The Amazon show “Clarkson’s Farm” has proven a hit with the general public. Series three is about to hit our screens and it has just been announced that a series four has been commissioned.

Farming as it really is

In addition to the general public, farmers themselves have applauded the TV series for showing farming as it really is. Farmer and author James Rebanks has been quoted as saying that Clarkson has “done more for farmers in one series of Clarkson’s Farm than Countryfile achieved in 30 years“.

How much of UK is farmland?

So how much of the UK is covered by farmland? It is often stated that about 71 per cent of land in the UK is agricultural. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) recently looked into these figures to assess the accuracy of the claim.

  • In the UK, agricultural land use data has been collated by DEFRA since 19842. Land used to produce food and other products is measured as the Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA), defined as:
  • “…all arable and horticultural crops, uncropped arable land, land used for outdoor pigs, temporary and permanent grassland and common rough grazing.”
  • In practice, this includes land used for growing cereals, oilseeds, fruit, vegetables, grasses, ornamental plants, and flowers; land used for animal farming; and agricultural land that is not currently productive, for example fallow land undergoing a ‘no-plant’ year.
  • Since 1984 the total UAA has fluctuated between 18 and 19 million hectares (ha), being highest in 1987 (19,002,014 ha) and lowest in 2022 (18,106,810 ha), although it has generally decreased over the year.
  • Given that the UK has a total land area of 24,871,756 hectares (248,717.56 km2), this makes farmland cover over the last 40 years somewhere between 72.8 per cent and 76.4 per cent of UK land area.
  • Annual fluctuations in the UAA are to be expected as the ratios of different crops being grown will vary and land may be taken in and out of production year-to-year.
  • There are some conflicts in the data, with some DEFRA publications stating that the UAA in the UK has fluctuated between 17 and 18 million hectares since 2000, which is only correct if you exclude land used for common rough grazing. Omitting this, most DEFRA data is consistent, with the UAA being just under 18 million hectares in 2006 and just above 17 million hectares in 2015.
  • Looking specifically at the last few years the UAA has varied between 18.8 million hectares and 18.1 million hectares, equating to 72.8 per cent of the UK land area as of June 2022. In 2020, around 3.6 million hectares of this farmland were enrolled in higher-level or targeted agri-environment schemes and in 2021 around 507,000 hectares were organically managed.
  • Estimating the proportion of other land uses and the area they cover across the UK can be challenging, particularly as reporting methods vary across the UK due to devolution, but also because land use statistics are likely to overlap – for example, a patch of woodland may be present on farmland, and might also be designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), meaning that three ‘land uses’ could exist in one area. That said, where data are available, conclusions can be drawn.
  • The latest data from the ONS states that urban land covers around 1.85 million hectares of land in the UK; with mountains and upland habitats such as moorland covering some 2.6 million hectares; grasslands covering almost 2.5 million hectares; and freshwater habitats such as ponds, lakes, and wetlands covering just over 1.3 million hectares1. Woodland is also present across large areas of land, with Forest Research and ONS data highlighting that there are approximately 3.24 million hectares of woodland across the UK as of March 2022, with around 51 per cent of this being conifer woodland.

So what’s the answer?

  • Using the most up-to-date figures and considering all agricultural land, data suggests that the amount of land used for farming is around 18,106,810 hectares or 72.8 per cent of UK land area, slightly more than the amount commonly cited and accepted. This figure is likely to change and fluctuate annually and has done since DEFRA began recording the UAA in 1984 but it is likely to remain somewhere between 18 and 19 million hectares.