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Semi-natural pastures and meadows

A large part of Europe's permanent pasture is broadly "semi-natural", meaning that it has not been recently reseeded or heavily fertilised and has a composition similar to a natural habitat, often including woody species. These semi-natural permanent pastures are of exceptional biodiversity compared with intensively managed permanent pasture. They are also an extremely valuable carbon store. Reseeding and fertilisation result in more grass production, but cause biodiversity to be greatly reduced and carbon storage to be reversed.

Semi-natural permanent pastures are responsible for a major part of the environmental public goods produced by European farming, and in this sense they are fundamentally different from permanent pastures that are under more intensive agricultural use. A greener CAP focusing on public goods needs to recognise this difference, rather than putting intensively managed and semi-natural permanent pastures in the same "policy box".

Semi-natural permanent pastures include a mix of vegetation types. Some are largely herbaceous (i.e. grass), while others are dominated by shrubs (e.g. heather moorland, alvar). Tree cover is present on many types of permanent pasture, and is often an integral part of the forage system, the leaves and fruits providing an important seasonal complement to herbaceous and shrub forage (e.g. Iberian dehesas, Nordic wooded meadows). Shrubs and trees have been an integral part of actively-farmed permanent pastures for centuries.

Semi-natural permanent pastures under active farming use cover many millions of hectares of EU farmland, often in more marginal farming situations. They are declining in some cases as a result of intensification (especially reseeding and heavy fertilisation of meadows) but abandonment and afforestation are the more widespread threats. The CAP fails to recognise this fact or to adequately address the problem, as explained below.

Halting the loss of semi-natural permanent pastures is a key action for halting the decline of biodiversity in Europe. The farmland habitats on Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive consist entirely of various types of semi-natural permanent pasture that require continued farming use for their conservation (some 20% of the habitats on Annex 1). Commission data show that these farmland habitats generally are in worse condition and are declining faster than other habitats types, such as forests. They extend far beyond designated Natura 2000 sites. The EU 2020 biodiversity targets include maintaining all of these habitats, not only within Natura 2000, as well as maintaining, enhancing and restoring ecosystem services.

Semi-natural pastures and meadows are typified by extensive farming using traditional breeds of livestock. They are central to the concept of High Nature Value farming and are profoundly valuable for the large range of ecosystem services they provide. Promoting the protection and above all the active and sustainable farming of semi-natural pastures is a central concern of EFNCP. The key to a sustainable future for semi-natural farmland is the socio-economic viability of the systems which use it. However, we believe that protection has a supporting role to play, since the economic pressure on farmers to intensify is all the greater when their system is profitable.

Policy issues

A set of EU policy instruments has developed over the past 25 years that aims to protect and support grasslands for their environmental value, but at present these policies are neither effective, nor coherent or coordinated. New measures under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) give an appearance of increased protection, but the measures are fundamentally flawed in their design, and often in their national implementation. Key problems are highlighted below - see links further down the page for the latest EFNCP reports on the new CAP and permanent pastures in a range of Member States.

The overarching problem is the lack of positive incentives for continuing extensive farming activity on all semi-natural pastures. The exception is certain countries that make good use of agri-environment-climate measures for this purpose, although even in these exceptional countries the support is only available on priority areas such as Natura 2000. Generally, the design of the CAP makes intensification or afforestation the more attractive options for a farmer with semi-natural pastures, and it is left to Member States to correct this negative situation.

Since 2010, EFNCP has been promoting the idea of incorporating a special incentive payment into the main body of the CAP (Pillar 1) to encourage the sustainable farming of semi-natural pastures. See below for EFNCP reports in the period 2010-2012. This proposal has been supported by other environmental NGOs. But recent CAP reforms have only introduced more restrictions on the farming of semi-natural pastures, rather than encouraging their long-term use.

The decoupling of CAP payments from production since 2005 has increased the abandonment threat for economically marginal farming types that have less opportunity to be viable from the market. Extensive livestock systems have gone into severe decline in many more marginal regions of the EU. At a farm and local landscape level, there is a clear tendency in many regions to abandon the semi-natural pastures (especially the least accessible) and to concentrate stock on more productive land, with increased intensification on this land.

The permanent pasture definition in the CAP defines permanent pasture as being over 5 years old, but the pasture can be ploughed and/or reseeded within this period. This means that CAP measures aimed at preventing a reduction in the extent of permanent pasture at Member State level offer no protection at all to semi-natural pastures. These could all be converted to intensive annually-sown pastures, without triggering any corrective action. At the same time, the system imposes unnecessary controls on intensively farmed grassland of limited environmental value. Appropriate definition and identification of semi-natural pastures and meadows are essential preconditions for the targeting of both protection and support. This is a major weakness of EU policy at present.

A new CAP measure aimed at banning the ploughing or conversion of so-called "environmentally sensitive permanent grasslands" or ESPG sounds very green on paper, but is of limited practical use. In most Member States it applies only to certain grasslands within Natura 2000, that are already protected by this network, and it is of no use for preventing the main threat of abandonment. Even reseeding of these ESPG grasslands may be permitted in some countries.

The new CAP definition for permanent pastures, applied from 2014, has been widened to include all types of grazable vegetation, but continues to discriminate against pastures with a high proportion of trees and/or shrubs. Combined with CAP rules on the eligibility of farmland for support payments, and their implementation in certain Member States, this has the effect of blocking the payment of CAP support on some semi-natural pastures and meadows, often those types of greatest environmental value. These rules can lead to damaging removal of vegetation to gain payment, but frequently just lead to abandonment - the opposite of what the CAP is meant to achieve. In some regions, grants for afforestation are an attractive incentive for giving up farming.

To help address these problems, and in the interests of CAP simplification, the following clear and straightforward permanent pasture definition has been proposed by EFNCP since 2010: "land used to grow grasses or other forage (self-seeded or sown) and that has not been ploughed or reseeded for 5 years or longer". For more information on the problems affecting wood pastures, and EFNCP recommendations for policy change, see our Wood Pastures Manifesto.

EIA Directive. Activities leading to the agricultural intensification of semi-natural and uncultivated land are explicitly subject to Environmental Impact Assessment under the EIA Directive (subject to specific rules set by Member States). But there is no EU definition of semi-natural land, and in most countries the rules are applied in such a way as to provide almost no protection for semi-natural pastures and meadows.

Highly biodiverse grassland. The Renewable Energy Directive excludes biofuels planted on what had been 'highly-biodiverse grasslands' from being counted against Member States' renewables targets. This new grasslands term does not coincide with definitions in other EU instruments, such as EIA Directive and the CAP. Discussions on its definition took place in 2010. EFNCP submitted a response to the consultation on the targeting of this protection.

The way forward

EFNCP believes that terms such as "semi-natural land", "highly-biodiverse grassland", "environmentally sensitive grasslands", etc., should be harmonised and defined in a way which is useful for policy purposes (e.g. makes a distinction between areas providing higher and lower levels of public goods) and there should be clear cross-referencing between them, with confusing differences minimised where possible.

Semi-natural pastures and meadows need a strategic and integrated support framework that works through both Pillars of the CAP. The regulatory structures provided by Cross Compliance, EIA and Renewable Energy Directives and Natura 2000 need to be aligned and integrated.

Reports and actions on permanent pastures 2010-2012

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European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Date: 2024/05/21
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