Indicators for the monitoring of agricultural land with a high nature value. An exploratory analysis

Sylvie Danckaert, Koen Carels, Dirk Van Gijseghem & Maarten Hens

September 2009

Preamble: definition and framework
The Flemish Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has, in collaboration with the Institute for Nature and Forest Research, carried out a study on the so-called High Nature Value Farmland (HNVF). HNVF is defined as follows: ‘HNV farmland comprises those areas in Europe where agriculture is a major (usually the dominant) land use and where that agriculture supports, or is associated with, either a high species and habitat diversity or the presence of species of European, and/or national, and/or regional conservation concern, or both’ (Andersen, 2003).

In the common monitoring and evaluation framework of the European rural policy a series of indicators have been included to measure the area and the quality of agricultural land with a high nature value in a Member State. A distinction is made between three types of indicators:

  • Baseline indicator ‘Utilised Agricultural Area of HNVF’. Agricultural land with high nature value is associated with a high biodiversity. The concept not only covers certain areas, but also small landscape elements in areas which are not considered to have a high nature value. It also refers to systems that form the basis for high nature value. The indicator must be determined based on statistical, biophysical and biodiversity data.
  • Result indicator ‘Area under successful land management’: the area under successful management that contributes to HNVF.
  • Impact indicator ‘Maintenance of HNVF’. This indicator serves to track changes (both in quality and quantity). The impact indicators must be evaluated by the external RDP evaluator.

The study is an exploratory analysis for a baseline indicator with scientific, founded criteria for what can or cannot be considered HNVF. Detailed regional data sets, such as scientific habitat maps and policy maps, are used. As described in the guidelines (Beaufoy & Cooper, 2008) it does not have to be just one indicator; it can be a basket of indicators.


As agriculture in Flanders is very intensive, high nature value farmland mainly consists of semi-natural grassland with low intensive cattle breeding (type 1 HNVF). The HNVF characteristics for arable farming and permanent breeding systems are a limited use of inputs (N and biocides), low yields, a high percentage of fallow land (arable farming), large old trees in production (permanent crops) and the presence of semi-natural understorey (permanent crops) (Beaufoy & Cooper, 2008). As arable farming and permanent crops are very intensive in Flanders, we do not seem to have any HNVF that is associated with these growing methods. We do have small landscape elements that contribute to biodiversity in more intensively worked landscapes. Small landscape elements of sufficient habitat quality, density and connectivity are regarded as type 2 HNVF. A third form of HNVF is agricultural land on which rare species or a large share of the European or world population of a species can be found.

Type 1 HNVF: farmland with a high percentage of semi-natural vegetation
The first type is HNVF with a high percentage of semi-natural vegetation. In Flanders, where agriculture is very intensive, only a limited area of the semi-natural vegetation is in agricultural use. Semi-natural vegetations house important habitats contained in Annex 1 to the Habitats Directive. The heathland and grassland habitats of Annex 1 to the Habitats Directive in agriculture can be considered as a HNVF indicator as the conservation of these habitats is required at the European level.

In Flanders 1,350 ha of European habitat are in agricultural use. According to the ‘biological evaluation map’ the quality of these habitats is good: 96% are of good to very good biological quality. Every six years, the Institute for Nature and Forest Research will report on the state of conservation of habitats and species to the European Commission, so that the follow-up of this indicator is guaranteed.

In Flanders there are also some relics of semi-natural grasslands which are not protected as a European habitat, but which are protected by the Flemish legislation. These are the so-called ‘regionally important biotopes’. The area of regionally important grassland biotope in agricultural use is the second HNVF indicator. In Flanders there are 820 ha of regionally important biotope in agricultural use. 96% is of good to very good quality. For the monitoring of the indicator it is important to keep the biological evaluation map and the parcel registration (LPIS) up-to-date.

Type 2 HNVF: spatial mosaic
The second type consists of HNVF of agricultural land in a land use mosaic. It consists of small landscape elements in more intensively worked landscapes, extensive (in the Flemish context) and historically permanent grasslands.

The first indicator is agricultural land with small landscape elements. In order to make sure that we only include those small landscape elements that have sufficient habitat quality, density and connectivity, we have only included those in traditional landscapes for which the biologists of the Institute for Nature and Forest Research judged that the small landscape elements are of sufficient quality. In Flanders 27,575 ha of agricultural land was associated with small landscape elements. This year the Agency for Geographic Information in Flanders is going to draw up a map of small landscape elements based on the digital air photos of Flanders, so that this proxy can be adapted and temporal control is possible.

