Extensive agriculture aims to produce food on more hectares of land with fewer inputs from outside (e.g. plant protection products, fertilisers and animal feed). Nature-inclusive farming and organic farming are examples of extensive farming.

The researchers asked extensive livestock farmers about both their motivations and the challenges they face.

Grazing can be sustainable

Van der Plas (WUR): 'Grazing can contribute to biodiversity. In recent decades, however, grazing management has intensified in many places in Europe, which has a negative impact on the biodiversity of plants, insects and birds and is accompanied by high greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient leaching. Grazing systems with relatively low animal densities, i.e. extensive grazing, are generally the most sustainable.'

Struggling with rules

The interviews show that many land users struggle with rules and regulations that are incompatible with extensive grazing. Whether it is very extensive grazing or rewilding grazing, some rules get in the way of extensive practice, such as tagging animals. Land users often feel that current policies hinder nature-friendly practices, making them incompatible with the flexibility needed for sustainable grazing management.

For example, a land user in Romania complains: 'We have to clear them of scrub, otherwise we get fines ... From 300 hectares they count half as ineligible because of the bushes, and instead of getting subsidies, we have to pay fines. [...].' A land user from Belgium: 'By not applying for CAP support (CAP = Common Agricultural Policy), we have the freedom to really look at what suits the local ecosystem.'

Rural flight

Farmers often work in a extensive way because they love the craft and/or the animals. A land user in Romania says: 'It is a family tradition, I have been working with animals since I was a child, and I have a desire to work with animals.' Another farmer from Galicia says: 'The main reason for maintaining this system is that the people associated with it love the ponies, they 'have a fever', and this tradition is very deep in their hearts.'

But they worry about the future of their business, for example, due to land abandonment and rural exodus. 'The next generation does not want to farm because it is too hard, too much work. They usually move abroad and choose easier career opportunities.'

What needs to change according to farmers?

Fons van der Plas: 'Farmers indicate that rules and regulations are not adapted to extensive practices. These rules should offer more flexibility to land users who practice extensive grazing. In addition, the current policy framework largely does not encourage sustainable grazing practices. There should be more incentives so that they are also financially supported.'

The Common Agricultural Policy provides important economic support from the EU, but also leads to counterproductive management due to problematic requirements. Help is needed to improve market access, for example by supporting direct marketing.

A Polish farmer in the Oder Delta said: 'Perhaps it would make sense to create a subsidy for farm shops as well. Why not an additional subsidy per hectare or per animal if a farmer has a farm shop? This would be great because farm shops are difficult for a farmer because of the ongoing cost of the job in the farm shop! But subsidies that could fund a farm shop job for at least two years would be great! And then suddenly many organic farms would dare to start farm shops! And then we would suddenly have a network of direct marketing of organic products here in the region!'