The Scattered Fruit Tree Meadows of the Swabian Alb



  • Ecosystem Services Research Group


  • 15/02/2012

  • REGION :

  • Western Europe


  • Germany (Swabian Alb, Southwestern Germany)


  • The Swabian Alb, in the South-Western part of Germany, is one of the country’s most small-scale and diverse cultural landscapes with rich biodiversity and ecosystem services. It is home to one of the largest scattered fruit tree habitats of Europe. The term scattered fruit tree meadows refers to orchards which are composed of open stands of standard fruit trees, undersown with crops or managed grasslands. Recently, this traditional land-use type has come under threat. The case represented in this study presents the high value and multitude of ecosystem services which are provided. It looks back on the driving forces of the orchards' historical development and refers to reasons behind recent gains and losses. Measures are presented to conserve this human-influenced natural environment; these aim not alone for nature conservancy, but especially for a contribution to human well-being. The case of the scattered fruit tree meadows illustrates very well that in cultural landscapes natural processes align with socio-economic activities and quality of life.


  • Ecosystem services, policy instruments, conservation


  • Kathrin Trommler has conducted her master studies of Cultural Studies at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). She is research assistant with the Ecosystem Services Research Group at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

  • LINK:


In European landscapes, people and nature have co-evolved over centuries. How these cultural landscapes look like, is the result of persistent landscape change following from of a highly diverse variety of land uses. A typical traditional landscape stretches like a belt through Western, Central and Eastern Europe: scattered fruit tree meadows. This agroforestry system is a historical form of commercial orcharding which is composed of open stands of standard fruit trees, undersown with crops or managed grasslands. The study focuses on the Swabian Alb (Schwäbische Alb), in South-West Germany, where one of the largest contiguous landscapes of this type in Europe can be found.

The characteristics of scattered fruit tree meadows

Scattered fruit trees (German: Streuobst) can be defined as “tall trees of different types and varieties of fruit, belonging to different age groups, which are dispersed on cropland, meadows and pastures in a rather irregular pattern” (Herzog, 1998).

Figure 1: Scattered fruit tree meadow in the Swabian Alb.

The most common species are apple, pear, plum, sweet cherry, and also walnut. Planted at an average density of 20-100 stems per ha, the minimum stem height of 160 cm allows utilization of the ground where fodder grasses, cereals, root crops, or vegetables are grown (Herzog, 1998; Plieninger, 2012). Typical scattered fruit tree arrangements take on the shape of whole valley slopes or greenbelts around villages, but also of alleys along streets and of individual trees or tree groups. Scattered fruit trees are delimited from home-gardens or intensively managed orchards through their open and scattered character.

Figure 2: Example of scattered fruit trees that form a green belt around the village, in this case the village of Owen (Swabian Alb).

The scattered fruit tree habitats of Germany are a traditional agroforestry system resulting from an interaction of different drivers tied to the development of techniques and markets as well as political events. Although being often received as a typical pristine agricultural landscape, it is a relatively new one. Until the 17th century fruits were mostly produced for mere subsistence, and fruit trees were confined to home-gardens. The development of these habitats of highly scenic value which constituted whole new landscapes was triggered not by aesthetic reasons, but by economic ones (Weller, 1996). The early beginnings of market development were interrupted by the European Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), leaving devastated landscapes, and other catastrophic events and epidemics (Herzog, 1998). Several laws and public regulations later implemented allude to the importance of enhancing fruticulture for a revitalization of the landscape: the linking of the permission for citizenship or marriage to the obligation to plant fruit trees may be cited as an example as well as the damage of fruit trees being a punishable offence (Herzog, 1998; Weller, 1996). The 18th century is a period of wide-spread extension activities. Both scattered fruit trees and orchards became a prominent element of German landscapes, especially in the cultural landscapes of the Southwest. Another indicator for the economic significance of fruit tree meadows especially in South-West Germany is the condition of the sites on which the planting started. These were sites with particularly favourably conditions (river valleys, South facing slopes), including arable farm land. Many trees were planted in former vineyards which had been in decline due to changing climate conditions, pest invasions and arising competition with wine production from the Rhine area (Herzog, 1998). Later on, technical progress made the production of fruits even more cost-effective; the implementation of railways, for example, brought the products of scattered fruit trees to markets on a much larger scale. In Germany, the plantation and expansion of scattered fruit trees reached its peak in the 1930s. From the 1950s onwards, markets for cheap imported fruits emerged in Germany, which necessitated efforts to produce fruits at competitive prices and led to “a shift of market-oriented fruit production from Streuobst to intensively managed orchards” (Herzog, 1998). These intensive fruit tree systems are of a completely different shape in their horizontal and vertical vegetation structure (dwarf trees, bushes or espaliers planted in row; Weller, 2006). The economic conditions had changed. While in Baden-Württemberg nearly 18 Million scattered fruit trees had been counted in 1965, only 9.3 Million trees (ca. 116,000) remained in 2008 (MLR, 2008).

