Indicator Assessment

Agriculture: area under management practices potentially supporting biodiversity

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-158-en
  Also known as: SEBI 020
Published 21 May 2010 Last modified 11 May 2021
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Europe has significant areas of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland, which provide habitats for a wide range of species. Such areas are under threat, however, from intensification of farming and land abandonment. The mere presence of HNV farmland is of course not proof of sustainable management but promoting conservation and sustainable farming practices in these areas is crucial for biodiversity. Map 1 presents the first estimate of HNV farmland distribution and can therefore not yet be analysed for trends.

Agri-environment schemes have been used widely to make agriculture more sustainable. Not all
agri-environment measures are explicitly targeted on biodiversity, however, and further analysis is required to determine their effectiveness.

Organic farming has developed rapidly since the beginning of the 1990s and continues to do
so. While it is difficult to assess its impact on biodiversity it is assumed that this type of farming reduces stress on ecosystems and provides a wider range of niches for farmland species.

High Nature Value Farmland in Europe

Note: Based on Corine Land Cover (CLC), hence with same geographical coverage as CLC

Share of total utilised agricultural area (UAA) occupied by organic farming

Note: Area covers existing organically-farmed areas and areas in process of conversion

Data source:

Based on Eurostat, 2009; data for Switzerland: Biodiversity Monitoring Switzerland, 2009.

Countries in Europe contain HNV farmland to varying degrees. The identification and conservation of HNV farmland was given high priority in the Kiev Resolution on Biodiversity
(UNECE, 2003).

South-east Europe and EECCA countries (eastern Europe, Caucasus and central Asia) are not covered in the data sets used to make Map 1 and, hence, are not represented. The share of HNV farmland in these regions is probably higher than in western and central Europe but current data do not allow a precise estimate. Finally, while the map indicates the location of HNV, no indicator is yet available to help assess countries' efforts in managing these
areas for biodiversity.

The European Commission has contracted a separate study on an HNV indicator for evaluation including a guidance document to the Member States on the application of the HNV impact indicator (IEEP, 2007).

Agri-environment schemes are the most relevant policy tool in the EU for conserving biodiversity on farmlands. They support agricultural production methods that help protect and improve the environment, in particular the landscape and its features, natural resources, the soil and genetic diversity. Some agri-environment measures are aimed directly at biodiversity protection.
In the EU, the share of agricultural land under agri-environment schemes varies from less than 5 % in Greece and the Netherlands to more than 80 % in Austria, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden.

The new EU guidelines for rural development explicitly encourage the targeting of agri-environment schemes (and other rural development measures) on EU environmental priorities, including biodiversity in general and High Nature Value farming systems in particular.
However, the success of such targeting at national and regional level cannot be assessed at this stage and better information on the effectiveness of the agri-environment measures is still desirable. As information on HNV farmland and forestry has become a compulsory element of rural development evaluations, relevant data should be available in due course.

Organic farming can enhance biodiversity by reducing the use of inputs, rotation practices or livestock extensification. For this indicator, farming is only considered to be organic at the EU level if it complies with Council Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91 and its amendments.

Organic farming has developed rapidly since the beginning of the 1990s so that by 2004, 6.5 million ha in Europe were managed organically (by around 167 000 farms). Of these, more than 5.8 million ha were in the EU - 3.4 % of the utilised agricultural area. In the SEE and EECCA regions organic farming covers less than 0.5 % of the agricultural land. It needs to be noted, however, that 'conventional' farming is not the same in all sub-regions of Europe covered by this report. For example, non-organic areas outside western Europe may still be much less intensively farmed than non-organic areas in the west. Another point for consideration is that organic farming tends to be less intensive and therefore may require a larger area of land to produce the same amount of food as intensive conventional agriculture, which may put pressure on natural habitats.


The three main categories of HNV farmland are (adapted from Andersen et al., 2003):

  • Type 1: farmland with a high proportion of seminatural vegetation;
  • Type 2: farmland with a mosaic of low intensity agriculture and natural and structural elements, such as field margins, hedgerows, stonewalls, patches of woodland or scrub, and small rivers;
  • Type 3: farmland supporting rare species or a high proportion of European or world populations.


  • UNECE, 2003. United Nations Economic Commission for Europe - Kiev Resolution on Biodiversity (ECE/CEP/108). Adopted at the Fifth Ministerial Conference Environment for Europe.
  • IEEP, 2007. HNV Indicators for Evaluation. Final report for DG Agriculture. Available at:
  • Andersen, E.; Baldock, D.; Bennett, H.; Beaufoy, G.; Bignal, E.; Brouwer, F.;, Elbersen, B.; Eiden, G.; Godeschalk, F.; Jones, G.; McCracken, D.; Nieuwenhuizen, W., van Eupen, M., Hennekens, S. and Zervas, G., 2003. Developing a High Nature Value Farming area indicator. Internal report for the European Environment Agency.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

This indicator is based on two sub-indicators and shows trends in area (as proportion of the total utilised area) of two categories of agricultural land that are not mutually exclusive:

 a. High nature value farmland area.
 b. Area under organic farming.

a.'High nature value farmland area' (ha) indicates the area where farming systems are sustaining a high level of biodiversity. They are often characterised by extensive farming practices, associated with a high species and habitat diversity or the presence of species of European conservation concern.

b.'Area under organic farming' (ha) indicates trends in the organic farming area and the share of the organic farming area in the total utilised agricultural area. Farming is only considered to be organic at the European Union (EU) level if it complies with Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007, which provides a comprehensive framework for production of crops and livestock; labelling, processing and marketing of organic products; and the import of organic products into the EU.


