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Schümann, H., A. Knierim, S. D. Bellingrath-Kimura, and M. Kernecker. 2022. Working with or against multifunctional landscapes? A case study of land users’ local knowledge of grassland–forest transition zones in northeastern Germany. Ecology and Society 27(1):38.

Working with or against multifunctional landscapes? A case study of land users’ local knowledge of grassland–forest transition zones in northeastern Germany

1Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), 2Communication and Advisory Services in Rural Areas, Institute of Social Sciences in Agriculture, University of Hohenheim, 3Albrecht Daniel Thaer-Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences, Humboldt University, Berlin


Maintaining or restoring landscape multifunctionality is essential to ensuring that landscapes provide a broad array of services. Increased multifunctionality means that there are more diverse land uses bordering each other. The areas in which land uses interact are transition zones; those between grasslands and forests could fulfill multiple purposes due to their special ecological characteristics that support the needs of diverse species. However, with their management practices, local land users often shape the characteristics of land-use transition zones, with implications for ecological processes that build the base for service provision. Local ecological knowledge of land users could give important insights into the basis of their decisions. Here, we explore how land users’ and farmers’ local knowledge shapes their management that contributes to the maintenance and restoration of multifunctional landscapes. We conducted 21 semistructured qualitative interviews with livestock farmers and local experts for agriculture and nature conservation using grassland–forest transition zones as a specific example for interdependent components of multifunctional landscapes. We found that local knowledge of the interviewed farmers can contribute to the maintenance or restoration of multifunctional landscapes in several ways: it provides insight into landscape functions in grassland–forest transition zones, it enables land users to use landscape function-grassland production synergies, and it provides insight into the perceived negative and positive contributions of forests to grassland production. The perceived negative contributions of forests to grassland production were an important driver for farmers’ management decisions. Farmers have a holistic view of both the field and the landscape. Managing landscapes for multifunctionality is dependent on this kind of holistic knowledge to identify synergies and trade-offs in landscape functions and how they contribute to agricultural production. However, current regulations such as the institutional separation of grassland and forest and grassland area-dependent direct payments prevent farmers from acting according to their local knowledge.
Key words: actionable knowledge; collaborative landscape management; forest management; grassland management; human–wildlife coexistence; knowledge coproduction; landscape functions; local ecological knowledge; scientific ecological knowledge; stakeholder perceptions


Agriculture has undergone tremendous changes in Europe during the last decades. The post-war era of production maximization was followed by another era of reckoning with pressing environmental problems associated with more intensive agriculture. This transition has pushed agricultural practices toward sustainability, accompanied by a shift in farmers’ roles to encompass not just production but also landscape management (Burton 2004, Renting et al. 2009). These changes are mirrored in agricultural policies, including the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has incentivized creating multifunctional agricultural landscapes (European Commission 2020). These landscapes are supposed to serve multiple purposes, including agricultural production, maintaining or restoring habitats for biodiversity, and securing diverse natural resources (Hersperger et al. 2020).

In multifunctional agricultural landscapes, increased connectivity between habitats is needed to promote spillover of ecosystem services and their providers (Grass et al. 2019). Previous work has highlighted that seminatural habitats enhance the functional diversity of species that support ecological processes such as pollination and pest control in adjacent agricultural fields (Birkhofer et al. 2018, Martin et al. 2019, Serafini et al. 2019). However, understanding how far ecosystem services and their providers spillover across boundaries between seminatural habitats and agricultural land-use systems that make up multifunctional agricultural landscapes is essential to disentangling agricultural management from landscape effects. Focusing on the areas within different land-use systems where spillover effects are visible could be valuable for discerning the effects of management compared to the effects of landscape structure. These areas have previously been referred to as transition zones given that they are characterized by interactions of neighboring land-use types (Schmidt et al. 2017) via ecosystem services and their providers. As an example, we highlight grassland–forest transition zones. Because of past land-use changes and forest fragmentation, these transition zones cover broad parts of European agricultural landscapes (Wade et al. 2003) and can be considered habitats of high ecological relevance (Burst et al. 2017, Erdős et al. 2019).

The characteristics of grassland–forest transition zones depend on farm and forest management, so the managing land users, in particular farmers, largely influence fundamental ecological processes in these areas. These land users are embedded in complex social-ecological systems in which a broad array of drivers affect their decisions regarding landscape changes or management (Edwards-Jones 2006, Ostrom 2007, Ahnström et al. 2009). How they perceive biophysical conditions and spatial structures such as grassland–forest transition zones explains their management decisions (Kaltoft 1999, Siebert et al. 2006, Bennett 2016). In particular, the perceived effects of transition zones on the productivity of managed landscapes affects the management practices that farm and forest managers choose. Indeed, increasing or retaining the land’s productivity remains a main motivation for many land users (Kristensen et al. 2016, Preissel et al. 2017).

