What does my Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) actually mean?

If you read my last blog about maps (if you didn’t click here to have a read), you will know that I do love a good map! I look at land classification of maps quite a lot, and I thought it might be interesting to write a little bit more about what the different land grades actually mean…

There is a plethora of information around these days about your land and soil, especially with the boom in precision farming, but I think it’s interesting to see where the land grades came from and to go back to basics when looking at the characteristics of your land.
This information is based on post 1988 Agricultural Land Classification (England) and some information is taken from the Revised guidelines and criteria for grading the quality of agricultural land (click here to read in full). There is also a Natural England publication about how the ALC works today and how the plans are being updated, you can click here to read this, or there is a link at the bottom of this post.

History
The ALC was devised and introduced in the 1960s and Technical Report 11 (MAFF, 1966) outlined the national system, which forms the basis for advice given by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and Welsh Office Agriculture Department (WOAD) on land use planning matters. Following a review of the system, criteria for the sub-division of Grade 3 were published in Technical Report 11/1 (MAFF, 1976).

The Agricultural Land Classification provides a framework for classifying land according to the extent to which its physical or chemical characteristics impose long- term limitations on agricultural use. The limitations can operate in one or more of four principal ways: they may affect the range of crops which can be grown, the level of yield, the consistency of yield and the cost of obtaining it. The classification system gives considerable weight to flexibility of cropping, whether actual or potential, but the ability of some land to produce consistently high yields of a somewhat narrower range of crops is also taken into account.
The classification is well established and understood in the planning system and provides an appropriate framework for determining the physical quality of the land at national, regional and local levels.

What grade is my land?

You can find out what land grade your land is by looking online on the interactive map on the Magic website which you can access here: http://magic.defra.gov.uk/ . There are some printed maps out there, but they are hard to come by these days and are a bit like gold dust in our profession!

What do the grades mean?
Grade 1 is land of excellent quality and Grade 5 land is of very poor quality. Grade 3, which constitutes about half of the agricultural land in England and Wales, is divided into two subgrades designated 3a and 3b.

Grade 1 – excellent quality agricultural land:
Land with no or very minor limitations to agricultural use. A very wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops can be grown and commonly includes top fruit, soft fruit, salad crops and winter harvested vegetables. Yields are high and less variable than on land of lower quality.

Grade 2 – very good quality agricultural land:
Land with minor limitations which affect crop yield, cultivations or harvesting. A wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops can usually be grown but on some land in the grade there may be reduced flexibility due to difficulties with the production of the more demanding crops such as winter harvested vegetables and arable root crops. The level of yield is generally high but may be lower or more variable than Grade 1.

Grade 3 – good to moderate quality agricultural land:
Land with moderate limitations which affect the choice of crops, timing and type of cultivation, harvesting or the level of yield. Where more demanding crops are grown yields are generally lower or more variable than on land in Grades 1 and 2.

Subgrade 3a – good quality agricultural land:
Land capable of consistently producing moderate to high yields of a narrow range of arable crops, especially cereals, or moderate yields of a wide range of crops including cereals, grass, oilseed rape, potatoes, sugar beet and the less demanding horticultural crops.

Subgrade 3b – moderate quality agricultural land:
Land capable of producing moderate yields of a narrow range of crops, principally cereals and grass or lower yields of a wider range of crops or high yields of grass which can be grazed or harvested over most of the year.

Grade 4 – poor quality agricultural land:
Land with severe limitations which significantly restrict the range of crops and/or level of yields. It is mainly suited to grass with occasional arable crops (e.g. cereals and forage crops) the yields of which are variable. In moist climates, yields of grass may be moderate to high but there may be difficulties in utilisation. The grade also includes very droughty arable land.

Grade 5 – very poor quality agricultural land:
Land with very severe limitations which restrict use to permanent pasture or rough grazing, except for occasional pioneer forage crops.

Now I know what my grade means, how can I use the information?
Once you know what your land grade means, you can find out further information about what the grading means to use to your advantage when assessing the characteristics of the soil and how best to use the land in agriculture. For example, flood risk:

Grade according to flood risk in summer Grade/ Flood limits
Subgrade frequency duration
1 very rare short
2 rare short
3a very rare medium or long
or rare medium
or occasional short
3b rare long
or occasional medium
4 occasional long
or frequent short or medium
5 frequent long

Grade according to flood risk in winter
Grade/ Flood limits
Subgrade frequency duration
1 rare short
2 rare medium
or occasional short
3a rare long
or occasional medium
or frequent short
3b occasional long
or frequent medium
4 frequent long

There are various datasets and information available, information can be found in the full MAFF Guidelines, which you can click here to access or have a look at the further links below.

More info:
Revised guidelines and criteria for grading the quality of agricultural land: http://archive.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/landmanage/land-use/documents/alc-guidelines-1988.pdf
Agricultural Land Classification: Protecting ‘the best and most versatile agricultural land’- Natural England: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130123162956/http:/www.defra.gov.uk/environ/landuse/alcleaflet.pdf

Knowing the land grade of your land can be very important when it comes to planning applications. We have found in practice, is often very important information for solar park applications. Jon Stables (who works from the same office as me) offers an identification service. He identifies the agricultural land classification by assessing a number of different factors which include soil sampling, drainage and topographical data. If it’s something you are interested, drop him a line for a chat- contact details and info can be found here: http://www.berrybros.com/people/jon-stables

Hope this is of interest! As ever, do let me know your thoughts, like and share!
JP
@blondeagadvisor

6 thoughts on “What does my Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) actually mean?

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