Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 899–911 | Cite as

Implementing green infrastructure policy in agricultural landscapes—scenarios for Saxony-Anhalt, Germany

  • Jenny Schmidt
  • Jennifer Hauck
Original Article


Green infrastructure (GI) has been identified as helping to protect Europe’s natural capital by fostering environmental protection outside nature reserves and enabling better overall adaptation to changing conditions. The aim of Europe’s green infrastructure strategy is to integrate GI implementation into existing policies. In intensively farmed agricultural areas, this mainly means the greening measures of the Common Agricultural Policy, which are mandatory for farmers wishing to receive full direct payments. We explore how GI implementation might develop under different future scenarios. We use a participatory scenario development approach to explore the benefits and limitations perceived by local actors in the agricultural regions of Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Limiting factors include ecosystem disservices, economic constraints relating to income, labour costs, investments and land tenure, and social considerations including the farmers’ self-image as primarily food producers and local people’s opinions regarding good farming practices. The limiting factors also include a lack of knowledge about the ecological usefulness of measures, and failings in the design of the measures regarding practicability, flexibility and reliability. Benefits are seen in various ecosystem services, job creation and in fulfilling society’s demands for environmental protection. We conclude by stating that GI implementation in agricultural landscapes requires reliable and flexible measures that fit farming practices and are well communicated, and that landscape level coordination and cooperation could enhance their effectiveness.


Participatory scenario development Green infrastructure strategy Common Agricultural Policy Ecological focus areas Ecosystem services Farmers’ perceptions 


Having identified failings in biodiversity-related policies aimed at protecting Europe’s rich natural capital in agricultural landscapes (Benton et al. 2003; Henle et al. 2008; Kettunen et al. 2014), the European Union is currently seeking to mainstream environmental protection in other sectoral policies in order to achieve the goals of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the European Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (BISE n.d.; EEA 2015a). One proposed pathway is to promote green infrastructure solutions, which appear in the European Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (“Target 2: By 2020, ecosystems and their services are maintained and enhanced by establishing green infrastructure and restoring at least 15 % of degraded ecosystems”, EC 2015) and in the Resource Efficiency Roadmap (EC 2013a). The term green infrastructure (GI) can either be used to refer to actual green structures such as green rooftops, parks and treelines along roads or else as a concept that treats such green structures as an important infrastructure in which investments are made and which fulfil multiple functions (Schröter-Schlaack and Schmidt 2015). Complementary to small-scale nature reserves, GI aims to foster connectivity between these natural and semi-natural habitats, i.e. making the landscape more permeable for migrating species (EC 2013a; Maes et al. 2015) while simultaneously enabling sustainable land use and planning (Benedict and McMahon 2002; Lafortezza et al. 2013).

In 2013, the European Commission (EC) released its green infrastructure strategy, which aims at “integrating green infrastructure (GI) into key policy areas” (EC 2016a: 6) and defines GI as: “a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services” (EC 2013a: 3). The strategy aims at mainstreaming GI objectives in other policy areas (Mazza et al. 2011; EC 2013a; 2016a) through horizontal policy integration, and thus achieving coherence between different sectoral policies’ objectives, e.g. between environmental and agricultural policies (EEA 2005; Nilsson et al. 2012; EEA 2015b). This is required because although environmental protection is addressed “through existing EU legislation and policies to protect the environment (e.g., directives on habitats, birds, water, nitrates, and sustainable use of pesticides), […] the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] has a much broader influence” (Pe'er et al. 2014: 1090): a large portion of the EU’s budget is dedicated to the CAP, and the CAP affects a much larger area. The aim of integrating environmental measures into the CAP—e.g. via GI implementation (EC 2013a; Repohl et al. 2015)—is to use some of its budget to offer incentives to achieve environmental objectives and to reduce the negative environmental impacts of sectoral policies and subsidies (EEA 2005). Indeed, in addition to the CAP’s cross-compliance mechanism, which enforces agricultural standards for soil and landscape protection (EEA 2005; Juntti 2012), the reformed CAP of 2013 includes measures relevant to GI. Three mandatory greening measures need to be fulfilled by farmers in order to receive the full area-based direct payments: (1) crop diversification, (2) maintenance of permanent grasslands and (3) establishment of ecological focus areas (EFAs). The implementation of EFAs requires that farms of more than 15 ha use 5% of their land for ecologically beneficial land use, e.g. growing nitrogen fixing or catch crops, or maintaining field margins, hedgerows or fallow land (EC 2013b). Through these greening measures, 30% of the direct payments to farmers are linked to fulfilling “the provision of environmental public goods” (EC 2013b: 1). This is crucial, given that in Germany, for example, up to 40% of farmers’ income is derived from direct payments (BMEL 2014). However, the ecological benefit gained from greening measures is contested (Pe'er et al. 2014; for Germany: Schmidt et al. 2014). The EFAs have been criticised in particular because two of the three implementation options most often chosen by farmers are not considered helpful for environmental protection (Pe'er et al. 2016).

