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Back to the future

Published Tuesday, 10th December 2019 in Research news

New report highlights importance of reversing decline of high nature value farmland
Traditional agricultural terraces maintained by small-scale mixed farming in Portugal

The importance of ensuring a future for ‘high nature value’ farmlands across the globe has been highlighted in a new paper published by a consortium of European scientists.

High nature value (HNV) farmlands use low-intensity farming systems and are rich in natural and semi-natural vegetation which support species and habitats of important conservation value.

However, the extent and condition of HNV farmlands has been declining globally due to agricultural expansion and intensification, and abandonment of farming practices, leading to an erosion of their natural, social and cultural heritage.

In the paper, the scientists – including agricultural ecology expert Professor Davy McCracken from Scotland’s Rural College – looked at a range of future scenarios for HNV farmlands, and the related management options and expected socioecological outcomes for each.

Extensively managed, species-rich upland hay meadows, Thuringian Forest, Germany

Extensively managed, species-rich upland hay meadows, Thuringian Forest, Germany

More than 30 per cent of all agricultural land in the European Union is considered to be HNV farmland, and recognition of the importance of HNV systems dates back to the 1990s.

Similar farmlands supporting high natural, social and cultural values also exist in many rural areas worldwide, including the satoyama landscapes in Japan, farming systems in the Western Ghats region of India, and the Hani rice terraced landscapes in southern China.

In addition to providing humans with food and fibre, these areas support biodiversity conservation and deliver a wide range of vital public services such as managing flood risk, protecting soils from erosion, reducing wildfire risks or having cultural value.

The consortium, including partners in France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Portugal as well as Scotland, said reversing the global decline of HNV farmlands relied on increasing public appreciation of the range of goods and services provided by these landscapes and improving the financial rewards to farmers who continue to maintain them.

Leader of the consortium Angela Lomba, from CIBIO (Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources) in Portugal, said: “HNV farmlands are valuable assets that can aid society in addressing current and future environmental challenges.

“But change is unavoidable and a paradigm shift is required to ensure that the underlying systems persist and that HNV systems appeal to future generations.”

Prof McCracken, Head of SRUC’s Hill & Mountain Research Centre, added: “Such a shift entails moving away from current production-driven financial incentives to farmers, towards novel incentive mechanisms rewarding a broader range of goods and services and integrated landscape-level approaches where direct links between people and nature are fostered to build economic, social and environmental sustainability.”

The paper considers five alternative scenarios – associated with different levels of management intensity and socioeconomic viability, ranging from abandonment to intensification – and highlights how the future of HNV farmlands can be secured by improving social services in rural communities, designing new uses for HNV goods, and developing new business opportunities on HNV farmlands.

The paper is published in the Ecological Society of America journal and you can read it here: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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