Before I can answer this, we need to do a bit of maths. Yes, I know, maths wasn’t my strong point at school either, but an idea of how land is measured will help us understand this question.
In the UK, land was traditionally (and still is) measured in acres. In the Middle Ages an acre was defined as ‘the area of land one man could plough in a day with one ox’.
An acre = 4840 square yards or 4046.86 square metres.
That’s 60% of a soccer pitch. Or a car park containing 150 cars. An acre can be any shape, long and thin, round or square, as long as it covers this area.
Nowadays land in the UK and Europe is also measured in the more modern, metric hectares.
A hectare (abbreviation ha) is 10,000 square metres (the equivalent of a square measuring 100 x 100 metres).
That’s 0.01 square km. Or, if you like, 2.47 acres.
An easier way to think of a hectare is pretty much the area of an international rugby field (1.008 ha); or the area covered by Trafalgar Square in London.
So now we know what we’re talking about, back to the main question.
How much land is used for growing food crops?
There are slightly different categories and varying estimates of land use by different organisations, but all of them suggest that only about 6% of land is built on (urban land), with a further 2.5% being ‘green-urban’ – parks, cemeteries and private estates.
According to DEFRA – the UK Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs – 72% of UK land was being used for agriculture in 2017, equivalent to an area of 17.5 million ha.
About a third – 6.1 million ha – of the agricultural land was arable land for growing crops, while the other two thirds was grassland. Cereal crops (mainly wheat and barley) and oil-seed rape covered 3.2 million hectares.
So, as 72% of our land is agricultural and a third of this is used for growing crops, that means that about 25% of UK land is croppable (able to grow crops).
The agricultural land that isn’t used to grow crops is mainly grassland, or ‘pastureland’, which still produces our food because the grass is used to feed cattle, sheep, pigs and other animals. See previous post Grass – the original sustainable crop.
What is the remainder of the land used for?
The remaining non-agricultural and non-urban land is covered by forests, mountains, moorlands, beaches and wetlands. Many of these are extremely important habitats for numerous species of mammals, birds, amphibians reptiles and insects.
Farming in the UK is big business and is very important for producing our food. However, food crops are actually grown on a relatively small area of land. Which may not be obvious when you’re contemplating combine harvesters working in the seemingly endless fields of the British countryside.
What actually happens in the crop fields, and in the rest of the farming landscape, will be discovered in future posts.