Previous research on environmental policy measures has found that regional and local level perspectives are particularly important for their successful implementation (Whittingham et al. 2007; Stoate et al. 2009; Cormont et al. 2016), and researchers recommend linking top-down legislation like the CAP with “bottom up judgements representing preferences and trade-offs at more local levels” (Hodge et al. 2015: 1003). The EC included this consideration when formulating its GI strategy: “The establishment and maintenance of GI will not be possible without the full and engaged commitment of stakeholders and resource holders, NGOs and interest groups within civil society” (EC 2013c: 10). And, financial incentives might not be the only factor influencing local actors in their decisions regarding the implementation of environmental measures. Local through to global environmental, economic, political and cultural contexts also play a role (e.g. Rindfuss et al. 2008; Magliocca et al. 2014). Like Rindfuss et al. (2008), Hauck et al. (2016) found that social interactions and community networks affect decision making and associated behaviour. Additionally, the place-based and tacit knowledge of local actors can also be important to consider (Cash et al. 2003; Reed et al. 2013).

In our study, we explored local and regional perspectives regarding the use of EFAs as part of GI implementation using a “participatory scenario development” approach in four research sites. In doing so we used the definition of policy implementation formulated by Nilsson et al. (2012: 397) as “the arrangements by authorities and other actors for putting policy instruments into action”. The relevant research questions are:
  • What might GI implementation scenarios look like on the regional scale?

  • What benefits and limitations do local actors perceive in relation to different GI implementation scenarios?

  • What are the implications of the perceived benefits and limitations of GI for the future implementation of GI measures?

The four case study sites

The four local research sites are located in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, near to or including the villages Wanzleben, Friedeburg, Greifenhagen and Schafstädt (Fig. 2 online) and are each 4 × 4 km in size. They offer a gradient of structural landscape richness ranging from very poor at the most intensively farmed site, towards more structured, partly extensively farmed sites featuring meadows, wet grasslands, overgrown ditches and vegetation alongside small streams. The site near Schafstädt exhibited the fewest existing GI structures (defined here as all natural and semi-natural elements), occupying only about 1% of the total area. This percentage was higher at the other sites (Wanzleben 16%, Friedeburg 23% and Greifenhagen 26%). The study sites are part of the LTSER platform Leipzig Halle and the TERENO research network, and were selected due to the availability of historical vegetation inventories (see Baessler et al. 2010).

Our study region is located between the Harz mountains in the West and the river Saale in the East, in the transition zone between a maritime and a continental climate; it therefore exhibits a temperate climate with warm summers and mild winters. Soils are dominated by rich loess and are prone to erosion due to most areas experiencing heavy rainfall during the summer months (Oelke 1997; Wurbs 2005). The area has long been influenced by human activity (Fig. 3 online), and remnants of natural habitats are more or less restricted to areas assigned to environmental protection (LAU 1997; Weiss 2011).

Due to the rich soils in Saxony-Anhalt, agriculture has always played an important role here (Weiß et al. 2013), with above average farm sizes (Rosenfeld 2005) and farms occupying 60% of the land (Statistisches Landesamt Sachsen-Anhalt 2014). The large field and farm sizes have evolved historically over several centuries (Oelke 1997; Rösener 2000). In the 1930s, a large proportion (30–> 50%) of farms operated on 100 ha or more (Oelke 1997). The Prussian State pursued the policy of consolidating fields and dividing up the remaining common land (Rakow 2003). Pastures declined in favour of arable fields and linear GI elements in the landscape, such as unploughed strips, small forests and hedgerows, disappeared (Arndt 2003). A land reform was conducted during the initial years of the German Democratic Republic, of which Saxony-Anhalt was a part. Large landowners were expropriated and land was redistributed in many small plots, so that 80% of farms operated on areas less than 20 ha (Oelke 1997). After 1952, collectivisation began, and large agricultural cooperatives were established (Baessler and Klotz 2006). The number of field paths was drastically reduced (e.g. the area around Schafstädt saw a 50% decrease) and hybrid poplar trees were planted around the perimeter of large fields to protect soils from wind erosion (Arndt 2003). From 1990 onwards German and European agricultural policies and regulations were applied, and the number of privately owned farms grew rapidly (Baessler and Klotz 2006). Livestock farming (especially cattle) and crop diversity decreased (Oelke 1997; Arndt 2003; Baessler and Klotz 2006). Today, farming is dominated by crops sold directly to wholesale markets (Oelke 1997). In 2011, the main crops in Saxony-Anhalt were grain (57%, of which 60% was wheat), rape seed (16%), fodder plants (15%), sugar beet (5%) and potatoes (1%) (MLU 2012). There are around 4500 farms managing arable land totalling 1,173,085 ha. Half the farms are around 100 ha. The other half manages larger areas, with 6.6% of farms working arable land of more than 1000 ha each (MLU 2012). On average, only 20% of a given farm area is owned by the resident farmer, while 80% is leased (MLU 2012); the ownership structure of farmland is still very fragmented (Statistisches Landesamt Sachsen-Anhalt 2008).


