Land cover, land use and landscape
From Statistics Explained
- Data from September 2011. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.
This article presents statistical data on land cover, land use and landscapes for 23 Member States of the European Union (EU); Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta and Romania are not covered and not included in the EU totals and averages. The data were gathered as part of the Land use/cover area frame survey, or LUCAS, conducted during the summer of 2009. LUCAS is the largest harmonised land survey implemented in the EU.
Land is the basis for most biological and human activities on Earth. Agriculture, forestry, industries, transport, housing and other services use land as a natural and/or an economic resource. Land is also an integral part of ecosystems and indispensable for biodiversity and the carbon cycle.
Land can be divided into two interlinked concepts:
- land cover refers to the bio-physical coverage of land (for example, crops, grass, broad-leaved forest, or built-up area);
- land use indicates the socioeconomic use of land (for example, agriculture, forestry, recreation or residential use).
Land cover and land use data forms the basis for spatial and territorial analyses which are increasingly important for:
- the planning and management of agricultural, forest, wetland, water and urban areas;
- nature, biodiversity and soil protection, and;
- the prevention and mitigation of natural hazards and climate change.
- 1 Main statistical findings
- 2 Data sources and availability
- 3 Context
- 4 See also
- 5 Further Eurostat information
- 6 External links
- 7 Notes
Main statistical findings
Forests and other wooded areas occupied 39.1 % of the total area of the EU in 2009, cropland nearly a quarter (24.2 %) of the area and grassland almost one fifth (19.5 %), while built-up and other artificial areas, such as roads and railways, accounted for 4.3 % of the total area (see Figure 1).
Land cover varies in a significant way between countries located on the one hand in southern and northern Europe and on the other hand in western and eastern Europe. Woodland was the prevailing land cover in northern parts of Europe in 2009 and for a number of countries whose typography is dominated by mountains and hilly areas (see Figure 2). The share of woodland in the total area exceeded 60 % in Finland, Sweden and Slovenia (Alpine); it was over 50 % in Estonia and Latvia and over 40 % in Austria (Alpine), Slovakia (the Tatra mountains) and Portugal (Sistema Central). Woodland and forests in these countries have traditionally been very important ecologically, economically and socio-culturally.
Cropland (including both arable land and permanent crops) covered, on average, some 24.2 % of the total area of the EU in 2009. Denmark and Hungary were the countries that reported the highest proportion of their total area covered by cropland, its share rising close to 50 %. In most of the remaining Member States, the share of cropland was between 17 % and 35 % of overall land cover. At the bottom end of the range, cropland accounted for between 11 % and 12 % of the total area in Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia, while the lowest shares were recorded in Finland (6.0 %), Ireland (5.0 %) and Sweden (4.5 %).
Natural and agricultural grasslands dominate the landscape in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In Ireland almost two thirds (64.1 %) of the country was covered by grassland in 2009, while the corresponding shares in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands were 42.4 % and 37.4 % respectively. In most of the remaining Member States for which data are available, the share of grassland in the total area was between 18 % and 33 %. However, there were six countries below this threshold: four of them (Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece) were from southern Europe where rainfall levels are relatively low; the other two countries were Sweden and Finland, where grass covered less than 5 % of the total area.
Shrubland is a typical land cover feature of hot and arid countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain; on the other hand, shrubland is also prevalent on the moors and heathlands of northern areas of the United Kingdom and parts of Ireland, as well as in transitional areas between forests and tundra in Sweden; these were the only Member States to report that shrubland accounted for a higher share of their total area than the EU average (5.6 %).
Artificial land composed 4.3 % of the total area of the EU in 2009. The Benelux countries had the highest proportions of built-up areas: this was particularly true in the Netherlands (which is densely populated), where artificial land accounted for 13.2 % of the total area. The four largest EU Member States in terms of population (Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom) also reported a higher than average share of artificial land.
