Soil Surveys, Environmental Assessment & Land Management

Agricultural Land Grades

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. 


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.

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

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


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.


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.


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. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the grading of agricultural land?

In the UK, agricultural land is graded based on its quality and potential productivity. This is done using the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) system, which assesses various factors such as soil quality, climate, and topography. The land is categorised into five grades, with Grade 1 being the highest quality and Grade 5 being the lowest. This grading helps in determining the suitability of land for different types of agricultural use.

What can Grade 3 agricultural land be used for?

Grade 3 agricultural land in the UK, regarded as moderately suitable for farming, is often divided into two subsets: Grade 3a and Grade 3b. Grade 3a, being the higher quality, can consistently yield a reasonable output of various crops and grasses with appropriate management, while Grade 3b is more limited and suited for grassland and extensive grazing. This grade of land requires careful management for optimal productivity and is adaptable for a mix of agricultural activities, including both arable farming and livestock grazing, depending on its specific attributes such as soil type and climate.

What is the 10-year rule for agricultural land?

The 10-year rule refers to a planning principle in UK law where if a building or use of land has existed for over 10 years without any enforcement action being taken, it may become lawful. For agricultural land, if a non-agricultural use or structure has been in place for over 10 years without objection or enforcement, it may be possible to apply for a certificate of lawfulness. However, this is a complex area of law and seeking legal advice is advisable.

What are the classifications of agricultural land use?

Agricultural land use in the UK is broadly classified into several categories, including arable farming (growing crops), pasture (grazing livestock), mixed farming (combination of arable and livestock), horticulture (growing fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants), and woodland (forestry). Each type of use is suited to different grades of land based on its quality and characteristics.

Is a smallholding classed as agricultural?

Yes, a smallholding is typically classed as agricultural in the UK. A smallholding is a piece of land smaller than a farm, used for agricultural activities, often combining food production for self-consumption with some level of commercial agricultural production. This can include growing crops, rearing livestock, and other farming activities.

However, the specific classification can depend on various factors, including the size of the smallholding and the nature of activities carried out. For planning and tax purposes, if the land is used primarily for agricultural purposes, it is generally considered agricultural land. It's important for smallholding owners to be aware of local planning rules and agricultural regulations, as these can influence how the land can be used and any potential benefits or obligations associated with its agricultural status.