Small woody features in agricultural areas: Agroforestry systems of overlooked significance in Europe

May 2024
Judit Rubio-Delgado, Susanne Schnabel, J. Francisco Lavado-Contador, Ulrich Schmutz



Small woody features (SWF), as field boundaries, hedgerows, or riparian buffers, are crucial for agricultural landscapes and, frequently, disregarded. In combination with agricultural land uses they are considered agroforestry systems (AFSWF), but their spatial distribution and detailed location of SWF types are insufficiently known in the EU as to support agricultural policies or enhance the development of farming practices for biodiversity conservation or productivity management.


In addressing this, the LUCAS 2015 dataset was analysed across EU member states to identify, characterise, and determine the extent and distribution of AFSWF classes and the variety of SWF types in agricultural lands. Additionally, a comparison between AFSWF and common agroforestry systems (AFC), such as silvopastoral, silvoarable, grazed or intercropped permanent crops, and kitchen gardens was conducted.


To achieve this, four categories of AFSWF were established based on the classes of land cover within agricultural areas where SWF are present: arable crops AFSWF, grazed grasslands AFSWF, ungrazed grasslands AFSWF, and permanent crops AFSWF. The typology and relevance of the AFSWF categories and the SWF types were analysed and mapped at country level and by biogeographical regions. The spatial distribution of AFSWF and the different types of SWF were analysed using density maps.


Results reveal that AFSWF cover 443,770 km2 (10% of the EU-28 and 25% of the utilised agricultural area). This area encompasses arable crops (44%), ungrazed grasslands (24%), grazed grasslands (23%), and permanent crops (8%). The extent of AFSWF is 3.3 times larger than AFC (132,317 km2), being mainly concentrated in Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, and Germany, while AFC prevail in the Mediterranean. As regards to SWF types, both managed and unmanaged hedgerows were dominant in France, Great Britain, and Ireland. Heaths and shrubs in Spain and Germany. Grove and woodlands margins in Spain, while avenue trees were dominant in Germany. Single trees and conifer hedges, the less prevalent SWF types, were broadly distributed.


This pioneering research addresses a knowledge gap, thoroughly documenting AFSWF, revealing both its types and spatial distribution. The findings highlight substantial disparities in AFSWF prevalence among member states of the EU. The study compares AFSWF with AFC in relevance and distribution, significantly contributing to better understanding agroforestry systems and offering baselines for future monitoring and management. Findings advocate for policy incentives and increased awareness among farmers to foster the understanding of the impacts of SWF on productivity and biodiversity.

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