Orchards produce high agricultural food production, but few regulation and cultural services. (Photo credit: Erich Tasser)

Consequences of the transformation of agricultural landscapes on ecosystem services in the European Alps

by | Feb 4, 2022 | European stakeholders

Authors:  Erich Tasser, Uta Schirpke, Georg Leitinger and Ulrike Tappeiner

In recent decades, socio-economic developments have induced massive changes in land use and land cover worldwide. These affected large parts of the European Alps, in particular, agricultural unfavourable areas that are climatically and topographically disadvantaged. Within the framework of an Alpine-wide study, researchers of the Institute for Alpine Environment (Eurac Research) and the Department of Ecology (University of Innsbruck) analysed the consequences of land cover changes on important ecosystem services (ES) and, thus, on human well-being in the Alpine region.

We mapped 19 ES within the agricultural area based on land cover in the year 2000 and analysed the changes until 2018. We considered 5 provisioning services (pasture & fodder production, agricultural food production, timber production, gathering mushrooms & wild berries, provision of clean drinking water), 9 regulation & maintenance services (protection from hazards, prevention of water scarcity, provision of habitats, maintaining biodiversity, providing habitats for pollinating insects, pest control, diseases control, maintenance or increase of soil fertility, positive influence on the climate) and 5 cultural services (opportunities for leisure activities, attractive housing and living space, experiential value, aesthetic inspiration, cultural heritage).

Our results show a heterogeneous situation of agricultural land use in the Alpine region, which can be distinguished into eight regions of development as defined by Tappeiner et al. (2008). In four regions (residential municipalities, employment hubs, standard Alpine region and traditional agricultural region), intensive forms of agricultural use such as arable farming, permanent crops and fertilised forage meadows predominate. In the other regions (forgotten rural areas, important tourist centres, dynamic rural areas, rural retreats), in addition to intensive forage meadows, a high proportion is used as unfertilised grassland.

In general, grassland was partly abandoned, while settlements and forests increased between 2000 and 2018. These changes, however, varied across the eight regions. The smallest changes occurred in the traditional agricultural region, followed by residential municipalities, employment hubs and the standard alpine region, while the largest changes occurred in rural retreats and forgotten rural areas. Residential municipalities and employment hubs had the largest increases in settlement areas, while forest and bushland in particular increased more than average in forgotten rural areas and rural retreats. In addition, arable land and permanent crops increased slightly in agricultural favourable areas around the main settlement areas.

What effects did these land-cover changes have on the ES?

Our results show that the different land use types differ significantly in ES provision. Across all ES, the lowest ES are found in the economically prosperous employment hubs including the suburbanisation region (residential municipalities) due to the large amount of intensively used agricultural land. In contrast, cultural and regulating ES are below average. Regions with a high share of forest and scrubland or with a high proportion of unfertilised grassland, including alpine pastures and traditional agroforestry systems, have much higher ES, in particular, timber production, gathering of mushrooms and wild berries, protection against natural hazards, provision of clean drinking water, provision of habitats, maintaining biodiversity, positive effects on climate, opportunities for leisure activities, aesthetic inspiration and cultural heritage.

Traditional agroforestry systems such as this larch pasture are among those forms of land use that provide above-average ecosystem services (Photo credit: Erich Tasser)

Land cover changes between 2000 and 2018 led to a reduction in regulating and cultural ES in many regions, whereas provisioning services increased, with the exception of fodder production. In line with low land cover changes, the smallest changes occurred in the traditional agricultural region and in the employment hubs and residential municipalities. Greater changes can be seen in the rural retreats and in the forgotten rural areas, where many cultural and regulating services decreased due to the strong increase in forests and abandoned land. On the other hand, many provisioning ES (e.g. timber production, gathering mushrooms & wild berries, provision of clean drinking water) increased significantly in addition to the positive effect on the climate. Across all ES, positive trends outweighed negative ones only in the dynamic rural areas and the traditionally agricultural regions.

In general, the greatest changes occurred in the Italian and Slovenian Southern Alps, with the Southern Western Alps being more affected by changes than the Southern Eastern Alps. Our quantitative and spatially explicit results indicate possible fields of action for decision-makers at the various political levels, which can support the development of sustainable management strategies.

Read the full article: Using the Ecosystem Services Concept to Assess Transformation of Agricultural Landscapes in the European Alps.