The methods section is presented here as an abridged summary. Please refer to the supplementary online material for a full description.

The participatory scenario development approach makes it possible to explore potential future developments by eliciting the perceptions of local actors regarding land use changes (Biggs et al. 2007; Reed et al. 2009; Plieninger et al. 2013). Based on several overviews of scenario methods and techniques (provided by Börjeson et al. 2006; Bishop et al. 2007; Mahmoud et al. 2009; Reed et al. 2009; March et al. 2012; Priess and Hauck 2014), we combined the concept of multi-scale scenarios (Biggs et al. 2007) with the integrated scenario approach developed by Priess and Hauck (2014). Prior to this, we conducted a social network analysis at the regional and local level, to identify the most important actors for GI implementation in the agricultural landscapes of Saxony-Anhalt (Fig. 1; Hauck et al. 2016). This revealed that farmers have the greatest influence on local GI implementation. Other important actors at the local level included the federal state agency for agriculture and forests, landowners, agricultural journals and local communities. At the regional level, administrative institutions were important, such as the federal state ministry for agriculture and the environment, both the federal state and regional nature conservation authorities, as well as farmers’ associations and landscape management associations. The social networks were identified in relation to three categories—information, regulation and social pressure—to establish what kinds of influence actors exert, and what kinds of relationship exist. The information was used to decide whom to invite to the participatory scenario development workshop and field visits.

Step 1: boundary conditions

Many scenario approaches use “driver trajectories at the global scale (…) as boundary conditions to frame developments within the regional-scale scenarios” (Biggs et al. 2007: 8). We used Central German land use scenarios (Priess and Hauck 2014), based on the Global Environment Outlook (GEO4, UNEP 2007), as boundary conditions to inform the regional stakeholder workshop. Literature on the history of the study sites was reviewed to get an understanding on the development of agriculture in the area.

Step 2: establishing framework conditions

In step 2 (Fig. 1), all regional stakeholders identified in the social network analysis were invited to a 1-day workshop, to discuss the boundary conditions and to develop regional GI implementation scenarios. The 18 attendees were introduced to the research design and then asked to identify the factors that influence GI implementation (for an overview of the results, see supplementary online material). We then presented the two broad societal trends identified in step 1: (1) a dominant focus on economic growth; (2) a growing focus on sustainability. The participants then identified assumptions about how the factors influencing GI implementation would develop under one or the other trend. After the workshop the assumptions were transformed into two compelling storylines: (1) changes to green infrastructure under radical market forces and (2) sustainable and inclusive development of green infrastructure. (For the summarised storylines, see supplementary online material).

Step 3: eliciting perceived benefits and limitations concerning different GI implementation scenarios

In step 3, the regional GI scenario storylines provided the framework for discussions with farmers and other local land users, and helped in developing the key questions for the field visits. The CAP reform and the introduction of greening measures (see Introduction) were made public in the period between the regional and local level interactions, and so we developed a third scenario where the greening measure “ecological focus area” (see EC 2013b) was set as a GI implementation pathway. The three scenarios were (a) no financial or any other (political) support for conserving or developing GI in the landscape, (b) GI is conserved and developed in the context of the CAP greening measure “5% ecological focus areas”, and (c) the EU has set up a strong framework directive for the development of GI, with an independent programme and funding mechanism.

For the field visits, all the farmers within the research area and the actors identified in the social network analysis were considered possible interview partners and contacted via telephone. The number of farmers contacted differed between the sites, ranging from two to eight farm businesses identified per research site. Not all land users were willing to participate in our study, but for each research site at least one third of the farmed area was covered by the participatory scenario exercise. Additionally to farmers, one mayor, one representative of the farmers’ association and tworepresentatives of the landscape management association agreed to participate in our research.

Each research site was visited for about 3 h, the locations being chosen by the participants. In order to discuss the implementation scenarios, we asked the farmers how they would change the setup of their land based on the three scenarios and we used a set of key questions to probe the associated benefits and limitations (see supplementary online material). Using aerial photographs of the research sites and a set of light-coloured permanent marker pens, we marked the structures and changes mentioned by the participants. We tried to organise the field visits in groups of farmers to provide the opportunity for them to discuss with each other how they might jointly develop GI across plots. We were only able to do this, however, at Wanzleben and Friedeburg.