Land users’ perceptions of their natural environment can be considered part of their local ecological knowledge that can contribute to the restoration and maintenance of multifunctional landscapes (Cebrián-Piqueras et al. 2020). For instance, there is evidence that by aligning funding requirements and regulations with farmers’ knowledge, perceptions, and values, the schemes would be adopted more widely (Marshall 2009, von Münchhausen and Häring 2012, Mettepenningen et al. 2013, Chapman et al. 2019). Local ecological knowledge also determines farmers’ and other land users’ ability to adapt their management practices to diverse local site conditions, comprising multifunctional landscapes (Berkes et al. 2000, Altieri 2004). Finally, farmers’ and land users’ local ecological knowledge has also been considered instrumental to complementing scientific ecological knowledge (Raymond et al. 2010, Tengö et al. 2014, Cebrián-Piqueras et al. 2020) because local ecological knowledge is valued for its site specificity, multiple scales, and ability to cover large time frames (Joa et al. 2018). In this sense, local ecological knowledge is especially suited to characterizing the complex nature of ecological functions within multifunctional landscapes and linking them to specific spatial structures such as transition zones. Therefore, exploring farmers’ and land users’ local ecological knowledge of transition zones is one central condition to restoring and maintaining multifunctional landscapes (Plieninger and Bieling 2013, Duncan et al. 2020).

Farmers manage some of the most species-rich ecosystems throughout Europe (Oppermann et al. 2012, Bernués et al. 2016) and, therefore, their knowledge is especially important for maintaining or restoring habitats for biodiversity and securing diverse natural resources (Plieninger and Bieling 2013). Here, we add to the literature by exploring farmers’ local ecological knowledge and how it may contribute to maintaining or restoring multifunctional landscapes in central Europe. We focus on farmers as land users who affect the multifunctionality of landscapes with their decisions and practices as a spillover from production. We specifically aim: (1) to explore farmers’ local ecological knowledge of landscape functions associated with grassland–forest transition zones, (2) to gather information on their perceived positive or negative contributions on grassland production, and (3) to explore the relationship between local ecological knowledge and management decisions affecting multifunctionality.


Our study is embedded in the wider literature that includes multifunctional landscape management and local ecological knowledge related to conservation and agriculture. Within the scientific literature, the multifunctional use of landscapes is often referred to as the sharing of land to produce food and resources and to conserve ecosystems and their components (Fischer et al. 2017, Grashof-Bokdam et al. 2017). To integrate these sometimes conflicting goals, it is vital to manage them in a way that makes use of synergies and reduces trade-offs (Pretty 2018, Powers et al. 2020). We use the concept of landscape services (Termorshuizen and Opdam 2009) to identify synergies and trade-offs. We do so by organizing knowledge about ecological functions that land users associate with specific landscape structures and by identifying different values they attach to them. The concept of landscape services differs from ecosystem services (also referred to as environmental services or nature’s contribution to people) in that it accounts for the spatial dimensions of service provision. Using the landscape services concept is especially suitable for exploring ecological functions that are linked to the presence of certain spatial structures such as land use transition zones (Bastian et al. 2014, Westerink et al. 2017).

Ecological functions are the basis for service provision (Termorshuizen and Opdam 2009). They can be defined as the biotic and abiotic processes that occur within an ecosystem and may contribute to the provision of services either directly or indirectly (Garland et al. 2021). If ecosystem functions are linked to spatially explicit landscape characteristics or structures, some authors prefer the term landscape functions (Duarte et al. 2018). However, irrespective of ecosystem or landscape, functions become services when their benefits are valued by humans (Fagerholm et al. 2012). Because of the different understandings and variety of value concepts in the social sciences, we limited our use of values to considering instrumental values as factors that affect farmers’ decisions (Chan et al. 2018). Instrumental values are characterized through a process of value creation that is merely a means to an end to satisfy human needs and preferences. In our study, this idea specifically means understanding farmers’ perceptions of landscape functions as they contribute positively or negatively to grassland production (i.e., forage, or meat, in our case), highlighting their value.

We realize there are many different approaches and lenses that can be used to discern pattern-process relationships in multifunctional landscapes. We chose the structure-function-value framework to organize information and insights from farmers about transition zones. Here, we focus on the relations between spatial structure, in this case, grassland–forest transition zones, perceived landscape functions, and their perceived contributions to grassland production through the farmers’ eyes (Fig. 1). We use the term “contribution” instead of “service” because the former is more neutral and less imbued with a particular ontology. Furthermore, we can simply add “positive,” “negative,” or “ambiguous” to describe how the contribution was valued, and better distinguish perceived synergies and trade-offs. In the context of grassland–forest transition zones, it is particularly interesting to look closely at the perceived negative contributions to agricultural production instead of solely evaluating potentially beneficial landscape functions. Negative contributions of ecological functions currently seem to be understudied, although recent literature underlines the high probability of perceived negative contributions influencing land users’ behavior (Lyytimäki 2015, Blanco et al. 2019, Teixeira et al. 2019).

