Soil Surveys, Environmental Assessment & Land Management

Agricultural Land Grades and Maps

Agricultural land is graded using the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) system. This system classifies land into five grades according to the extent to which physical or chemical characteristics impose long term limitations on the agricultural use of a site for food production. The grades are numbered 1 to 5, with Grade 3 divided into two Subgrades (3a and 3b).  

Grade 1: Excellent Quality Agricultural Land

Land within this grade has little to no limitations to agricultural use. This land can support a very wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops including top fruit, soft fruit salad crops and winter harvested vegetables. Yields are consistently high.

Grade 2: Very Good Quality Agricultural Land

This land has minor limitations which affect crop yield, cultivations or harvesting. It can support a wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops but there can be some reduced flexibility on land within the grade, which causes difficulty in the production of more demanding crops e.g. winter harvested vegetables and arable root crops. This land is high yielding but may be lower or more variable than Grade 1. 

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Grade 3: Good to Moderate Quality Land

This land has moderate limitations that affect the choice of crops to be grown, timing and type of cultivation, harvesting or yield. The yield of more demanding crops grown on this land is generally lower or more variable than on Grade 1 and 2.  

Subgrade 3a: Good Quality Agricultural Land

This is land that is capable of consistently producing moderate to high yields of a narrow range of arable crops (e.g. cereals) or moderate yields of a wide range of crops (e.g. cereals, grass, oilseed rape, potatoes, sugar beet and less demanding horticultural crops).

Subgrade 3b: Moderate Quality Agricultural Land

This land is capable of producing moderate yields of a narrow range of crops (mainly cereals and grass) or lower yields of a wider range of crops, or high yields of grass (for grazing/harvesting).

Grade 4: Poor Quality Agricultural Land

Land included within this grade suffers severe limitations that significantly restrict the range and/or yield of crops to be grown. This land is mainly suited to grass with occasion arable crops – the yields of which are variable. In moist climates grass yields are likely to be moderate to high but there are often difficulties in utilisation. Very droughty arable land is also included in this land grade. 

Grade 5: Very Poor Quality Agricultural Land

This land has severe limitations which restricts use to permanent pasture or rough grazing, except for occasional pioneer forage crops.

The ALC framework is used to classify agricultural land in England and Wales and referred to in National Planning Policy which protects ‘best and most versatile’ land – Grades 1, 2 and Subgrade 3a.

Land grades are determined by ALC survey carried out to current (post 1988) guidelines and in accordance with Natural England (Technical Information Note 049). For more information on the uses of Agricultural land classification (ALC) call 01509 670 570 to discuss your survey requirements with one of our Consultants.

Agricultural Land Classification Maps

A generic Agricultural Land Classification map showing the agricultural quality of land

The only way to accurately determine the agricultural grade of the land is by getting a detailed field survey. This information is combined with climatic and other data to produce an ALC map and report. These ALC assessments are then used to support planning decisions. Most ALC Maps are based on the principles of the Agricultural Land Classification System of England & Wales.

As mentioned in the Agricultural Land Classification of England and Wales document, “small, discrete areas of a different ALC grade may be identified on large scale maps, whereas on smaller-scale maps it may only be feasible to show the predominant grade.”

As well as the grades above, there are other descriptions of other land categories used on ALC maps:

Urban

Areas within an urban area such as housing, industry, commerce, education, religious buildings and cemeteries are known as ‘hard’ use because of the little potential for a return to agricultural land. This is due to the fact that the land is hard to restore after use.

Non-agricultural

This is land which can be returned relatively easily to agriculture. Known as a ‘soft’ use this is commonly referred to areas such as golf courses, private parklands, public open spaces and sports fields. Active mineral workings and refuse tips also fall under this category as the land can be easily restored after use.

Woodland

Commercial and non-commercial woodland.

Agricultural buildings

Includes all the normal agricultural buildings as well as other permanent structures. Temporary structures such as tunnels erected for lambing may be ignored.

Open water

Commonly known as lakes, ponds and rivers.

Land not surveyed

Agricultural land that has yet to be surveyed. Commonly seen where the land includes more than one of the above land types and where the map scale allows the cover types may also be shown separately. The most extensive cover type will usually be shown. 

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