Step 4: analysing the benefits and limitations of GI implementation scenarios

All but one of the field visit discussions were recorded and later transcribed. After each discussion, postscripts were written to record the most important observations. The analysis was done following the methodology of “category-driven text analysis” (Mayring 2015: 13). The text was read numerous times, topics were marked with different colours and assigned to categories (cf. Kuckartz 2016) such as “financial incentives and income”. This inductive coding (Schreier 2014) was repeated with each text until no new text passages were marked. Relevant comments were grouped into the categories, which were then further differentiated into subcategories. Because the amount of data was manageable this way, the coded passages were copied into tables and the actual statements used for the analysis. The analysis was conducted qualitatively, first because the data was collected to extract topics in an exploratory way, and second because the descriptive results were intended to be as close to the wording of the original data as possible (cf. Kuckartz 2016). The categories used for coding were then used as headings to describe the data. Topics that were mentioned by all or most interviewees were deemed to be the most important ones (cf. Mayring 2015). However, the other topics were also included in the results, as the aim of this study was to explore all the issues that need to be considered in GI implementation, without any claim of representativeness or quantifiability. The categories derived from the data were used to structure the following results and discussion sections. The direct quotes found in the results section derive from our interview partners during the local level field visits.


Having presented the scenarios of GI implementation in the previous section, this section presents perceived benefits and limitations of GI implementation at the local level. The results are presented according to ecological, economic and social factors. We used the concept of ecosystem services and disservices to structure the ecological aspects of GI. Economic aspects are related to income, labour costs, investments and land tenure. Social aspects include broader societal views about agriculture, the changing role of farmers and issues regarding the design of GI measures.

Ecological issues related to ecosystem services associated with GI

Although we did not use the concept of ecosystem services during our field visits, when analysing the qualitative data, a number of benefits and limitations emerged that fit well into the framework of ecosystem services and disservices. This resonates also with the GI strategy and may help to make our results more accessible for other studies.

Cultural ecosystem services in particular were mentioned frequently as positive aspects related to GI implementation. Agricultural landscapes in general are used for outdoor activities, e.g. cycling, and GI was repeatedly mentioned as enhancing landscape aesthetics as well as providing people with a sense of place. In this respect, the whole or parts of the landscape were considered as cultural or natural heritage worth saving. One example was a piece of forest within the agricultural landscape that provided a historic boundary between two administrative districts; another was provided by a farmer who said that linear structures were important as “a structure for oneself and for others”—for example, hunters need landscape elements to indicate their hunting ground boundaries. Most of the structures were also associated with habitats for certain wild species and were thus considered valuable e.g. for bird watching or hunting.

Regulating ecosystem services were mentioned particularly often as being beneficial in the scenarios aimed at improving or establishing GI elements (Fig. 4 online). These included services that prevent water and wind erosion or snow drifts: “We have very good soils in this region and the existing hedgerows are very important for protecting them”. For efficiency reasons, farmers often choose to establish new structures alongside existing elements or in places where it would suit their needs. Protection from manure leaching into the groundwater was mentioned besides the maintenance of soil fertility, soil structure and soil moisture. While the importance of GI for habitat connectivity in the wider landscape was not mentioned, conflicting views were expressed regarding the potential of GI to provide habitats for species helpful in pest control or pollination. A landscape management association representative told us that this beneficial aspect might be unknown to farmers: “One problem surely is that there are knowledge gaps on the side of the farmers. Integrated pest control, this topic has not reached the farmers yet. We are trying to address this in our seminars but the decision makers on the farm, they send their workers to the seminar and with the size of farms we have here, like 4000 or 5000 hectares, even a small farmer has 1000 hectares, and the people deciding, they don’t really have the time to deal with topics like that”. However, an organic farmer who participated in our study stressed that a single hedgerow would probably not be of much benefit. He explained that such measures would only be useful if the whole management system was organic or provided enough habitats within the fields. A conventional farmer who had established a flower strip next to his rapeseed crop was likewise sceptical, as he could not directly observe pollination services that would likely lead to an increased rapeseed production.

Only three provisioning services were mentioned during the field visits, all of them perceived as beneficial: crop production, fodder production on pastures and fruit production by trees alongside fields.