The interest for knowledge-related themes is increasing within sustainability science, and many authors have acknowledged the importance of land users’ knowledge for sustainable land management in the past years (Berkes and Turner 2006, Tengö et al. 2014, Šūmane et al. 2018, Apetrei et al. 2021). Local ecological knowledge is one form of knowledge that is gained through extensive personal observation of and interaction with local ecosystems (Charnley et al. 2007). It can be differentiated from traditional or solely ecological knowledge in that it is derived from more recent human–environment interactions and shared by a specific group of people (Raymond et al. 2010). The effect of local ecological knowledge on land-user decisions has been explored by several authors (Lamarque et al. 2014, Muhamad et al. 2014, Bernués et al. 2016, Dietze et al. 2019). For instance, Lamarque et al. (2014) found that even though knowledge about ecosystems and their services is considered in farmers’ decision making, it is not the main factor constituting their decisions. Similarly, Muhamad et al. (2014), who studied a rural population’s perception of ecosystem services in a forest–agricultural landscape, suggested that land-user decisions were more dependent on economic incentives than on local ecological knowledge. A literature review of factors influencing farmers’ considerations and engagement for biodiversity conservation in Europe found a range of drivers for land-user decisions stemming from individual, communal, and collective as well as from societal levels (Siebert et al. 2006). Therefore, obtaining insights into how farmers perceive and value spatial landscape structures and their functions for production will shed light on the drivers of farmers’ decisions that do or do not support multifunctional use of landscapes. Exploring local ecological knowledge could therefore be crucial to restoring and maintaining multifunctional landscapes (Hernández-Morcillo et al. 2014, Burton et al. 2020).

The presence of local ecological knowledge alone, however, does not guarantee that farmer management decisions support multifunctional landscapes (Cebrián-Piqueras et al. 2020). Agri-environmental schemes or regulations could be powerful means that support the transition from monofunctional to multifunctional landscapes. However, in Europe, attempts to preserve the diversity of species within agricultural fields, particularly via the CAP, have failed in the past (Nilsson et al. 2019, Pe’er et al. 2020). Such top-down policies and schemes have therefore not been particularly successful in fostering actor-led landscape management that enhances the provision of multiple functions or services. This result can partly be explained by the unidirectional and siloed flow of information or knowledge upon which most current agri-environmental schemes are based (Leventon et al. 2017, Recanati et al. 2019, Dik et al. 2022) Many authors, therefore, highlight the need to integrate different forms of knowledge that are put into action by local decision-makers, including farmers (Kloppenburg 1991, Raymond et al. 2010, Brunet et al. 2018).

Actionable knowledge is knowledge generated through effective collaboration of different stakeholders, leading it to be usable in practice (Stern et al. 2021). Therefore, to produce actionable knowledge, scientific and local knowledge need to be intertwined to represent diverse social, legal, organizational, and political contexts (Mach et al. 2020, Stern et al. 2021). Especially within conservation research, many authors highlight the need to integrate multiple forms and sources of knowledge to focus on the interconnectedness of social and environmental issues and to foster agricultural production alongside biodiversity conservation within multifunctional landscapes (Kloppenburg 1991, Pretty 1995, Berkes 2004). In this regard, local ecological and scientific ecological knowledge are often seen as complementary to each other because of their inherently different ontologies, and their integration potentially overcomes deficits of past conventional ecological research (Joa et al. 2018). Whereas scientific ecological knowledge usually refers to “explicit knowledge that has been derived from applying more formal methods that aim to increase rigour concerning different positions on validity and reliability” (Raymond et al. 2010:1769), local ecological knowledge is valued for its site specificity and consideration of multiple scales (Becker and Ghimire 2003). However, Raymond et al. (2010:1767) see the “different philosophical or epistemological perspectives held by researchers” as a major challenge affecting knowledge integration. To overcome this kind of challenge, the orientation toward predefined problem-focused integration processes might be helpful. In this regard, Westerink et al. (2017) showed that the concept of landscape services can be used as a boundary concept that bridges cognitively and socially constructed distinctions between categories that might be present among different stakeholders. As such, recording local actors’ knowledge is an essential starting point to obtain insights into their way of perceiving complex interactions of humans and nature and factors driving these interactions (Tengö et al. 2014, Geertsema et al. 2016), especially in multifunctional landscapes.


Study sites and region

The study sites were located in the northeastern part of Brandenburg, a state in Germany, throughout three administrative districts: Uckermark, Barnim, and Märkisch-Oderland. The physical characteristics in this area differ from the rest of Brandenburg because this region was formed during the younger Weichselian glaciation, which left behind many recognizable glacial forms. For instance, the northern part is characterized by 50,000–60,000 glacial depressions (Ministerium für Umwelt, Gesundheit und Verbraucherschutz des Landes Brandenburg 2010). The structural heterogeneity of the landscape created several different biotopes and, as a result, a high diversity of species. The high occurrence of rare species and biotopes worthy of protection alongside the sparse human population of the region created the perfect preconditions to establish spacious nature reserves (Fig. 2; Ministerium für Umwelt, Gesundheit und Verbraucherschutz des Landes Brandenburg 2010).

