Traditional land-use and nature conservation in rural Europe


Rural Europe offers a great diversity of cultural landscapes. This landscape diversity is, for the most part, a result of the variety of land-uses that have overlaid, refined, or replaced each other throughout history. In European landscape history five basic stages are distinguished: the natural, prehistoric landscape (from Palaeolithic until ancient Greek times); the antique landscape (from ancient Greek times until early Mediaeval times); the mediaeval landscape (from early Mediaeval times until Renaissance); the traditional agricultural landscape (from Renaissance until 19th century, sometimes until today); and industrial landscapes (mostly from mid-18th until mid-20th century, in many places until today).

Traditional land-uses, according to Bignal et al. (1995), include all “practices which have been out of fashion for many years and techniques which are not generally part of modern agriculture.” These authors report that these land-uses reached their maximum extent in the second half of the 19th century. Another definition has been delivered by Antrop (1997): “landscapes with a long history, which evolved slowly and where it took centuries to form a characteristic structure reflecting a harmonious integration of abiotic, biotic and cultural elements”. Two common characteristics of most forms of traditional land-use are relatively low nutrient inputs and relatively low output per hectare. Therefore, traditional land-use systems are also termed “low-intensity land-use systems”. However, “traditional land-use” is not in all cases completely congruent with “low-intensity land-use” as there are traditional land-use systems that have been very labor-intensive and had high nutrient and labor inputs. Examples can be found in late medieval and early modern Flanders, northern Italy, the Netherlands and Southwest-England (and on a more local scale in many densely populated areas of Europe). These traditional high-intensity systems also had a high biodiversity, caused by the many gradients of nutrient and labor inputs at a local and regional scale.

Classification of traditional land-use systems

Table 1 – Traditional land-use systems in Europe
Livestock systems Arable and permanent crop systems Mixed systems
Low-intensity livestock raising in upland and mountain areas Low-intensity dryland arable cultivation in Mediterranean regions Low-intensity mixed Mediterranean cropping
Low-intensity livestock raising in Mediterranean regions Low-intensity arable cultivation in temperate regions Low-intensity, small-scale traditional mixed farming
Low-intensity livestock raising in wooded pastures Low-intensity rice cultivation
Low-intensity livestock raising in temperate lowland regions Low-intensity tree crops
Low-intensity vineyards
Source: Baldock et al. (1995)

Although traditional land-use techniques vary considerably throughout Europe, a rough categorization into livestock systems, arable and permanent crop systems, and mixed systems can be made (Table 1). Traditional land-use systems have mainly persisted in upland and remote areas where physical constraints have prevented a modernization of agriculture. The most extensive and diverse low-intensity land-use systems can be found in Spain and Portugal.

Basic principles

Konold et al. (1996) have analyzed a number of traditional land-use systems. These are important for understanding the functioning of such systems and, additionally, can serve as guidelines for the design of new land-use systems:

  • Principle of multiple uses: traditional land-use systems optimize resource use and minimize risks through polyculture and other forms of multiple uses. Another important aspect of historical cultural landscapes has always been the interaction between public, common, and private land-use. The extensive use of common lands (forests, heathlands, grasslands, marshes) has been extremely important for biodiversity in northwest Europe and has changed a lot over the centuries, due to changes in agricultural systems, economy and common rights.
Figure 1. Fine-grained mosaic of traditionally used grassland and forest patches in the Southern Black Forest, Germany. (Photo: Werner Konold)
  • Principle of rotational uses: in traditional systems land-use is intended to meet individual needs more than to maximize economic profit. Therefore traditional land-use systems involve numerous uses that are spatially and temporally differentiated, but applied on the whole landscape. This leads to a discontinuous change between periods of human impact and periods of regeneration.
  • Principle of recycling: in traditional land-use, external inputs of agrochemicals or fodder are low. Nutrient emissions and water losses are minimized, and production wastes are recycled locally as fertilizers.
  • Principle of low-energy economy: traditional systems are stamped by a scarcity of energy and transport resources.
  • Principle of spatial fuzziness: in traditional systems different land-use structures and processes intermingle, although ecological and land-use settings provide a gradient of variation.

Baldock et al.(1995) add principles such as a slow rate of change that produces long periods of relative stability, management techniques that enhance the structural diversity of vegetation, the maintenance of a high proportion of semi-natural vegetation, and low use of agrochemicals.