Despite giving mostly positive feedback about GI, farmers also identified a number of disservices. One limiting issue mentioned was that using land for GI competes with using it for crop production. Hedgerows were mentioned as competing for nutrients and water with adjacent crops. Hedgerows also block access to fields or prevent field paths from drying out after rain, which leads to the paths being more frequently damaged by manoeuvring machinery. While not a disservice as such but a limiting effect in terms of usefulness for GI, old hedgerows with few autochthonous species and old populous trees were deemed to be of little ecological value and to cause more maintenance work than they were worth. Farmers also stated that often they did not understand the ecological usefulness of some measures. One example given was a field lying fallow as a compensation measure: the farmer explained that he did not see “how an area full of stinging nettles and thistles” was beneficial for environmental protection. While being a habitat for supportive species, GI was also perceived as a habitat for weeds and pests or animals potentially harmful to crops, such as large groups of birds that feed on crops or hamsters burrowing under the fields. Unmaintained GI such as hedgerows which are not regularly cut or contain weeds were perceived as looking untidy and disturbing the aesthetics of the landscape for the farmers themselves or other people. Both aspects were mentioned as substantially lowering the acceptability of GI measures.

In general, the results indicate that farmers have a positive attitude towards existing GI. Most interview partners agreed that they would only make minimal changes in scenario (a) with no financial or any other (political) support for conserving or developing GI, as the benefits would prevail. However, they also mentioned a number of trade-offs and costs associated with scenarios (b) and (c), discussed in the section on economic factors below.

Economic aspects related to income, labour costs, investments and land tenure

A direct economic benefit of GI implementation was mentioned only once. One farmer saw opportunities for creating or securing jobs if the establishment and maintenance of GI were supported financially.

Farmers in all four research areas identified economic limitations mainly with regard to income, labour costs, investments and land tenure. GI implementation option (b) (5% EFAs) in particular is considered detrimental to income, as farm production on GI areas is severely limited while income from direct payments remains constant. Increasing crop diversity, also seen as beneficial for GI, was generally considered possible both under scenario (b) and (c), but it was argued that the crops currently farmed in the area are gaining the highest prices and therefore compensation would be needed to farm other crops.

Poorly maintained GI may affect farm production beyond the actual GI area. Hedgerows which are not regularly cut back, for example, may extend into the fields, reducing effective productive area. Besides reduced productivity of the land, direct payments are coupled to the area farmed, and if differences are detected between the reported area and the area measured during monitoring visits or via remote sensing, the direct payments may be reduced. In order to avoid this, labour-intensive and therefore costly maintenance of hedgerows and other elements was considered necessary by the stakeholders of all four research sites, not least to avoid some of the disservices mentioned above. However, participants had differing views concerning the responsibility for maintenance. Some farmers agreed in principle to take on maintenance tasks as long as they were adequately compensated, as intended in option (c). Some farmers even saw financially supported maintenance as a means of securing employment for their farm workers and therefore favoured scenario (c). Others argued that responsibility should be taken by trained staff at local government or other administrative levels.

GI also interferes with optimal workflows. In the context of scenario (c), for example, farmers often mentioned that setting up additional structures that reduce field size would create difficulties, as modern agricultural machinery is often built for large fields. Practical concerns like the accessibility of fields were also mentioned frequently when considering scenario (a) and discussing which elements would be removed if allowed (Fig. 4 online).

Limiting issues associated with scenarios (b) and (c) were related to investments. During two field visits, a flower strip programme was mentioned that had been implemented as an agri-environment measure (AEM) in the past. The programme included support for establishing a flower strip with ten target species over 5 years. Farmers explained that it was difficult to always meet the targets. “We had the problem that there had to be specific species present or a certain number of species. And if (…) something e.g. weather conditions, led to these not being there anymore after two years, then the farmer needed to pay it all back, even though he had nothing to do with it. That did not really enhance the attractiveness of the programme”. Another problem reported in the context of the design of agri-environment measures and other conservation programmes was the uncertainty associated with the continuity of measures and programmes. Farmers complained that programmes were often unreliable and changed over time, leaving the farmers unable to plan ahead. If the timespan was too short, measures like the establishment of hedgerows (as foreseen in GI implementation scenario (c)) become impracticable. For the establishment of permanent or long-term GI structures, farmers stated the need for programmes to offer a secure perspective where their economic investment would pay off, not least in terms of land tenure and the competition for land. At the same time, farmers also stated that many measures in the past required a long-term commitment which interfered with their usual short-term planning cycles and lacked the flexibility required to react to changing conditions, e.g. economic or climatic variables or changes in the land tenure system, where short to medium term lease contracts often restrict farmers to applying measures that can be easily reversed or cancelled.

One aspect involving economic as well as social factors is related to the structure of land ownership and the tenure system and was mainly perceived in relation to GI implementation scenario (c). First, due to the mixed ownership structure, farmers stated that they would have to convince several landowners per field to allow GI to be implemented. One farmer explained: “We would need to speak to more than 300 people for the area we farm if we would like to establish new structures on our fields”. Second, the establishment of GI could lead to a permanent re-classification into land use categories with lower lease payments. A third problem is related to the length of lease contracts, the majority being no longer than 10 years. One farmer explained: “If I plant a hedgerow now but have only leased the field for five years, then I am off after five years and I gain nothing from the hedgerow anymore. I had a lot of work convincing the owner, I’ve made a lot of effort and even applied for the subsidies, and in five years I have to say goodbye because I’m not farming the patch anymore”. The situation is made worse by the intense competition for land in recent years, particularly due to growing demand for bioenergy production and financial investment. This competition results in higher prices as well as higher leasing rates for land. Because of this, farmers look to “keep their fields tidy” so that landlords have no reason to complain or to lease the field to another farmer.