On average 1.8 % of the EU was covered by wetlands and 3.4 % by inland water areas in 2009. Wetland is typically found along lakesides and in coastal areas, as well as in the form of bogs. The relative scarcity of wetlands and their importance as a habitat for various animal species (in particular, birds) often results in wetlands becoming protected areas. Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Estonia reported the highest proportions (in excess of 5 %) of their total area accounted for by wetlands; the majority of the remaining Member States had less than 1 % of their total area classified as wetlands. Inland water areas, such as lakes or rivers, covered 3.4 % of the EU in 2009. This average was highly influenced by three Member States – the Netherlands (where 11.0 % of the total area was inland water areas), Finland (10.2 %) and Sweden (9.1 %). The former is characterised by artificial lakes, several large rivers that enter the North Sea and numerous canals, while the two Nordic countries have hundreds of thousands of inland lakes.
Bare land (areas with no dominant vegetation cover) is relatively uncommon in the EU, accounting for an average of 1.9 % of the total area in 2009. Spain and Portugal (5.2 % and 4.0 %) recorded the highest shares of bare land.
Agricultural land use is the most common primary  land use category in the EU; it accounted for 43 % of the total area in 2009 (see Figure 3). Areas used for forestry covered 29.8 % of the EU’s land area, while 5.0 % was used for services, residential and recreational purposes. Industrial, transport, energy production and mining purposes claimed a further 3.4 %, leaving a residual category accounting for the remaining 18.8 % of land; this was used, among others, for hunting and fishing, was under protection, or had no visible  use.
Land in agricultural use encompasses various land cover types: the most common are arable land, permanent crops and grassland. Small portions of other land cover types can also be in agricultural use, such as artificial land (for example farm buildings, roads) and water (for example irrigation ponds). In 14 out of 23 EU Member States, more than half of the land area was used for agricultural purposes in 2009 (see Figure 4). The highest share of agricultural land was recorded in Ireland (73.2 %), while the United Kingdom, Denmark and Hungary each reported shares of more than 60 %. In Finland and Sweden agriculture played a minor role in terms of land use, accounting for less than 10 % of the total land area in both of these Member States.
Unsurprisingly, forestry was often the dominant land use in those Member States which had a high degree of woodland land cover. However, not all of this land is used for forestry, with alternative land uses including recreation, hunting, protected areas, or no visible use. In Finland, Sweden and Slovenia more than 50 % of the total land area was used for forestry purposes, a share that fell to below 10 % in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and particularly the Netherlands (3.1 %).
Industry, mining and transport (which includes also energy production, waste treatment and storage as well as construction activities) occupied 3.4 % of the EU’s territory in 2009. The most common use, among the various sub-categories, was for transport, which averaged some 70 % of the total land use within this category; some 11 % of the total for this category was accounted for by mining. The highest share of industry, mining and transport in total land use was found in the Netherlands, where 12.2 % of land was used for these purposes. The very high share in the Netherlands may be linked to a high density transport network and to large storage areas for ports and logistical services. The share of mining (which includes quarrying and the extraction of peat) in land use was relatively high in Austria, Estonia, Finland, Ireland and Latvia.
Commerce (distributive trades), community services, recreational and residential areas covered 5 % of the EU’s land area in 2009. Approximately half of this total in the EU was devoted to residential areas, 30 % to recreational purposes, 10 % to community services, and less than 5 % to commerce. The share of commerce, community services, recreational and residential areas rose to above 10 % of the total area in Finland and Sweden, mainly due to larger than average areas for recreational purposes, with forest areas close to cities and towns often used for recreational purposes in these Member States.
Almost 20 % of the land in the EU in 2009 was used for other purposes or there was no visible use of the land. The most common economic uses were for fishing and hunting. However, large areas of land are excluded from any socioeconomic use – for example, as a result of being in protected areas where socioeconomic activities are either completely forbidden or heavily restricted; there are also remote or otherwise difficult to access areas which have not attracted socioeconomic activities.