Land use and grassland–forest transition zones

A relatively high percentage of the arable land is managed organically in Barnim (17.8%) and Uckermark (12.0%), which can partially be explained by the large-scale nature reserves that prohibit intensive agricultural practices (Ministerium für ländliche Entwicklung Umwelt und Landwirtschaft 2018). Approximately 39.5% of the agricultural area in the study region is managed by agricultural businesses with livestock. These businesses comprise both specialized and mixed farm systems (Amt für Statistik Berlin-Brandenburg 2017). While the number of dairy cows has decreased considerably over previous years, increasing numbers of farms are transitioning to beef production. Nowadays, Brandenburg has the highest number of cow-calf beef production systems in Germany (Troegel and Schulz 2018). This extensive form of beef production includes cattle grazing on grassland areas throughout the summer months or sometimes the whole year and is often organic.

Approximately 27.7% of the studied area is covered by forests and 5.7% is covered by permanent pasture. Grassland–forest borders are therefore a common feature of the landscape (Amt für Statistik Berlin-Brandenburg 2019, 2020). Nevertheless, in the context of this landscape, only a few of the forest edge areas can develop naturally. Most of them are artificially created by land users and are characterized by a sharp transition between open areas such as permanent pasture or agricultural fields and forest (Ministerium für Landwirtschaft, Umwelt und Klimaschutz Brandenburg 2020). Until now, no institutional regulations deal with the management of forest edges in Brandenburg. Farmers are usually the ones managing these edges to prevent the forest from growing into their farmed area. Moreover, the forest law in Brandenburg prohibits the grazing of livestock in the forest, which results in forest and grassland being treated as two sharply separate, distinct entities by farmers. Nevertheless, in 2020, a directive was enacted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Environment and Climate Protection in Brandenburg dealing with the protection and restoration of naturally developed forest edges. This directive highlights the importance of nature conservation efforts for the multifunctional management of landscapes.

Data collection

We collected data between October 2019 and February 2020 using semistructured interviews conducted face to face with farmers in northeast Brandenburg. The semistructured interview design made it possible to cover predefined topics but also provided a certain degree of flexibility in each interview (Newing et al. 2011, Young et al. 2018). The interview guide aimed to gather data on three overarching topics: (1) farmers’ perceptions of landscape functions associated with grassland–forest transition zones, (2) farmers’ evaluation of functional ecological processes according to their positive and negative contributions to grassland production, and (3) the effect of farmers’ local ecological knowledge of landscape functions on their grassland management decisions (see Appendix 1 for the full interview guide). The interviews lasted 30–120 min and were recorded. Farmers signed consent purposively chosen to fit to the grassland system and landscape context. We identified suitable farmers through databases of local research institutions and organizational structures such as the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Schorfheide-Chorin, the Biodiversity Exploratories, or the Landcare Association Schorfheide-Chorin. We contacted 20 farmers, of which 17 agreed to be interviewed (Table 1). The diversity of farms within our sample reflects the grassland farm characteristics in Brandenburg, with a high share of organic farming, cow-calf beef production, and family farms. Four additional interviews were conducted with local experts for agriculture or nature conservation who had more general but regionally adapted scientific ecological knowledge (Table 2). The expert interviews provide a more scientific view of grassland–forest transition zones and can help to compare more local and more regional perspectives. For each expert, an individual interview guide was constructed based on their field of expertise and was closely related to the interview guide designed for the farmers.

Data analysis

After transcribing the interviews, we analyzed them following the rules of qualitative content analysis. Qualitative analysis helps to describe and interpret complex situations with the necessary detail and depth (Newing et al. 2011). The content was structured according to Kuckartz and Rädiker (2012) and Schreier (2014), which state that a coding structure should consist of overarching deductive categories and further differentiation occurs inductively. Using the rough coding structure, the whole material was coded once using the software MaxQDA (, Verbi, Berlin, Germany). During this process, inductive categories were developed following Mayring’s (2014) guidelines for inductive category formation. After that, code definitions and anchor examples, which help to guarantee a certain degree of conformity within the process of categorizing farmer statements, were developed before the whole material was coded again (Table 3).


We organize our results according to the structure-function-value framework (Fig. 1). The interviewed farmers perceived four overarching landscape functions that occur within grassland–forest transition zones. Some of these functions were perceived to contribute positively or negatively to grassland production (Fig. 3). Detailed results tables, including all farmer quotations, are found in Appendix 2.

Farmers’ perceptions of the grassland–forest transition zone and associated landscape functions

Farmers perceived decreased solar radiation, wind protection, dead forest material, and species interactions as the most important landscape functions (Fig. 4). Indeed, many farmers mentioned that the forest changes the climatic conditions of their grassland fields close to the forest edge. The forest canopy shades the grassland area, decreasing the solar radiation reaching the grassland, thereby creating cooler and moister conditions in the edge transition area. The wind protection function of the forest, which decreases the velocity of winds blowing over the open grassland area, was also strongly perceived by farmers. Farmers associated these functions, in particular solar radiation, with moisture retention in the grassland (Fig. 4). For example, one farmer stated “(...) if there is dew in the forest area, it is rather wet, and if you are further away, it is dry because the wind is more likely to get there” (Farmer 11). This quotation highlights the effect of wind on moisture availability in grasslands and the positive effect that forest edges may have on that aspect.