Examples for traditional agricultural systems are the atlantic bocage and the montado/dehesa. The bocage is a classic enclosed landscape, consisting of a mosaic of plots that are surrounded by stonewalls or hedges. These small, rectangular strips or land are lumped piecemeal, resulting in a great landscape diversity. Atlantic bocages are distributed in Bretagne and Normandie (France), North-West Denmark, Wales, South-West Scotland, and Eastern Ireland. Soils are moderately fertile, and rainfall is abundant. The traditional system consists of mixed crops on small plots (often < 0,5 ha). Arable farming and pasture have often alternated throughout history. Farmsteads are scattered, and there is a dense network of rural roads. The history of the bocage landscape is hundreds of years old. A variant, the semi-bocage, has fewer hedges, more walls, more fallow land and larger forests and is found in many high and middle mountain areas of Europe, e.g. in the Black Forest in Germany (Figure 1). It has larger plots, and not every plot is enclosed. The montado/dehesa is both a regional landscape of the Mediterranean and a traditional agroforestry system that covers around 3,1 million ha in the Southwest of the Iberian Peninsula (Figure 2). Land uses comprise extensive livestock raising, crop cultivation, and forest management. The resulting park- or savanna-like landscape is characterized by pasturelands with scattered holm and cork oak stands and an understorey of grassland, cereal crops or Mediterranean scrub. The system is characterized by a multiple resource production, low-input agriculture with a high variety of products harvested and a high level of self-sufficiency. The roots of the montado/dehesa system reach back to medieval times. The system is closely tied to large estates. Both from the views of biodiversity and cultural heritage conservation the system is regarded highly valuable.

Interactions of traditional land-use and conservation

File:Dehesa in Cáceres province, Spain.gif

The high nature-conservation value of most traditional land-use systems is without controversy (see for example Heath and Tucker (1995) for a study on birds). Under these circumstances it seems paradoxical that the provision of rich biodiversity was never the primary aim of traditional land-use, but that it was nothing more than an unintended by-product. Today these amenities are considered externalities that are uncoupled from agricultural or forestry production and must be specially managed and financed. The fact that traditional land-use in Europe has, instead of damaging biodiversity, even fostered habitat and species richness is remarkable as this contrasts with the evidence from most other parts in the world. Correspondingly most non-Europeans understand conservation as an activity to restore conditions of pristine wilderness with a complete absence of human impact. What distinguishes traditional cultural landscapes in Europe from other human-shaped landscapes in the world is the long history of land-use since the end of the glaciation that has facilitated the co-evolution of species, ecosystems and humans. Many traditional land-use systems originate in medieval times. Land-use in these times was characterized by technological progress both in clear-cutting and agricultural practices. The Middle Ages are also marked by increases in population and wealth. A typical crop rotation system that had spread out since the 8th century in central Europe was three-field rotation. The rotation began with winter grain (rye, wheat) in one year, which was followed by summer grain (oats, summer rye, barley) in the subsequent year. In the third year the land was left fallow for soil regeneration. The farmland was split into uniformly farmed districts in oder to harvest both summer and winter grain within one year. Medieval landscapes induced a remarkable species and ecosystem diversity, but at the same time seriously degraded the landscape. Examples are large-scale soil erosion from croplands and grasslands, and the deterioration of forests through livestock grazing. Landscapes changed fundamentally during the 19th century, when many of the last untamed parts of the landscape became cultivated. A first wave of species reduction and sometimes extinction was the consequence, although loss rates were slow and it is estimated that species richness in Europe peaked around 1850. Nowadays European agri-biodiversity is considered just as valuable as wild biodiversity.

In addition to their nature-conservation value, cultural landscapes are also appreciated due to their cultural values bound to the history of a place and its cultural traditions. There is an increasing recognition of the necessity to include the values and priorities of people in any activity of natural or cultural resources conservation. Likewise, cooperation between actors of nature and cultural heritage conservation have been increasing recently.


A central dilemma of Europe’s traditional cultural landscapes is their instability, i.e. their dependence on a medium degree of human impact. If land-use is extensified or abandoned traditional landscapes are displaced by spontaneous vegetational succession. In Portugal for example, land abandonment and consequent shrub encroachment led to the disappearance of more than 245,000 ha of low-intensity farmland in the 1980s. Conversely, too-intensive human impact will lead to the conversion of traditional landscapes to more simplified landscapes. For instance, at least 1,400,000 ha of low-intensity farmland have been converted into highly productive irrigated fields in Spain in the 1970s and 1980s. This polarization of land-use trends, with extensification or land abandonment on one side and mechanization and intensification on the other, puts many traditional land-use systems seriously at risk. Although some agri-environmental schemes provide financial assistance for the maintenance of traditional cultural landscapes, their impact has so far been narrow. In Central and Eastern Europe, landscapes have been more rapidly and more profoundly transformed throughout the 20th century than the rest of Europe. Changing ideologies and their socio-economic formations left their traits in the landscape and erased former landscape traits, leaving behind a layered legacy of landscapes. In the communist era from 1945 to 1990 landscapes were dramatically homogenized. Since the 1990s most Central and Eastern European countries have turned toward the West, and many are now members of the European Union. This shift involved the tendencies of agricultural change that is found in Western Europe, with threats coming both from intensification and marginalization. In these countries landscape transformation has been so comprehensive that landscapes have many times lost their identity and people have become alienated from the landscapes.

Further Reading

  • Antrop, M., 1997. The concept of traditional landscapes as a base for landscape evaluation and planning. The example of Flanders Region. Landscape and Urban Planning 38(1-2):105-117.
  • Baldock, D., Beaufoy, G. and Clark, J., 1995. The Nature of Farming: Low Intensity Farming Systems in Nine European Countries. Institute for European Environmental Policy, London. ISBN: 1873906013
  • Bignal, E.M. and McCracken, D.I., 1996. Low-intensity farming systems in the conservation of the countryside. Journal of Applied Ecology, 33(3):413-424.
  • Bignal, E.M., McCracken, D.I. and Corrie, H., 1995. Defining European low-intensity farming systems: the nature of farming. In: McCracken, D.I., Bignal, E.M. and Wenlock, S.E. (Eds.), Farming on the Edge: the Nature of Traditional Farmland in Europe. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough. ISBN: 1873701748
  • Green, B.H. and Vos, W., 2001. Managing old landscapes and making new ones. In: Green, B.H., Vos, W. (Eds.), Threatened Landscapes: Conserving Cultural Landscapes. Spon Press, London, New York, NY, pp. 139-149. ISBN: 041925630X
  • Hampicke, U., 2006. Efficient conservation in Europe’s agricultural countryside - rationale, methods and policy reorientation. Outlook on Agriculture, 35:97-105.
  • Heath, M.F. and Tucker, G.M., 1995. Ornithological value and pastoral farming systems. In: McCracken, D.I., Bignal, E.M., Wenlock, S.E. (Eds.), Farming on the Edge: the Nature of Traditional Farmland in Europe. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, pp. 54-59. ISBN: 1873701748
  • Konold, W., Schwineköper, K. and Seiffert, P., 1996. Zukünftige Kulturlandschaft aus der Tradition heraus. In: Konold, W. (Ed.), Naturlandschaft - Kulturlandschaft. Die Veränderung der Landschaften nach der Nutzbarmachung durch den Menschen. Ecomed, Landsberg, pp. 289-312. ISBN: 3609692804
  • Kristensen, S.P., 1999. Agricultural land and landscape changes in Rostrup, Denmark: process of intensification and extensification. Landscape and Urban Planning, 46:117-123.
  • MacDonald, D., Crabtree, J.R., Wiesinger, D., Dax, T., Stamou, N., Fleury, P., Gutierrez-Lazpita, J. and Gibton, A., 2000. Agricultural abandonment in mountain areas of Europe: environmental consequences and policy response. Journal of Environmental Management, 59(1):47-69.
  • Meeus, J.H.A., 1995. Pan-European landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning 31(1-3):57-79.
  • Mitchell, N. and Buggey, S. 2001. Protected landscapes and cultural landscapes: taking advantage of diverse approaches. The George Wright Forum, 17(1):35-46.
  • Phillips, A., 1998. The nature of cultural landscapes - a nature conservation perspective. Landscape Research, 23(1):21-38.
  • Urbanc, M., Printsmann, A., Palang, H., Skowronek, E., Woloszyn, W. and Konkoly Gyuró, E. 2004. Comprehension of rapidly tranforming landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century. Acta Geographica Slovenica 44(2):101-131.
  • Vos, W. and Meekes, H., 1999. Trends in European cultural landscape development: perspectives for a sustainable future. Landscape and Urban Planning, 46:3-14.
  • Wilson, O.J. and Wilson, G.A., 1997. Common cause or common concern? The role of common lands in the post-productivist countryside. Area, 29(1):45-58.


Plieninger, T. (2007). Traditional land-use and nature conservation in rural Europe. Retrieved from


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