Agriculture plays a key role in shaping the quality of landscape, as in many OECD countries farming is the major user of land. Agricultural landscapes are the visible outcomes of the interaction between agriculture, natural resources and the environment, and encompass amenity, cultural, and other societal values. Landscapes can be considered as composed of three key elements: landscape structures or appearance, including environmental features (e.g. habitats), land use types (e.g. crops), and man-made objects or cultural features (e.g. hedges); landscape functions, such as providing a place to live, work, visit, and various environmental services; landscape values, concerning the costs to farmers of maintaining landscapes and the importance society places on agricultural landscape, such as recreational and cultural values.
Many OECD countries have legislation which recognises the importance of societal values embodied in landscapes and internationally some are also attracting attention, such as the designation by UNESCO of cultural landscape sites. But because landscapes are often not valued, the challenge for policy makers, is to decide which landscape features society values, and assess to what extent policy changes affect agricultural landscape.
Indicators and recent trends
OECD agricultural landscape indicators provide a tool to better inform policy makers by: recording the current state of landscape and how its appearance, including cultural features, is changing; establishing what share of agricultural land is under public/private schemes for landscape conservation; and measuring the cost of landscape provision by farmers and the value society attaches to landscapes.
Regarding the current state and trends in the structure of agricultural landscapes there does seem to have been a trend towards increasing homogenisation of landscape structures in OECD countries over the past 50 years, including the loss of some cultural features (e.g. stone walls). This trend appears closely related to the structural changes and intensification of production, linked with the degradation of the natural resource base in agriculture. There are signs, since the late 1980s, that the process toward increasing homogeneity of landscapes could be slowing or even in reverse in some regions. Since this period many OECD countries started to introduce a range of agri-environmental measures, including in some cases measures specifically seeking to maintain landscapes.
Public and private schemes for the conservation of agricultural landscapes are widespread across OECD countries, but mostly publicly funded. Public expenditure on these schemes tends to be a minor share of total agricultural support, but for some countries expenditure has increased rapidly. In many cases the schemes cover multiple objectives, especially concerning biodiversity, habitat and landscape conservation; and focus on the biophysical and cultural features in a local context. Some countries are beginning to include public access requirements in landscape schemes.
Currently information on the costs incurred by farmers in landscape improvement is extremely limited. To establish the value society places on landscape some countries use public opinion surveys, although as with landscape related consumer expenditure, information is limited. Non-market valuation studies reveal that agricultural landscapes are highly valued in many cases, although there is a large variation in the values estimated. These studies also reveal that the landscape surveyed today is the preferred landscape, landscape's value decreases with greater distance from a particular site, heterogeneity and 'traditional' elements are given a higher value over more uniform and newer landscapes, while landscapes perceived as overcrowded have a low value.