Besides climate-related effects of forests on grassland fields, farmers even more frequently mentioned the interactions of species inhabiting the grassland–forest transition zones and the resulting effects on grasslands (Fig. 4). For instance, birds of prey that have their main habitat in the forest use the grassland while looking for small mammals or amphibians. The associated bird species were white stork (Ciconia ciconia), black stork (Ciconia nigra), lesser spotted eagle (Clanga pomarina), great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor), and red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio). However, wild boar (Sus scrofa) and several deer species (Cervidae) were most frequently associated with grassland–forest transition zones (Fig. 5); farmers attributed their presence to their use of the forest as shelter and the grassland for grubs, acorns, beechnuts, and grazing. Wolves (Canis lupus) were identified as predators, but farmers were more concerned about how wolves affect the behavior of deer and boar populations than of their potential threat for livestock. Indeed, farmers observed deer and boar gathering in bigger packs and their behavior becoming less predictable. In some cases, different kinds of insects that affect livestock in the adjacent grassland were also recognized as taking advantage of forests. Some farmers mentioned the insects’ parasitic relationship by transmitting diseases or causing biting stress to livestock grazing in the grassland (Fig. 5). Specific insect species named concerning the forest were flies (Brachycera), mosquitos (Culicidae), and wood ticks (Ixodes ricinus). Farmers perceived interspecific species competition between forest and grassland plants (Fig. 4). Besides competition for water and nutrients, farmers also mentioned competition for space, given that shrubs and other tree species rapidly grow into the grassland area (Fig. 5). Species that were mentioned included sloes (Prunus spinosa), poplars (Populus spp.), blackberries (Rubus spp.), robinia (Robinia pseudoacacia), and dog roses (Rosa canina). Species interactions across several trophic levels thus shaped some ecological patterns and processes in grassland–forest transition zones, with variable contributions to grassland production.

Farmers also addressed the grassland–forest transition zone as affecting soil functions. Specifically, they mentioned that they expect foliage covering the soil during the autumn months to affect soil nitrogen in the area. However, farmers said little about the underlying processes changing the properties of soils and their connection to the forest (Fig. 4).

Perceived contributions to grassland production of landscape functions associated with the grassland–forest transition zone

Farmers generally found that grassland production was substantially affected by the functional ecological processes that they associated with the grassland–forest transition zone. In general, farmers perceived more negative than positive contributions. They attributed most of the negative contributions to species interactions (Fig. 6). Only one expert mentioned the possibility of biological control processes that positively affect grassland yield (Fig. 7C). Other farmers and experts did not perceive this positive contribution at all or disregarded it due to low importance for grassland yields. Nevertheless, farmers frequently mentioned that the high abundance of boars and deer, whose main habitat is the forest, negatively affect grassland production (Fig. 7C). Wild boars are particularly considered a major hazard for yield stability. Farmers explained that during boars’ search for protein-rich foods, they dig up large areas of grassland, leading to substantial yield losses. This effect was confirmed by two of the experts, who mentioned the large negative effect boars can have on grasslands (Fig. 7C). For example, in reference to grassland, one expert stated: “If you imagine there are 50 wild boars in the forest and they come every day to the grassland areas and make damages, then the forest as a place of the wild boars would be disadvantageous” (Expert 2). This quotation underlines the large role that forests have as habitat for animal species that are detrimental to grassland production and shows how grassland–forest transition zones can be impractical or problematic for agriculture.

Farmers also perceived plant species occurring along the forest edge as major competitors for plant species occurring in the grassland (Fig. 7C). For instance, shrub and tree species rapidly grow into the grassland area, limiting the manageable area, causing yield losses. Furthermore, they compete with forest species for water and nutrients, and the shade thrown by forest species is perceived as restraining plant growth in the grassland–forest transition zone. Moreover, farmers often mentioned that forest vegetation restricted access to the forest edge with machinery, and therefore, the occurrence of low yielding plant species is promoted, affecting the overall plant species composition in grasslands. For example, one farmer said that “More weeds, for example, nettles and thistles, grow at the forest border because it is not possible to manage them well there” (Farmer 1). This view of vegetation dynamics in grassland–forest boundaries was shared by one of the experts (Fig. 7C), highlighting the complexity of managing land use transition zones, where vegetation from both land-use systems overlaps.

Farmers had a more ambiguous perception of the effects of decreased solar radiation on grassland productivity than did experts (Fig. 6). Most of the farmers perceived this function as negatively affecting grassland production by inhibiting the growth of grassland plants (Fig. 7B). In contrast, some farmers perceived this function as positively affecting the yield in dry years by increasing the amount of available water (Fig. 7B). However, these farmers stated that this effect is rather small compared to the water competition of grassland with forest species (Fig. 7B). One expert explained that this effect is highly contextual: “It certainly also depends on the year, like for example, last year we had, in the shaded areas, the positive effect of reduced solar radiation” (Expert 3). As with the farmers, though, the expert opinions were divided regarding this topic. Although one expert stated the possibility of higher yields in the edge areas during a drought year, the other three experts stated that there is no positive effect on grassland yields in dry years due to water competition (Fig. 7B).

