In Europe, urbanisation and land abandonment is particularly prominent compared to many other parts of the world. By 2020, it is estimated that four out of five European citizens will be living in urban areas. With the depopulation of the countryside, an aging rural society and increased competition through the globalisation, more and more low-productive farmland is taken out of production.
Urbanisation and land abandonment is leading to depopulation of rural areas in Europe
A dramatic change
Between 1960 and 2000, the European countryside experienced a dramatic change in land use. Marginal areas of less importance for agricultural production have been particularly affected by this land abandonment: areas with high land abandonment levels are found in the Alps, Pyrenees, Portugal, central Spain, Sardinia, former East Germany, the Baltic States, the Carpathians, Poland, north Sweden, north Finland and the Balkans.
30 million hectares abandoned farmland by 2030
Further land abandonment is forecast to continue until 2030, according to the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), particularly in Spain, Portugal, parts of Finland, Sweden and Greece, highland areas of France, Italy, central Europe, Romania, Bulgaria and the UK. Estimates indicate a total decline of agriculture, grasslands and semi-natural habitats of more than 30 million hectares and a subsequent increase of forest or bush areas across the EU.
A tremendous challenge
Since 1958 the EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has played an important role in shaping the agricultural landscape in Europe. The winners have been farmers on the most fertile soils – but not their colleagues trying to survive in the more marginal areas. The recent reform of CAP in 2013 continues the current trend of shifting production away from the less productive areas to the more fertile. Many of these marginal farmlands have served as strongholds for the large part of Europe’s biological wealth that have often been associated with the traditionally farmed landscapes. However, with the custodians of some of these treasures – the small-scale, traditional farmers and herdsmen – now leaving, Europe’s natural heritage is facing a tremendous challenge.
An ecologically poor, digital landscape?
Once abandoned, the semi-open landscape quickly changes, with shrubs and young trees invading the open patches, while the multitude of species that were adapted specifically to the open landscapes become isolated and trapped. If nothing is done, we risk getting a “digital” Europe – with intensive farming on the fertile soils and industrial forest plantations and bush dominating the less productive regions. The result will be an almost irreversible decline of a significant number of our plants and animals. That would lead to a new, poor and vulnerable face of Europe, never experienced before in human history.
Two reports on land abandonment in Europe can be downloaded here and here.