Land Use and Land Cover

To fully understand the environmental condition and changes in our landscape, researchers spatially map and categorise the land in terms of both its land use and land cover. Using interpretative satellite or aerial imagery, it is presented in the form of a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) dataset, in which distinct land features are mapped and categorised in terms of either their land cover or land use properties.

Land cover describes the land in terms of the vegetation or other bio-physical surface type present on the land. A typical land cover classification schema will have varying levels of detail starting at general land cover and then working its way down to more habitat specific descriptions, e.g. Grassland > Semi-improved grassland > Dry calcareous grassland. This information is particularly relevant to environmental and ecological researchers involved in assessing the condition or changes in the natural landscape.

Land use is a description based solely on the human activity or usage of a land parcel. Whilst land cover may describe an area of agricultural land as ‘Semi-improved grassland’, land use details the farming activity occurring on the land e.g. ‘Pasture’ or ‘Fallow’, etc. Land use is not always discernible from satellite or aerial imagery and so additional ground-based information may be required to fully ascertain the land use of a particular piece of land. Land use information is of particular interest to socio-economic researchers.

Changes in both land use and land cover are the most evident and far-reaching of all environmental changes. Unsustainable land use change potentially impacts human health, has a harmful effect on water, air, soil and biodiversity and conflicts with land use planning. It is therefore important to map both land cover and land use on a regular basis, enabling the tracking of any changes on the ground.

The EPA is the national focal point for European Land use and Land cover activities. These datasets are the only current national scale land cover datasets in Ireland. Consequently, they are an important source of information for a wide range of environmental applications.

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