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High Nature Value farming indicators

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There is no universally applicable dividing line between HNV and non-HNV farming, any more than between low-intensity and intensive farming. The biological diversity of farmland ranges along a gradient between the lowest and the highest values.

But for a given situation, a judgement can be made of what types of farming should be considered as HNV, on the basis of available knowledge about the land cover, the farming systems in question and their inherent value for biodiversity (see previous step). Ideally a clear differentiation between HNV and other farmland can be made; but realistically, Member States will have to choose between criteria likely to include as much HNV farmland as possible and those which exclude as much farmland of lower interest as possible. Based on this judgement, indicators can be designed.

Broadly speaking, indicators of HNV farmland can use three different types of criteria:

  1. Land cover criteria –
    • If land is under predominantly semi-natural grazed vegetation, this is the strongest single indication of HNV farmland. Even if the current grazing or management regime is not the optimum for habitat and species conservation, the mere presence of large areas of semi-natural vegetation provides greater opportunities for a range of wildlife than land where this vegetation has been replaced with improved grassland or crops.
    • A mosaic of semi-natural farmland and mixed cropping is also a strong indicator of HNV. In this case it is necessary to determine a threshold for the proportion of the farmland area that should be semi-natural in order to be considered as HNV. Some indication that the cropped land is managed at low intensity is also desirable. This may be a high proportion of fallow in the rotation (land cover information), or an indicator reflecting intensity of use on the cropped area (e.g. input use, see point 2).
    • Orchards and olive groves with large, old trees and a (semi-)permanent unsown understorey indicate HNV farmland.
    • Land cover data at a sufficiently high resolution can also show the presence of peripheral elements, such as semi-natural hedges, patches and water bodies, that can make a signficant contribution to the nature value of farmland.
  2. Farming systems criteria -
    • In the absence of reliable inventories of semi-natural vegetation, very low livestock densities per hectare of forage (e.g. <0.2LU/ha, although the figure will depend on the area) are themselves a strong indication of predominantly semi-natural forage, and thus of HNV farmland.
    • For land under arable and permanent crops, a combination of low nitrogen and biocide inputs per hectare may be considered a good indicator.
  3. Species criteria -
    • Species indicators should not be necessary for Types 1 and 2, as these types of HNV farmland are defined by land cover and farming characteristics which are know to produce a situation inherently valuable for a range of wildlife and biodiversity, regardless of whether certain selected species are present or not. In the case of Type 3 HNV farmland, the land cover and farming characteristics do not suggest conditions of high nature value, so that such farmland is considered HNV only because of the presence of certain species. Generally these will be a limited number of species, but of conservation importance.

Drawing on these criteria, indicators can be designed that distinguish HNV farming from farming that is inherently of less value for nature. Ideally, a combination of land-cover, farming-systems and species criteria should be used, but the combination of necessary criteria depends on the Type considered.

Thus for Type 1, it is desirable to know that the forage resource is mainly semi-natural, but also that the current grazing regime is appropriate. Similarly for Type 2 mosaics, the full picture can only be provided by a combination of land-cover and farming practices data. From these two explanatory criteria (i.e. land cover and farming practices), the species criteria can be assumed in principle. As explained in the following section, data on relevant farming practices are not generally available, and as a result the tendency to-date has been to focus on land-cover data.

For Type 3 farmland, the proof of its HNV characteristics stands on the presence of species of conservation interest, which could not be derived from land cover and farming practices criteria.

Applying indicators for High Nature Value farming

There are two distinct reasons for designing indicators of HNV farming, and these may require slightly different tools and approaches.

  • To measure the approximate extent of HNV farmland in a region or Member State, so that this can be monitored over time, for the purposes of RDP evaluation.
  • To enable support measures to be targeted at HNV farming.

Member States were required to estimate their total area (“superficial extent”) of HNV farmland (baseline indicator) at the start of the 2007-13 RDPs. This figure can only be an approximate estimate, because current data sources do not permit an exact calculation.