A second indicator for type 2 HNVF is the area of grassland in businesses engaged in extensive cattle breeding (<2 livestock units per ha for Flanders). This indicator is determined based on the Farm Structure Survey and has been established at 18,455 ha.

The third indicator for type 2 HNVF is the area of historically permanent grassland of very good biological quality that is not indicated as a regionally important biotope. The biologically valuable grasslands (8,250 ha) originated from the degradation of semi-natural grasslands. On 362 ha (4%) agri-environmental measures are in place.

Type 3 HNVF: agricultural land on which rare species or a large share of the European or world population of a species can be found
The following species are considered:

  • Arable and grassland birds of ‘European Conservation Concern’ according to Annex 8 to the guidelines (Beaufoy & Cooper, 2008): Skylark Alauda arvensis, Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra, Yellowhammer Emberiza citronella, Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava, Curlew Numenius arquata, Common Redshank Tringa tetanus, Garganey Anas querquedula, Corncrake Crex crex, Common snipe Gallinago gallinago, Whinchat Saxicola rubetra, Tree sparrow Passer montanus, Partridge Perdix perdix
  • Other endangered species according to the Flemish Red List: Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis, European Hamster Cricetus cricetus
  • Species for which Flanders has a considerable share of the European population: Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons, Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus

A first indicator is agricultural land on which critical and highly critical heathland birds have been found recently. Based on a scientific map of populations of grassland birds and the parcel registration, 43,400 ha were marked as type 3 HNVF. On 26,350 ha it is possible to establish agri-environmental measures. In 2008 the degree of coverage of the agri-environmental measures was 3%.


A second indicator is agricultural land on which there is at least a 70% chance of a complete arable bird community. The value of the indicator is 21,386 ha and is based on a scientific map of arable bird populations. On 4,849 ha agri-environmental measures can be established. We have no information yet on the number of contracts closed.

A third indicator is the resting and nesting area of international importance in agricultural use. The Flemish Polders are of international importance as a resting area for the Greater White-fronted Goose and the Pink-footed Goose. In total, 23,426 ha of farmland are resting areas of international importance and 20,070 ha are nesting areas of international importance.

A fourth indicator for type 3 HNVF is the agricultural area in the protection area for the European hamster. 5,540 ha of protection area is in agricultural use. On 2,615 ha an agri-environmental measure can be established. In practice, there is only 6 ha (0.2%) under contract.

Conclusions and policy recommendations
This study is an exploratory analysis for a baseline indicator for HNVF in Flanders based on detailed regional data and clear scientific criteria. In the exploratory analysis we only used existing scientific maps and policy maps. The maps were drawn up according to scientific methods and their use in the framework of this exercise is not under discussion. A basket of indicators was developed based on already defined areas; no new areas were defined.

Whenever possible an overlap with agri-environmental measures was made. This degree of coverage is a form of result indicator. The establishment of further result and impact indicators requires further study. In order to control the quality of HNVF and the effect of the rural development programme (RDP) a measurement network needs to be developed.

The indicators that are described in this study are necessary, but not sufficient to evaluate the policy. In order to do so it is necessary to:

  • monitor the baseline indicators;
  • develop good result and impact indicators. More research is needed for this;
  • set up case studies to study the robustness (accuracy and sensitivity) of the proposed indicators in the field. The case studies can also serve as a test area for the monitoring of the indicators;
  • study the ecological effectiveness and nature achievements of the management agreements in the RDP  in these areas. If the management agreements contribute to the nature achievements, the HNVF area can increase in the medium term. The proposed sub-indicators shall preferably be regarded as effectiveness monitoring tools for managed and unmanaged plots, so that a causal relation can be established. Methods for this were developed by Hens et al. (2006).

Original version:




Danckaert S., Carels K., Van Gijseghem D. & Hens M. (2009)
Indicatoren voor het opvolgen van de hoge natuurwaarden op landbouwgrond in het kader van de PDPO-monitoring. Een verkennende analyse
Departement Landbouw en Visserij, afdeling Monitoring en Studie, Brussel.



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