Social aspects related to GI implementation

Both benefits and limitations of GI implementation were seen in relation to the local communities of which the farmers consider themselves a part. With increasing awareness among the general public concerning the many different services derived from agricultural landscapes, social control and associated complaints also increase. “If I have ploughed too close to the field path, I have to explain myself” one farmer said. In another case, farmers even reported that they took voluntary measures to prevent soil erosion in order to avoid “someone having mud slide down the hill and into their living room”. Farmers also mentioned that they had thought about measures to please the local public. “I had the idea of planting a flower strip alongside the path, about 3 meters wide. People like that” a farmer told us. However, another farmer reported that fields containing weeds are also criticised, as at least parts of the community and other farmers prefer their countryside “clean and tidy”.

One limiting factor is that farmers’ self-perception still includes a strong sense of responsibility to supply food to society at affordable prices. Most of the farmers consider this possible only with continuous modernisation and mechanisation of production, which they associate mostly with scenario a). However, in addition to food production, they see themselves confronted with increasing demands by society to conserve biodiversity and to contribute to many other (cultural) ecosystem services. In addition to these increasing demands, they also feel they are being made responsible for the loss of biodiversity and also face criticism concerning their everyday work. While some farmers engage in public relations, e.g. open days, to counter both types of criticism and to counteract a growing negative image of agriculture, some explained that combining the two goals of increasing production on the one hand and conserving landscapes and biodiversity on the other was challenging, particularly under scenario (b), where no additional funding was provided for the latter goal.

A limiting factor associated with scenario (c) was voiced concerning information and the transparency and process of implementation. Farmers stated that they had not heard, for example, of some AEM options. They also reported cases where land had been converted from arable to protected land under the EU habitats or birds directives, without them having been informed or invited to discuss the measures. Similar experiences were reported with compensation measures for a new train route, where farmers had not been included in the decision making, even though the land they had leased was used for environmental compensation measures.

With regard to societal goals, one farmer saw a paradox between spending money on man-made structures such as traditional orchards when the aim was to protect nature and its processes. He stated: “Maybe it would also be useful to just leave nature be in the areas where no agriculture can be done or has to be done. Regarding the so-called cultural landscape, land use has constantly been changing. We are currently trying to preserve a status quo. On the one hand we want to leave everything natural and on the other hand we want to conserve one small detail of cultural land use. There needs to be a societal debate about this”.


In the following, we discuss the implications of the perceived benefits and limitations of GI for the future implementation of GI measures. Our results show that a successful implementation of GI policy is linked to economic as well as ecological and social factors, some of which are specific to local or regional conditions (such as the land tenure system). They also reveal differing viewpoints in relation to some issues: some farmers would be willing to assume responsibility for maintaining GI if they were adequately recompensed for doing so, while others felt this task was more suitable for trained personnel. One issue that revealed conflicting standpoints was whether GI provides a habitat for useful species or rather for harmful pests. Most other questions were agreed upon quickly, though, and it is from these that we extrapolate three key implications for the implementation of GI: (1) important elements to be included in the design of GI measures, (2) awareness raising and transparency about the benefits of GI measures and (3) a society-wide debate about the roles and responsibilities of farmers. We discuss these points by reference to the literature on voluntary agri-environment measures available since the 1980s (EC 2016b).

Important elements for the design of GI measures

As highlighted in the results, one crucial issue for farmers is the reliability and also the flexibility of measures. Farmers need to be able to plan ahead with a reliable set of longer term, guaranteed measures (cf. Burgess et al. 2000). Those who lease land are limited to applying easily reversible or cancellable measures, due to short to medium term leases (see Lienhoop and Brouwer 2015 for afforestation programmes in Germany), as otherwise their investments will not pay off (cf. Falconer 2000). As Pe’er et al. (2014) show, longer term programme contracts would also be more effective in terms of environmental protection. At the same time, the degree of complexity of the measures plays a key role in farmers’ reasons for adopting (or not adopting) them (Van Herzele et al. 2013). As shown by the example of the flowering strips programme, rigid indicators for success that are not practically feasible for farmers, can lead to a low take-up rate (see also Kirmer et al. 2016). The farmers stressed how important the practicability of the measures is, e.g. how readily they can be implemented alongside other farming activities or fit into the spatial set-up of fields (cf. Van Herzele et al. 2013; Fleury et al. 2015).