The aim should be to capture an approximate picture of the total hectarage of land under landuses that meet the basic HNV criteria. Some Member States have taken rather unconvincing short-cuts, such as proposing that the HNV farmland area is equivalent to the farmland within Less favoured Areas, or within Natura 2000 sites. This is not a satisfactory approach as, although considerable overlaps can be expected, these two sets of areas were delineated on very different criteria from the HNV farmland criteria.

Following the lead taken by the European Environment Agency (EEA) with CORINE, some Member States have pursued the land cover approach. Where suitable data on semi-natural vegetation are available at national and regional levels, this is a sensible starting point. However, experience suggests that CORINE is not a suitable data base, in its current format, as it does not distinguish between semi-natural and more intensively managed grassland.

For identifying Type 1 HNV farmland, a recent and comprehensive inventory of semi-natural vegetation types provides an intitial indication of the total area. Inventories of semi-natural grasslands as produced in some countries (see are more detailed than CORINE-based exercises and may be a valuable tool for identifying the location of this particular type of HNV farmland.

However, not all semi-natural vegetation is under farming use, and some means of verifying the current usage therefore is needed. The CAP Land Use Parcel Identification System (LPIS) should provide this information if it is operating correctly, as the use of all parcels is recorded on an annual basis.

At this stage, the aim should be to establish a baseline area of semi-natural vegetation under farming use (grazing and/or mowing), that can be targeted for policy measures and monitored over time. It probably is not realistic on the basis of existing data to expect to know what are the current management practices on this land, such as livestock densities and grazing regimes, and whether they are optimum for conservation of the nature values.

This question is best addressed when designing and applying CAP support measures, by making such payments conditional on a management regime that is adapted to the conditions of the area (e.g. minimum and maximum livestock densities per hectare of forage). Thus, in this case the land cover data indicate the presence of HNV farmland, and the conditions attached to the support payment that the farming practices are appropriate for an HNV farming system. In practice, this is how existing agri-environment schemes for HNV grasslands are operating in countries such as Bulgaria and Romania.

Identifying Type 2 HNV farmland is more challenging. The type of land cover is more complex, as it includes a mix of semi-natural vegetation and cropped land. Identifying only the semi-natural element (e.g. through inventories) is not a sufficient approach in this case, as the nature value of Type 2 HNV farmland depends partly on the low-intensity cropping and its existence in a mosaic with semi-natural vegetation, with some importance of landscape featrues. Some measurement of the proportion of land under semi-natural vegetation is needed, and ideally this would be combined with a measurement of the intensity of use on the cropped area. More detail on the choice of indicators is provided in the draft Guidance Document (IEEP and Beaufoy, 2007).

At present, data are not readily available on farming practices such as input use. Therefore, as with Type 1 HNV farmland, the realistic approach for the time being is to focus on identifying the land cover patterns (mosaics of semi-natural vegetation and crops) that indicate the probable presence of HNV farmland. Measures then can be targeted at this land, with the eligibility conditions of the measures themselves ensuring that the farming system is appropriate for maintaining nature values.

The choice of threshold values for HNV farming must be supported by information provided in the description of farming types and their nature values. Thus the definition of minimum and maximum stocking densities should be in accordance with ecological criteria for the region or area in question. This is the range of stocking densities considered most favourable to the conservation of species and habitats, which may be lower than the stocking densities considered as agronomically optimum.

It is essential that national choices of thresholds and indicators for HNV farming should be tested at the local level. Better still, the development work at national level should be informed by local-level research that is designed specifically to answer the key questions for identification of HNV farmland. A selection of local case studies from different parts of the country should be undertaken.

The usefulness of mapping HNV farmland

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has worked on the identification of geographical areas where natural values (vegetation types, areas designated for particular habitats and species) coincide with agriculture. This has lead to the production of maps of possible “HNV farmland areas”.

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European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Date: 2024/04/20
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