The heterogeneity of land cover and the presence of linear features such as hedges, lines of trees, roads, railways, rivers and irrigation channels are two important elements characterising landscape structures. Some countries have large continuous areas of the same land cover, while others have a diversified mosaic of land cover elements. As Figure 5 shows, Slovenia, Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg, Denmark and Italy had a relatively high level of land cover diversity, characterised by a varied land cover mosaic composed of different small land cover patches. In Ireland, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Hungary the landscape was dominated by larger areas composed of the same land cover type.
Structural linear green elements portray the joint role of nature and mankind in shaping the countryside. Irish landscapes, which rank lowest in terms of land cover diversity, had the second highest number of green linear features (see Figure 6). Other countries where the landscape was characterised by a high variety of green linear elements included the Netherlands and France. In Slovakia, Hungary, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Lithuania the landscape was characterised as having relatively few structural green elements.
The density of man-made linear elements, which have a dissecting nature (such as roads, railways and aerial cables) is closely linked to population and infrastructure developments. Countries with relatively high population densities and which act as transit countries, such as Belgium and Luxembourg, had a relatively high number of man-made infrastructure related dissection elements (see Figure 7); this was also the case in Slovenia, Portugal and France (where the population was concentrated in particular areas). At the opposite end of the scale, the Baltic States, Sweden, Finland and most eastern European Member States often reported a relatively low level of man-made linear elements, with natural land cover types prevailing.
Data sources and availability
LUCAS is a field survey based on an area-frame sampling scheme carried out by Eurostat. Data on land cover and land use are collected and landscape photographs are taken to detect any changes to land cover/use or to European landscapes. The transect, a 250-meter walk along which linear elements and land cover changes are recorded, is used for landscape analysis.
Eurostat carried out a large LUCAS campaign in 2009, covering 23 countries in the EU (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta and Romania were excluded). Data on land cover, land use and landscape diversity were collected for approximately 234 700 points. These points were selected from a standard 2 km grid from a total of one million points all over the EU. The land cover and the visible land use data were classified according to the harmonised LUCAS land cover and land use nomenclatures.
The LUCAS data set provides the basis for harmonised land cover/use statistics at European level. The data set is unique as it is comparable in terms of definitions and methodology. The data for the 2009 reference period were the first to be published by Eurostat.
Europe is composed of a myriad of different landscapes and land uses that reflect historical changes. While these are somewhat difficult to see on a day-to-day basis, ongoing processes continually alter landscapes and the environment. Often the changes taking place may be linked to tensions arising from the conflict between the demand for more resources and infrastructure improvements on the one hand, and biodiversity and space on the other.
Land use and land cover data are important for an understanding of how environmental systems function, and their assessment over time provides a means for assessing the impact that any changes in land use may have on biodiversity and ecosystems.
Land use change is often considered to be a primary driver for changes in biodiversity and ecosystems. In recent years some of the most important land use changes have included: a decline in agricultural land use (as crop yields continue to rise); an increase in urban areas (arising from population and economic change); and a gradual increase in forest land areas (in part, driven by the need to meet global environmental commitments in relation to climate change). The development of roads, motorways, railways, intensive agriculture and urban developments has led to Europe’s landscape being increasingly broken up into small pieces. This pattern of fragmentation has the potential to affect levels of biodiversity and could result in negative impacts on flora and fauna.
- Agri-environmental indicators
- Biodiversity statistics
- Forestry statistics
- Landscape structure indicators from LUCAS
Further Eurostat information
- Diversified landscape structure in the EU Member States - Issue number 21/2011
- New insight into land cover and land use in Europe - Issue number 33/2008
- Land cover and land use, landscape (LUCAS), see: land cover:Land use:Landscape indicators
Methodology / Metadata
- Land cover and land use, landscape (LUCAS) (ESMS metadata file - ESMS code, e.g. lan_esms)
Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)
- The same area can be used in parallel for many purposes (for example, a forest can be used for forestry, hunting and recreation); the statistics presented are based on the primary use.
- The LUCAS survey is based on field visits; land use is determined on the basis of visible signs of land use.