Another key point voiced by farmers in our research was the need to be transparent about possible (land use) changes along with the demand for greater participation in the design of programmes and measures, as suggested by Prager and Nagel (2008), Prager and Freese (2009) and Young et al. (2013). However, Prager and Nagel (2008) also found that participatory design can be complicated, requiring considerable time and effort due to the different levels of administration involved. Closely related to the demand for transparency is the need for appropriate information about existing and planned programmes and measures. Extension or advisory services focused on GI, for example, might help in selecting suitable programmes or measures and explaining the benefits for the farmer, and thereby facilitate greater uptake as well as reduce the costs of establishing permanent GI structures (Falconer 2000; Lienhoop and Brouwer 2015). In addition, best farming practices could be shared, e.g. on the basis of farmers’ experiences with production-integrated measures (SWK 2012). This might also be helpful for improving coordination between farmers, as many measures are more effective when conducted over a wide area and not just by individual farmers. (For an analysis of information networks showing how information was received and shared, see Hauck et al. 2016.) Pfeifer et al. (2012: 96) explored different scenarios for landscape services linked with on-farm decision making and found that “only increased cooperation between government, farmers and citizens appears to result in a general increase of all landscape services across the entire landscape”. Our study shows that cooperation at landscape level, combining different levels of administration and land use, would be welcomed by the various stakeholder groups and could enhance effectiveness as well as the acceptability and practicality of the measures. This would be hugely important for GI implementation, especially as its aim is to achieve habitat connectivity at a landscape scale.

In order to ensure that the measures themselves and important elements of their design are practicable, it could be helpful to incorporate local knowledge (cf. Hauck et al. 2014). Regarding the spatial setup of measures, most farmers voiced a preference for new structures alongside existing ones and rated the quality of existing structures as unsatisfactory for environmental protection. They suggested improving them by, for example, planting autochthonous species in hedgerows or improving maintenance. This is backed up by Davies and Pullin (2007) who recommend improving the quality of existing hedgerows using appropriate management regimes. Including local knowledge could help to identify areas, where new structures could be established, e.g. sandy soils on former sand pits or dry points on elevated areas. It could also help to elicit options to improve the ecological quality of existing structures. This site selection would then need to be checked against larger scale conservation objectives, as areas selected by farmers due to their unsuitability for farming might not match conservation requirements; they might be special sites with conditions that are atypical for the area. Prager and Nagel (2008) found that including local knowledge and involving farmers in the design of measures increased farmers’ willingness to adopt them. Existing conservation measures that dovetail with both conservation requirements and farming practices—e.g. dynamic protection sites (e.g. Moilanen et al. 2014) or production-integrated measures (e.g. Mante and Gerowitt 2007)—are especially useful for intensively farmed landscapes, as their purpose is to protect agro-ecosystems. While local knowledge can be considered essential, both farmers learning about ecological interrelations and raising farmers’ awareness about the proposed benefits of measures can be seen as equally important for the design process.

Awareness raising and transparency regarding the benefits of GI measures

Our results show that the ecological usefulness of measures is not always clear to the actors involved. Fish et al. (2003) show, however, that awareness of the ecological benefits of measures can play an important role in their adoption and the way they are executed. Doubts raised by the farmers in our study can perhaps be linked to a lack of communication and awareness raising, on the part of all-level administration and policy makers, coupled with the farmers’ limited exposure to ecological issues during their training or education (Wals and Bawden 2000). Farmers’ interest in nature can be diverse and influence the uptake of environmental protection measures (Ahnström et al. 2013). It is worth noting that the ecological usefulness of measures is a point of debate among academics and policy experts too (Kleijn et al. 2011; Pe'er et al. 2014)—further research could thus prove beneficial for gaining an improved understanding of ecological processes, not just for communication purposes but also for the design of conservation measures (Ferraro and Pattanayak 2006). Nonetheless, a degree of uncertainty and certain trade-offs—e.g. between certain ecosystem services (Hauck et al. 2014) or between conservation and other land uses—will probably remain (McShane et al. 2011). Perhaps the way forward might be to communicate uncertainties while at the same time emphasising the need to find solutions for improving environmental protection in agricultural landscapes (cf. Fischhoff and Davis 2014; Haila et al. 2014).

Roles and responsibilities of farmers

Farmers still see their role and responsibilities by and large in the reliable production of affordable food. This came up often during the field visits. The agricultural landscapes farmers help shape (including biodiversity) are seen as a by-product which may be harmed by the necessary intensification of agricultural practices (cf. Burton and Wilson 2006). Also, conservation practices that may be perceived by other farmers or villagers as detrimental to productive agriculture are less favoured as they might be taken to indicate that the farmer is not farming effectively. This fits with the findings of Burton and Paragahawewa (2011: 99) who found that “the outcomes of skilled conservation production (…) are antithetical to the outcomes of skilled conventional farming performances”.

