A simple protocol is presented for a functional classification of European grassland species using attributes that can be quickly and easily measured. These attributes relate to habitat fertility, intensity of grazing and disturbance. As a surrogate for habitat fertility we use leaf nitrogen predicted by multiple regression from three leaf characters, specific leaf area, dry matter content and size. Average maximum canopy height of the component species of our vegetation, weighted by abundance, provides a rough assessment of the intensity of grazing. The percentage of annuals and vernal geophytes assesses disturbance. Functional descriptions of the CLIMB grasslands were produced and trends relating to both ecosystem and economic processes were detected. Most importantly, our estimate of habitat fertility predicts land use change. Within NW Europe the threat to grassland of conservation value from agricultural 'improvement' increases with fertility while in the Mediterranean increased fertility decreases the likelihood of abandonment. These mathematical relationships between an ecological attribute and a perception of economic potential can help us to routinely combine ecological and economic data. This is an important preliminary step as we attempt to reconcile practical economic concerns and conservation objectives within working landscapes. © 2005 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.