Validation and Improvement of High Nature Value Farmland Identification


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The Concept of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland has been evolving over the last fifteen years in Europe. In the European Union this has been closely linked to the aim of integrating environmental concerns in the Common Agricultural Policy. The idea that nature values, environmental qualities, even cultural heritage are linked to or dependent on farming, also underlies and supports the concept of a multifunctional 'European model of farming which provides benefits beyond food production. The 'High Nature Value farming' idea thus ties the preservation of biodiversity and wildlife value of the countryside to the need to safeguard the continuation of farming in certain areas with maintenance of specific farming systems associated to the long-term management of these areas.

High Nature Value farmland is defined as “those areas in Europe where agriculture is a major (usually the dominant) land use and where agriculture sustains or is associated with either a high species and habitat diversity, or the presence of species of European conservation concern, or both” (Andersen and Al. 2003).

According to preliminary estimates, roughly 20% of the European countryside qualifies as HNV farmland. Agriculture in these areas is usually extensive and vulnerable to change. HNV areas are often under severe pressure due to a vulnerable economy and depopulation. Predominant agricultural trends are, on one hand, intensification, and land abandonment on the other. Both are considered detrimental to biodiversity value.

The HNV farmland methodology distinguishes the following types of High Nature Value farmland:

Type 1: Farmland with a high proportion of semi-natural vegetation.
Type 2: Farmland where low intensity agriculture or a mosaic of semi-natural and cultivated land and small-scale features are dominant.
Type 3: Farmland supporting rare species or a high proportion of European or world populations.

High Nature Value farmland comprises biodiversity ‘hot spots’ in rural areas and is usually characterised by extensive farming practices. Its conservation value is acknowledged in several EU policy documents, such as the EU Regulation on rural development (EC 1257/1999). HNV farmland areas will be one of the indicators (IRENA 26) to assess the Rural Development Community Strategy (programming period 2007- 2013) and particularly one of the three priorities of axis 2 “biodiversity and preservation of high nature value farming and forestry systems”.

Support to HNV and low input farmland systems by the implementation of the measures of the first and second CAP pillars are also part of the Biodiversity Action Plan (COM 2001 – 162). In their ‘Kyiv Resolution’, the European Environment Ministers agreed to complete the identification of all high nature value areas in agricultural ecosystems in the pan European region areas by 2006, applying common criteria previously agreed upon. By 2008, financial subsidy and incentive schemes for agriculture will be under biodiversity-sensitive management through the implementation of appropriate mechanisms such as rural development instruments, agri-environmental programmes and organic agriculture to among others, support their economic and ecological viability (EEA/UNEP, 2004).

The objective of this study is to better identify and characterise HNV farmland at national level (the Walloon Region in Belgium) with a Farm System Approach based on FSS statistical data and specific national surveys, taking into account the whole farm with the total agricultural area and its characteristics.

The methodology is built on two different approaches: the natural zones approach and the farm system approach. The natural zones approach uses spatial data to define agricultural zones with a verified high biodiversity interest, based on a reference biodiversity layer for the Walloon Region (WR) called the principal ecological structure (SEP). The farm system approach analyses the farm structure and farming practices on the basis of data available in the WR agricultural database – SIGEC containing information on agricultural plots, combined with other relevant datasets (national agricultural census, national land use plan). In the first step relevant variables have been selected to calculate the HNV indicators for the farm system approach at NUTS 5 level. The selected indicators were: “1) crop diversity and grassland presence, 2) extensive practices, and 3) landscape elements. In the second step the three indicators were combined to calculate the HNV score. It was decided to limit the HNV zone to 25% of the UAA corresponding to the indicator value of 21.6 (where a maximum value is 30). In the third step the areas delimited through the farm system approach were overlaid with a map resulting form the natural zones approach. In the last step HNV farmland was analysed with regard to prevailing trends in farming practices and production types with the aim of identification of farming systems which might be associated with HNV farmland occurrence in the WR in Belgium.

The comparison of results of farm system and natural zones approaches shows that 63% of SEP area is located in the HNV zone. The percentage of SEP area under agricultural management is the same within and outside the HNV zone. There is a strong correlation between the HNV zone and the Less Favoured Area (LFA) in the Walloon Region. Indeed, 97.6% of the UAA in the HNV zone is also located in the LFA.

The analysis of spatial distribution of HNV farmland delimited in the study shows that 91% of the HNV farm system zone identified in the study is located in Ardenne, Fagne and Fammenne. The dominant farming system types are grazing livestock system specialised in milk or meat production, depending on the region. The average livestock density is less than 2.0 LU/ha. Over 60% of UAA is used as permanent grassland. The HNV farmland identified in the WR in the present study most closely represent type 2 HNV farmland. They are defined by extensive farming practices and the presence of landscape elements favourable for biodiversity enhancement.

The strength of the Farm System Approach methodology is the possibility of producing a map at the NUTS 5 level with an accurate description of the farm systems. The methodology can be improved by crosschecking the results with regional experts and getting feedback on the thresholds and the weighting of the indicators.

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