The perceived effects of microclimate functions (i.e., shading, temperature, wind, and moisture-related functions) of forests on grasslands seemed to depend on whether the farms had livestock grazing on the relevant areas. Many farmers perceived the shade effect as advantageous for the well-being of their animals, which was also supported by two of the experts (Fig. 7B). Furthermore, two farmers were aware of the negative consequences of high temperatures on soil microorganisms and therefore stated that the shading effect could affect soil fertility and yield (Fig. 7A). “And behind the forest, the ground is shaded anyway, the temperature is not so high, and that is again positive for soil life” (Farmer 6). Thus, in a broader sense, farmers seemed to value the grassland–forest transition zone for its temperature-regulating function for species from soil microorganisms to livestock.

Shade was also considered beneficial for grassland production. The later start to vegetation growth in the shaded area was regarded as an advantage by one farmer because they needed enough fodder for their sheep throughout the whole year (Fig. 7B). The farmer stated: “(...) you have shadow areas, you also have areas where humidity is staying for a longer time, then you have corners again where the vegetation starts later. You just have to adapt your management, you can see this as an advantage, you can see it as a disadvantage, but it depends on using the conditions with intelligence” (Farmer 9). This shows that how grassland–forest transition zones are perceived is related to how farmers use the specific conditions and functions. For example, perceived negative contributions were from the occurrence of shade-loving plants, which reduce the quality of the fodder and increase management efforts because the hay dries more slowly in shaded areas.

Farmers only associated positive contributions from the grassland–forest transition zones with the wind protection function (Fig. 6). This function affected the same areas of grassland production as the decreased solar radiation by increasing water availability on the soil surface and improving the well-being of grazing animals (Fig. 7D). Dead forest material (e.g., leaf litter) falling onto the grassland area was perceived as negatively affecting grassland production (Fig. 6). The foliage covering the soil during the autumn months was expected to affect the soil fertility in the transition zone, but the effect on yield is still expected to be rather low because the large masses of foliage negatively affect fodder quality (Fig. 7A). Dead trees also fall onto the grassland, complicating management; they increase management efforts because they can destroy fences and need to be removed from the area (Fig. 7A).

Farmers’ local ecological knowledge and management decisions regarding the grassland–forest border

Farmers’ perceptions of landscape functions affected their management decisions. Farmers most frequently cut back shrubs and hedges as a response to the competition for space between forest and grassland species (Fig. 8). While most farmers were interested in a clear border to the forest and therefore mowed the edge area very clearly, some farmers had difficulties in doing so because of conflicting interests of forest owners or limited accessibility with machinery due to tree branches. Expert 1 stated that a common technique to avoid limited accessibility is the additional removal of overhanging twigs and branches. Although these practices make the forest more vulnerable, which can also affect farmers negatively (i.e., trees falling on fences), none of the farmers let the forest develop in a gradual, successional manner. Nevertheless, several farmers considered gradual forest development an option, if it were supported by sufficient funding (Fig. 8). They were aware of the wind protection function of this kind of forest edge and listed additional positive effects for grassland management: “(...) it is an advantage if I have shrubs and hedges on the edge and not this shadow function and water absorption (...)” (Farmer 3). This response demonstrates how forest edges with a successional gradient improve functions related to microclimate regulation. Farmers’ decision to prevent forest succession was strongly connected to the direct payments that farmers receive by means of the CAP. Their receipt of direct payments is dependent on the size of their grassland fields, and payments are reduced if shrubs and hedges grow too rapidly into the area.

Two farmers mentioned that grazing of the grassland–forest transition zone area with livestock instead of mowing could be a strategy to make better use of the area’s conditions (Fig. 8). Furthermore, one of them mentioned that the limited accessibility of the forest edge by machinery can be avoided by letting livestock graze on the grassland. The animals can walk under the branches of the trees and therefore keep the edges clear more efficiently. Another farmer considered the different availability of fodder due to the shifted vegetation growth as a clear advantage if cattle are grazing in the area. Furthermore, both farmers mentioned that by letting cattle graze in the area, they can make use of the positive contributions of decreased solar radiation on the well-being of their animals. For example, one of them said: “(...) and when I decided to use it as a young cattle pasture, then it could not be any better because the animals can eat, have shade, and can also chew on the trees” (Farmer 4). This quotation shows how livestock can make use of and benefit from grassland–forest transition zones.

Additional adaptive measures were adopted in the case of wild boars and deer that come from the forest to the grassland and cause damage. One example is to prevent wildlife from entering the grassland by fencing the field. Moreover, several farmers rely on the support of hunters to avoid damage to the grassland (Fig. 8). A good relationship with hunters is therefore regarded as an important strategy by one farmer. “I’m always in favor of hunters doing the job who are on the scene. They are the contact persons for me, and I know they are outside [hunting] every night” (Farmer 8). As such, the interaction between land-use systems here, via boar foraging, is mirrored in necessary interactions between land users, which can allow both farmers and hunters to make use of grassland–forest transition zones.


Using a conceptual framework linking structure, function, and contributions within grassland–forest transition zones, we were able to categorize farmers’ local ecological knowledge and complement it with insights from experts to understand the complexity of managing and restoring multifunctional landscapes. Our study elicited five key findings. First, farmers perceive the functionality of grassland–forest transition zones as relevant for both grassland production as well as for the wider maintenance of the landscape’s patterns and processes. Second, regarding farmers’ perceptions and knowledge, farmers have detailed although not equally shared knowledge about ecological aspects of grassland–forest transition zones, which can be attributed to the distinct farm business contexts that were included in our sample. Third, farmers identified four overarching landscape functions within grassland–forest transition zones, including decreased solar radiation, wind protection, species interactions, and dead forest material. Three of these four functions were perceived as ambivalent, with negative and positive contributions to grassland production; only wind protection was uncontested positive. Moreover, how they valued functions in terms of the contribution to grassland production was central to their decision-making (Termorshuizen and Opdam 2009, Kristensen et al. 2016, Chapman et al. 2019). Fourth, farmers adapt their management measures to the inconveniences resulting from the transition zones; these measures are partly short term (e.g., cutting back trees and hedges), partly long term (e.g., gradual forest development), and partly in cooperation with others (e.g., gamekeepers). Finally, in terms of multifunctional landscapes, we see a need and a potential to move from single plot considerations to more holistic assessments.

Farmers’ local ecological knowledge provided a holistic picture of landscape functions that they observed in grassland–forest transition zones. In particular, their knowledge of species and species interactions in these areas highlighted the interconnectedness of biodiversity conservation and agricultural production within multifunctional landscapes (Fig. 4). While other studies focus largely on farmers’ knowledge of different plant or animal species in specific production contexts (Winter et al. 2011, Valencia et al. 2015, Vogl et al. 2016), few address species occurring because of land-use interactions, which can demonstrate the link between field-level management and landscape-scale effects. Additionally, ecological studies in grassland–forest transition zones usually focus only on one or more functional groups of organisms (Lacasella et al. 2015, Mazía et al. 2016, Boesing et al. 2018). Research such as ours, involving farmers’ local ecological knowledge, could help to shed light on the biodiversity, abundance, and complex interactions between species that greatly influence landscape functions, particularly in the context of multifunctionality.

Negative contributions were stronger and more frequently perceived than potentially beneficial contributions of the grassland–forest transition zones on grassland production. This phenomenon drove farmers’ management decisions regarding these zones. Besides making use of synergies, farmers also frequently reported choosing management options that disturb the movement of plant and animal species between land-use systems and therefore hinder multifunctionality. For instance, a frequent response to the loss of grassland area by forest succession was the regular cutting back of shrubs and hedges. Anthropogenic forest edges that lack a gradual development of shrubs and trees might serve as dispersal barriers for species with important functional traits or promote the presence of invasive species (Fagan et al. 1999, Caitano et al. 2020). While having perceived positive effects on grassland production, cutting back shrubs and hedges prevents the restoration of habitats for local biodiversity and negatively affects the securing of diverse natural resources. Furthermore, management practices that repeatedly prevent natural forest succession and keep the edges open decrease the resilience of forest stands, especially to strong wind events (Wuyts et al. 2008). This subsequently affected farmers negatively because trees frequently fall into the grassland areas and can damage fences and increase management efforts. Forest edges that developed naturally could in turn create potential synergies between grassland production and nature conservation, which was also mentioned by certain farmers, indicating the presence of local ecological knowledge in this regard. However, in accordance with Lamarque et al. (2014) and Muhamad et al. (2014), we found that farmers’ decisions were not based solely on their local ecological knowledge but also external drivers (i.e., regulations or funding schemes). In fact, institutional factors such as farmers’ fear of losing area-dependent funding, the lack of institutional regulations dealing with the management of forest edges, and the separation of forest and grassland into two distinct entities by the Brandenburg forest law were major drivers of farmers’ decision to cut back shrubs and hedges that grow into their grassland. If regulations did not prohibit farmers from better using, or least experimenting with, these transition zones, perhaps more positive contributions by the grassland–forest transition zone or multifunctional landscapes could emerge. While speculative, engaging in participatory research with farmers regarding synergies and trade-offs in multifunctional landscapes could provide greater insight.

Local ecological knowledge of land users is not only central in their own decision-making but can also be helpful to support research on the complex interactions between bordering land uses. Indeed, other authors also highlight the potential of knowledge co-production for successful biodiversity monitoring and conservation efforts (Blicharska et al. 2016, Kühl et al. 2020, Chambers et al. 2021, Dawson et al. 2021). Local ecological knowledge could also play an important role in the way science–practice knowledge or information transfer occurs (Opdam 2019). Targeted information would increase farmers’ awareness of positive contributions and possible synergies, which could be an entry point for landscape management-related information and advisory interventions. For instance, the production of actionable knowledge about soil functions could enable farmers to maintain a nutrient balance that prevents negative effects on the functional diversity of soil biotic species due to nutrient leakage (Ball et al. 2018, Dietze et al. 2019). Therefore, producing (or co-producing) actionable knowledge on soil functions, including the provision of nutrients and decomposition processes, is a major prerequisite for the restoration and maintenance of multifunctional landscapes. Using boundary objects such as specific landscape structures or functions can help integrate local actors’ knowledge into planning processes for multifunctional landscape maintenance or restoration because discussing these boundary objects with actors reveals how they use or adapt to them, revealing their local ecological knowledge (Westerink et al. 2017). Within these planning processes, the active identification of local land users’ ecological knowledge is important to facilitate decision-making adapted to local land users’ values (Termorshuizen and Opdam 2009, Brunet et al. 2018). Furthermore, insights into local land users’ needs and preferences can help set the right frame for the use of boundary concepts, which increases their potential to inform farmers’ decision-making in favor of multifunctional landscapes (Opdam et al. 2015).

Our study underlines the difficulty in reconciling different land uses in European multifunctional landscapes. Farmers perceived the forests to have dominant effects over grassland production because it is a habitat for plant and animal species that encroach on grassland fields. As such, scaling up studies and also policies from single farmer or field scales, single types of species, or single functions or services (e.g., yield) means embracing social-ecological complexity and accounting for social and ecological spillovers (i.e., positive or negative contributions of landscape functions). This situation means that understanding social and ecological interactions between land-use systems is essential to understanding the synergies and trade-offs in multifunctional landscapes. We learned from farmers that they have holistic knowledge of both field and landscape effects and do not necessarily separate these scales when thinking about management. This result suggests that perhaps their holistic knowledge of the landscape scale was captured well in our study of grassland–forest transition zones. For example, farmers pointed to possible synergies between livestock and forests, specifically that there would be increased positive contributions from the grassland–forest transition zones to grassland production if livestock could make use of the forest edge and graze in the forest. Given how landscape functions were perceived, we learned that farmers already work with the landscape (e.g., in grassland–forest transition zones) for certain benefits, but that they are also disadvantaged by the landscape scale, largely because of wildlife damage to grassland production, but also, institutional factors.


We explored farmers’ local ecological knowledge of landscape functions associated with grassland–forest transition zones, their positive and negative contributions to grassland production, and the relationship between local ecological knowledge and management decisions affecting multifunctionality. We found that farmers had substantial knowledge of landscape functions, species composition, and interactions concerning grassland–forest transition zones. However, only a few farmers used this knowledge to manage landscapes for multifunctionality. What farmers do with their knowledge depends on how they perceive the contributions of different landscape functions to agricultural production. Here, the perceived negative contributions of forests to grassland production were prevailing and strongly affected farmers’ perceptions of the adjacent forest. This overall negative perception affected farmers’ decisions in favor of management measures that do not support multifunctionality. Furthermore, current regulations such as the institutional separation of grassland and forest, and area-dependent direct payments are affecting farmers’ ability to use their local ecological knowledge to manage multifunctional landscapes. Therefore, we conclude that even though the farmers’ local ecological knowledge could enable them to manage landscapes for multifunctionality, factors such as negative contributions of landscape functions or institutional impacts are currently preventing them from doing so.


The number of farmers we interviewed was limited and represents only a small snapshot of local land users. In a next step, it may be beneficial to include the perceptions and knowledge of gamekeepers or forest managers. However, case studies based on specific local contexts give insights into the way that land users perceive and value their surrounding landscape (Quintas-Soriano et al. 2018, Teixeira et al. 2018). These kinds of case studies are needed to depict the complexity of social-ecological system interactions in full detail (Birkhofer et al. 2015). Together with studies conducted at larger scales and including a broad array of participants, they can help draw a composite picture of the drivers of land management and land-use changes that affect the ability of landscapes to provide multiple functions (Kristensen et al. 2016). We wanted to focus on farmers as land users within landscapes who influence major ecological processes through their management. Focussing only on one group of land users allowed us to dive deep into their perceptions affecting their decisions, especially the way in which they perceive their surrounding landscapes and contributions to production. However, ecological processes occur over large spatial extents and are usually not tied to human-made boundaries (Fischer et al. 2019). They are influenced by multiple land users whose interactions have not often been explored within the scientific literature. Because cooperation beyond field borders could be another important precondition for the successful management of landscapes for multifunctionality, we propose that more research needs to be conducted on this topic in the future. By looking closely at the dynamics of land user interactions and factors affecting cooperation and cooperation barriers, a further step could be made to the management of landscapes for production while at the same time preserving biodiversity.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We acknowledge the German Research Foundation (DFG) for funding this research (grant 420434427). In addition, we sincerely thank the two anonymous reviewers whose comments and suggestions helped improve this manuscript.


The anonymized data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, Henrike Schümann. None of the data/code are publicly available because there exists currently no pleasant solution that allows the upload of qualitative data linked to the DOI. All data were collected via interviews, and all research participants signed consent forms allowing us to record, take notes, and/or transcribe the interviews for data for scientific publication.


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Correspondent author:
Henrike Schümann
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