Note: This indicator comprises two elements: a quality parameter (distribution of high nature value farmland) and a response parameter (area under agri-environment and organic farming). Both are relevant for an assessment of environmental sustainability although they are not necessarily linked.


hectares (ha)


Policy context and targets

Context description

a. High nature value farmland area

High nature value farmland areas mostly coincide with traditional or extensive agricultural systems. They have one or more of following characteristics:

  • dominated by semi-natural vegetation;
  • dominated by a mosaic of different low intensity agricultural land uses, and natural and structural elements,
  • hosting rare species or supporting a high proportion of their European or global populations.

Loss of high nature value farmland is a result of intensification, abandonment and urbanisation.

b. Area under organic farming

By caring for the whole system, organic farming generally favours biodiversity (Hole et al. 2005), though more productive farming systems may also support opportunities for biodiversity.

Recent literature reviews provide more information on the environmental impacts of organic agriculture compared with conventional management systems. The results are not always unambiguous: the environmental benefits of organic farming are most clearly documented for biodiversity and for water and soil conservation, but there is no clear evidence of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Organic agriculture is likely to have a more positive environmental impact in areas with highly intensive agriculture than in areas with low input farming systems. The regional uptake of organic farming has so far been concentrated in extensive grassland regions where fewer changes are needed to convert to organic farming than in regions dominated by intensive, arable farming, where the benefits would be greater (EEA 2005).


Relation of the indicator to the focal area

The area of High Nature Value farmland indicates an area that, historically, has been managed at low intensity and not been converted to intensive farming. This area represents important biodiversity in agricultural systems.

Organic farming, which may be low or high intensity, is contributing to sustainable management in that it does not negatively impact on systems outside the area under organic farming, and although it does not necessarily benefit above ground biodiversity, it does benefit soil biodiversity in comparison with intensive agriculture.


EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy - target 3

Related policy documents

  • EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
    in the Communication: Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. There are six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal. The six targets cover: - Full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity - Better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure - More sustainable agriculture and forestry - Better management of fish stocks - Tighter controls on invasive alien species - A bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss


Methodology for indicator calculation

a. High nature value farmland area

1) selection of land cover classes made up primarily of HNV land in the different environmental zones in Europe;

2) refinement of the map obtained in point 1) on the basis of additional expert rules (e.g. relating to altitude, soil quality) and country specific information;

3) addition of the biodiversity data layers (NATURA 2000, IBA - on the basis of indicator species and selected habitats only);

4) testing/adding national biodiversity data sets.

b. Area under organic farming

Calculation of the indicator per country/per region: Eurostat holds the statistical data of the organic farming questionnaire.

Methodology for gap filling

No methodology for gap filling has been specified. Probably this info has been added together with indicator calculation.

Methodology references

No methodology references available.



Methodology uncertainty

• The data on HNV farmland presented here aim to show the distribution of HNV farmland areas in Europe, based on a consistent methodology for all countries. To compare data with the same characteristics, the estimated share of HNV farmland is calculated on the basis of total agricultural area as derived from Corine Land Cover (CLC) 2006 agricultural classes, plus identified HNV areas outside these classes. However, the use of CLC data leads to certain data artefacts in some countries or regions, in spite of refined selection criteria and the inclusion of additional biodiversity data sets. Further refinements on the basis of national datasets would be advantageous in several regions.

Data sets uncertainty

In general, this approach faces two crucial constraints: i) uncertainty in the data on the distribution and extent of HNV farmland in different countries; and ii) ability to find comparable data for agricultural land. In the context of the monitoring and evaluation framework of the Rural Development 2007-2013 Programmes, DG AGRI has issued guidelines for reporting on HNV farmland and forestry indicators, to support Member States wishing to make use of a national definition for this indicator, and to develop the indicator further to include aspects of the HNV concept not covered so far.

Rationale uncertainty


a. High nature value farmland area

  • Even if Corine Land Cover is updated every 5/6 years instead of the initial 10 year cycle, the regularity is not considered sufficient for monitoring area changes.
  • Current European level data sets only allow for the provision of area estimates at NUTS2 level.

b. Area under organic farming

Proxy-indicator: there is a reasonable correlation between organic farming and biodiversity, but there are exceptions as organic farms can also be intensively managed (even without chemical inputs). Therefore it may be necessary to consider selecting a sub-set of organic farms only, e.g. mixed farms.

The area under organic farming does not give the total area of agriculture managed with biodiversity in mind, as biodiversity concerns can also be integrated into non-organic farming.

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: State
Typology: Policy-effectiveness indicator (Type D)
Indicator codes
  • SEBI 020
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled once per year and every 6 years
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage