Over recent decades substantial areas of the EU have been affected by agricultural abandonment (ie. the complete withdrawal of agricultural management such that natural succession processes are able to progress). This is largely a result of declines in the viability of extensive (low input) and small-scale agriculture systems. Therefore such abandonment threatens a range of semi-natural habitats and associated species of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland. But in some locations abandonment could be highly beneficial, particularly in highly fragmented landscapes and where it could provide the opportunity for significant large-scale restoration of non-agricultural habitats (eg re-wilding).
This study, funded by WWF Netherlands, reviewed evidence of past abandonment, identified the drivers of land abandonment and examined projections of abandonment from recent land use modelling studies. Despite significant data limitations the analysis confirmed that there has been significant land abandonment in many parts of Europe in recent decades, primarily where agriculture is less productive (remote and mountainous regions and areas with poor soils and harsh climates). Furthermore, most key drivers of abandonment are expected to remain, and some are likely to intensify, in particular as a result of increasing exposure to global agricultural markets. Therefore, although the likely future extent of farmland abandonment is highly uncertain, it is considered that abandonment of 3-4% of the total EU land area by 2030 is plausible, which would amount to 126,000 – 168,000 km2. Such large-scale abandonment may provide opportunities for beneficial restoration of non-agricultural habitats and re-wilding, but it is clear that larger areas of semi-natural habitats of high conservation concern are likely to be at risk.