) and Võrtsjärv (in the south). 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. Ireland, Sweden and Finland reported the highest proportions (at least 5.0 %) of their total area accounted for by wetlands, while relatively high shares were also recorded in Estonia and the United Kingdom.
An area of land can be used in parallel for many different purposes: for example, a forest may be used for forestry, for hunting, or for recreation; it is important to note that the statistics that follow are based on the primary (or main) use.
Agricultural land use is the most common primary land use category in the EU-28; it accounted for 41.1 % of the total area in 2015 (see Figure 3). Areas used primarily for forestry covered 32.6 % of the EU-28’s area, while 15.8 % of the area of the EU-28 was unused or abandoned (note that the LUCAS survey is based on field visits and that land use is determined on the basis of visible signs of land use when surveyed). A much lower share (6.7 %) of the total area of the EU-28 was used for services and residential purposes (including commerce, finance and business; community services; recreation, leisure and sport; residential; and nature reserves), while uses with a heavy environmental impact (including mining and quarrying; energy production; industry; water and waste treatment; and construction) claimed a further 3.3 %, leaving just 0.5 % that was used primarily for fishing.
Land under 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 11 out of the 28 EU Member States, more than half of the total area was used for agricultural purposes in 2015 (see Figure 4). The highest share of agricultural land use was recorded in Denmark (63.1 %), while Ireland, Hungary and Romania each reported shares that were close to three fifths. 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; the next lowest share was recorded in Estonia (25.7 %).
Unsurprisingly, forestry was often the dominant land use in those EU Member States which had a high degree of woodland land cover and where agricultural land use was generally quite low; as mentioned above, note that not all of this land is used for forestry, with alternative uses including recreation, hunting, protected areas, or no visible use. In Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia more than 50 % of the total area was used for forestry purposes, a share that fell to below 10.0 % in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and particularly in the Netherlands (3.5 %).
Some 15.8 % of the area of the EU-28 in 2015 was abandoned or there was no visible use of the land. These areas may be used for fishing and hunting, but large areas of land can be 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 southern EU Member States were often characterised by relatively high shares of their total area being unused or abandoned, reflecting at least to some degree, the prevalence of sparsely-populated, rural and arid regions. In Cyprus unused and abandoned areas were the primary land use for more than two fifths (41.7 %) of the total area in 2015, while shares between one quarter and one third were recorded for Spain, Malta, Greece and Croatia.
Services and residential land use covered 6.7 % of the EU-28’s land area in 2015. More than two fifths of this total was devoted to residential use (44.5 %) and to recreation, leisure and sport use (43.2 %), while the shares for community services (9.1 %) and commerce, finance and business (3.1 %) were much lower. The share of services and residential land use rose to a level above 10.0 % of the total area in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Belgium, and was above 20.0 % in the Netherlands and Malta (where a peak of 21.4 % was recorded); in the Netherlands this was due to a particularly large share for recreational, leisure and sports purposes (almost half of the total, 49.0 %), whereas in Malta it was due to a particularly large share for residential purposes (just over two thirds of the total, 67.2 %).
Land uses related to heavy environmental impact occupied 3.3 % of the EU-28’s territory in 2015. By far the most common land use within this category was for transport, communication networks, storage and protective works, which accounted for almost three quarters (74.3 %) of the total area, while 8.2 % of the total for heavy environmental impact was accounted for by mining and quarrying, 5.3 % by industry, 4.9 % by energy production, 4.5 % by water and waste treatment, leaving 2.9 % of the total for construction uses. The highest share of heavy environmental impact in total land use was recorded in the Netherlands, where 10.1 % of land was used for these purposes: this may be linked to a high density transport network and to large storage areas for ports and logistical services. The next highest shares were recorded for countries neighbouring or close to the Netherlands, as Belgium (6.4 %), Germany (5.8 %) and Luxembourg (5.2 %) were the only other EU Member States to report shares of more than 5.0 %.
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, with photographs taken to detect any changes in land cover/use. The data set is unique as it is comparable in terms of definitions and methodology.
The data presented in this article refer to the LUCAS campaign carried out by Eurostat in 2015 covering all 28EU Member States. Data on land cover and land use were collected for approximately 273 500 points between March and October 2015; these points were selected from a standard 2 km grid covering a total of more than 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 classifications, while information was also collected on irrigation management and structural elements in the landscape. Furthermore, at 1 in 10 of the selected points a topsoil sample was taken to help assess environmental factors, update soil maps, validate soil models and measure the quantity of organic carbon in the soil.
The LUCAS microdata for 2015 may be accessed directly on the Eurostat website.
Europe is composed of a myriad of different landscapes and land uses that reflect topography, as well as climatic and 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
- Forests, forestry and logging
- 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 by NUTS 2 regions (lan_lcv_ovw)
- Land covered by artificial surfaces by NUTS 2 regions (lan_lcv_art)
- Land use overview by NUTS 2 regions (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