However, farmers are also observing a change in society’s preferences regarding the conservation of a particular type of agricultural landscape and biodiversity (cf. Buijs et al. 2006; Home et al. 2014; Fleury et al. 2015; Lange et al. 2015). Farmers’ adoption of pro-environmental behaviours can in part “be linked more to the necessity of protecting the public image of their profession, and consequently their own social identity, than to protecting the environment itself” (Michel-Guillou and Moser 2006: 234). One manifestation of these changes in society’s preferences is the inclusion of environmental protection in the CAP via greening measures. While farmers agree with agri-environment measures in principle, they perceive the CAP greening measures as causing extra costs for which they feel they are not adequately compensated. Landscape and environmental protection becomes part of the farmers’ roles and responsibilities rather than being a side effect of their land use. Simoncini (1999: 10) even sees this dual role as inherent: “farmers have a dual indivisible role, the first being that of an entrepreneur trying to maximise his/her benefits, the other being that of a manager of public goods: the environment”. Naturally, this change in self-perception encounters resistance, particularly because perceptions of landscape aesthetics and demands for environmental protection are not considered in the same way by different societal groups (e.g. Buijs et al. 2006; Herzon and Mikk 2007; Burton and Paragahawewa 2011) and are not included in the dominant market driven economy (Simoncini 1999).

The new GI policy and the CAP greening measures go beyond the scope of agri-environment programmes in that they are mandatory for farmers wishing to receive direct payments in full. Even though farmers could opt out, initial indications are that they are fulfilling the greening requirements (Pe'er et al. 2016). With regard to EFAs, though, they can choose between different options that offer more or fewer benefits for environmental protection. Initial results regarding the implementation of EFAs show that farmers often choose EFA-options that are less beneficial to environmental protection, such as catch crops and nitrogen-fixing crops, rather than options that are rated by ecologists to be of higher value, such as field margins or landscape elements (Lakner and Bosse 2016; Pe'er et al. 2016; Zinngrebe et al. 2017). Our research on the benefits and limitations of GI implementation has identified possible reasons behind these decisions. From here on, the next step would be to determine, together with all the actors involved, what could promote the implementation of measures that are more favourable for biodiversity. As Kopperoinen et al. (2014) show, the inclusion of expert knowledge can help in identifying the multifunctional key areas of GI, and in examining the provisioning potential of various ecosystem services. The inclusion of local and regional actors could further enhance their understanding of both GI and the ecosystem services associated with it. The co-design of measures, as suggested by Prager and Nagel (2008), may well help in this situation, but a society-wide debate about the role and responsibilities of farmers, and about what society expects from environmental protection, can still be considered essential nonetheless.


Our findings show that there is potential for improvement in GI policy implementation from the perspective of local and regional actors, and that farmers and other local actors are willing to contribute under certain conditions. The main factors conducive to the successful introduction and maintenance of GI are linked to economic, ecological and social factors. The way the measures are implemented needs to be both reliable and flexible; they need to fit into the farm’s operating procedures, they need to be transparent and well communicated, and they need to be compatible with society’s expectations (which need first to be debated and formulated as such). The effectiveness of measures could be enhanced through landscape level coordination, and by including measures that improve the quality of existing structures or foster the establishment of high quality structures. This is especially important as the main thrust of GI policy is to achieve connectivity between the remnants of natural or semi-natural habitats in the landscape, as well as to make the general matrix more suitable and permeable for species. This characteristic distinguishes it from AEM. GI is conceived as a long-term infrastructure, similar perhaps to grey infrastructure. Achieving long-term, large scale connectivity requires not only coordination, but also cooperation, which could be achieved by adjusting measures to local and regional needs. Here, the long-term perspective is important again, as the expenditure required to establish proper structures of coordination and cooperation can be considerable. Also, the social aspects of farmers’ self-perception, and the feedback they receive directly about their work, play a role that must not be neglected.

While we are aware that the findings cannot be generalised or upscaled, they can perhaps provide some important indications of which factors to consider when seeking to implement GI successfully. However, further case study examples in different geographical locations would be needed to draw conclusions about GI implementation at a pan-European level.



This research was funded by the ERA-Net BiodivERsA, with the national funders BMBF, part of the 2011–2012 BiodivERsA call for research proposals.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ, Department for Environmental Politics, Leipzig, Germany and University of Münster, Institute of Landscape EcologyMünsterGermany
  2. 2.Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Department for Environmental Politics and CoKnow Consulting – Coproducing Knowledge for SustainabilityLeipzigGermany

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