Livestock Density

Which areas in Europe have the highest concentration of livestock?

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Map of the livestock density in Europe.

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On this map we can see which areas of Europe have the highest concentrations of livestock per hectare of Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA). These are areas with a big animal husbandry industry. Livestock are farm animals like cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. UAA, is the total area taken up by arable land, permanent grassland, permanent crops and kitchen gardens.

Livestock on this map, are measured using Livestock Units (LSU). This is a reference unit designed by Eurostat, which facilitates the aggregation of livestock from various species and age as per convention. One LSU equals 1 dairy cow or 10 sheep/goats or 2 pigs or 71.43 chickens. For more information on LSU, have a look at the Eurostat website.

The differences in Europe in regards to livestock density are not too big. Jutland (DK), Brittany (F), Catalonia, Galicia (ES), Ipeiros in Greece, Northern Italy and Cyprus, all have a higher concentration than other parts of Europe. And then there’s the Netherlands…

The Netherlands and some of the surrounding border areas of Belgium and Germany have by far the highest livestock density in Europe. In particular the provinces of Noord-Brabant (7.41) and Limburg (6.72) have a far higher livestock density than any other part of Europe. For most of Europe, the livestock density is 1.50 or less.

For decades the intensive animal farming industry has been the point of debate in the Netherlands. It creates a lot of nitrogen pollution in what is already the most densely populated area of Europe. The nitrogen surplus in the Netherlands is far higher than anywhere else in Europe. Nitrogen pollution has become a significant problem in the Netherlands, and it has become clear that animal husbandry is one of the main contributors to the issue. The country has a thriving agricultural sector, with livestock farming playing a crucial role in the economy. However, the intensive farming methods that have been adopted to support this industry have resulted in significant amounts of nitrogen being released into the environment. Nature and biodiversity in the Netherlands have taken quite a hit because of this. The pollution of nitrogen causes soil acidification, eutrophication of waterways and reduces the biodiversity and quality of the nature in the Netherlands.

Source: European Environment Agency

In 2018, 46% of nitrogen pollution in the Netherlands came from animal farms. 32.3% of nitrogen pollution came from unspecified foreign sources. The Dutch government has taken action to reduce the nitrogen pollution from other sources like traffic and construction, but they only account for 6.1% and 1.2% of nitrogen pollution. So, it makes sense to reduce the nitrogen pollution from the agricultural sector, of which intensive animal farming is the main source of nitrogen pollution.

Under pressure from banks, slaughterhouses and supermarkets, over the past two decades many farmers have expanded their farm to so called mega-farms where an enormous number of animals are kept together. These often meet a lot of resistance from local residents, due to the large size of the barns, smells and traffic. These mega-farms have been one of the main reasons for the increase in livestock density and consequently nitrogen pollution.

Due to targets set by both the EU and the Dutch government itself, time is running out and the Dutch government is in a difficult situation to act quickly. For a long time, the government has looked the other way and kicked the can down the road. The lobby from the banks and farming organizations has been very strong and effective in encouraging the Dutch government to postpone any plans.

To finally address the issue, the Dutch government has implemented measures aimed at reducing nitrogen emissions from animal husbandry, such as stricter regulations on manure management, limiting the number of animals on farms, and promoting more sustainable farming practices. Another significant measure the government is planning is the introduction of a new system of nitrogen emission permits, which will limit the number of permits and require farmers to show that they are using sustainable farming methods.

However, the Dutch government has also recognized that reducing nitrogen emissions through these measures may not be enough, and that more drastic actions may be needed. One of these measures is a buyout scheme for farmers who wish to cease their operations. Under this scheme, the government will offer to purchase the land and livestock of farmers who voluntarily choose to stop their intensive livestock farming operations. The aim is to reduce the number of animals in areas with high nitrogen emissions, allowing the environment to recover. This will mostly concern intensive animal farms that are close to (vulnerable) natural areas.

The Dutch government has not yet announced specific plans for the land acquired through the buyout scheme for farmers who wish to cease their intensive livestock farming operations. However, there have been suggestions that the land could be used for nature conservation, rewilding, or sustainable agriculture, such as organic farming or agroforestry, which would help to reduce nitrogen emissions and support biodiversity.

This buyout scheme has been welcomed by environmental groups, who have argued that reducing the number of animals in these areas is essential to address the nitrogen pollution crisis. However, the plan has been met with resistance from some farmers who fear that it will force them out of business, particularly those who have invested heavily in their farms and do not want to sell.

Despite these concerns, the Dutch government has emphasized that the buyout scheme is voluntary and that it is intended to be a win-win solution for both farmers and the environment. The buyout scheme is intended to reduce the number of animals in areas with high nitrogen emissions, allowing the environment to recover. This is expected to have a positive impact on the long-term sustainability of the agricultural sector in the country. Furthermore, the government has also stressed that it is committed to supporting farmers in transitioning to more sustainable practices, offering financial incentives to those who adopt sustainable farming methods.

It is worth noting that the Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, with a highly productive and efficient agricultural sector. The country is known for its advanced technology and innovative farming practices, which have helped it to become a leader in the industry. Despite the proposed buyout scheme, the country’s agricultural sector is expected to continue to thrive, supported by ongoing investment in research and innovation.

The Netherlands remains a major player in the global agricultural sector, and ongoing investment in sustainable farming practices is expected to ensure its long-term sustainability.

In conclusion, while the Dutch government has implemented various measures to reduce nitrogen emissions from animal husbandry, it has recognized the need for more drastic action, such as the buyout scheme for farmers. While this measure has received some pushback, it is hoped that it will contribute to reducing nitrogen pollution and protect the environment for future generations.

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