Spatial variation in determinants of agricultural land abandonment in Europe

Christian Levers*, Max Schneider, Alexander V. Prishchepov, Stephan Estel, Tobias Kuemmerle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Agricultural abandonment is widespread and growing in many regions worldwide, often because of agricultural intensification on productive lands, conservation policies, or the spatial decoupling of agricultural production from consumption. Abandonment has major environmental and social impacts, which differ starkly depending on the geographical context, as does its potential to serve as a land reservoir for recultivation. Understanding determinants of abandonment patterns, and especially how their influence varies across broad geographic extents, is therefore important. Using a pan-European map of agricultural abandonment derived from MODIS NDVI time series between 2001 and 2012, we quantified the importance of farm management, climatic, environmental, and socio-economic variables in explaining abandonment patterns. We chose a machine learning modelling framework that accounts for spatial variation in the relationship between abandonment and its determinants. We predicted abandonment probability as well as determinant coefficients for the entire study area and summarised them for regions under selected EU support schemes. Our results highlight that agricultural abandonment was mainly explained by climate conditions suboptimal for agriculture (i.e., low/high growing degrees days). Determinants related to farm management (smaller field size, lower yields) and socio-economic conditions (high unemployment, negative migration balance) also contributed to describing agricultural abandonment patterns in Europe. Several determinants influenced abandonment in strongly non-linear ways and we found substantial spatial non-stationarity effects, although abandonment patterns were equally well-explained by predictors specified with spatially constant and varying effects. Predicted abandonment probability was similar inside and outside EU support or conservation zones, whereas observed MODIS-based abandonment was generally higher outside these zones, suggesting that schemes such as Natura 2000 or High Nature Value Farmland likely influence abandonment patterns. Our work highlights the potential value of spatial boosting for gaining insights into land-use change processes and their outcomes, which should increase the ability of such models to inform context-specific, regionalised decision making.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)95-111
Number of pages17
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 10 Dec 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • De-intensification
  • Drivers
  • Land-use change
  • Machine learning
  • Model-based boosting
  • Non-stationarity


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