The case of the Swabian Alb

In the Swabian Alb, situated in the South-West federal state of Baden-Württemberg, this development needs to be examined more precisely. The area is situated around 50 km South-East of Stuttgart and covers both foothills and the Swabian Alb low mountain range.

Figure 3: The location of the Swabian Alb in the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg.

While nowadays intensively managed orchards dominate the favourable sites of the region allowing for profitability, sites with more difficult growing conditions still harbour scattered fruit tree meadows to a great extent (Weller, 1996). One of the largest contiguous landscapes of this type in Europe with about 6,000 ha of grassland and 600,000 scattered fruit trees can be found in the forelands of the Swabian Alb Mountain Ranges (Thiel et al., submitted). The region is characterized by small-scale and diverse cultural landscapes with rich biodiversity and ecosystem services. This site as a part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Swabian Alb is of high biological and cultural value.

Use and management of natural resources in the scattered fruit tree meadows

Scattered fruit tree meadows in the Swabian Alb are low-intensity systems that need to be maintained through regular, but extensive and moderately frequent human uses. The grass understorey is mown once or twice a year if not grazed extensively by sheep or other livestock. They are primarily in private ownership. The high value of this landscape results from the human-influenced shape of the natural environment as a mosaic of extensively used manifold small-scale habitats.

Figure 4: The small-scale structure of land tenure shown in this historical map of 1828 of the Swabian Alb (Village of Unterlenningen) indicates the highly diverse structure of the scattered fruit tree meadows (LGL, 2012 [1828]).

The largest amount of the products is processed for juice production, especially apple juice; further products are used for direct consumption, liquors, must or vinegar. Along with the fruits the agro-forestry system allows the production of hay and fruit as animal feeds, firewood or timber (Kizos et al., 2012). In the understanding of the Satoyama Initiative the scattered fruit tree meadows of the Swabian Alb may be assumed as a typical Socio-Ecological Production Landscape (SEPL).

Biodiversity and ecosystem services

Provisioning services may be the most obvious services that scattered fruit tree meadows provide. Farming is mostly done on sideline basis or as spare-time activity, whereas commercial fruit cultivation concentrates on intensively managed half-standard plantations. However, the fruit production of scattered fruit trees affects the European market and the economic value is underrated, although the net profit for the individual farmer is rather low (Herzog, 1998, 2000). Emerging from economic reasons in the previous days, scattered fruit trees are appreciated and enhanced mostly due to their biodiversity and ecosystem services today. The habitats’ combination of trees and low-intensity understorey layers results in small-scale and highly diverse structures and ecological gradients (site conditions, microstructures, ecological niches). In addition, typically fruit tree meadow elements like hedges, ditches, embankments, stone walls or dead wood accumulation are enhancing structural diversity (Kizos et al., 2012 ). The genetic diversity and local varieties are very high. In Germany alone, more than 3,000 fruit varieties were found in 2008 (MLR, 2008). The biodiversity that scattered fruit trees host is outstanding, among them many threatened plant and animal species. The orchards host five times more bird species than intensive fruit tree systems whose horizontal and vertical vegetation structure (dwarf trees, bushes or espaliers planted in row) are of a completely different shape (Weller, 2006). Of crucial importance to sustaining metapopulations of wildlife is the ability to provide connectivity between forest, woodlands, and other semi-natural habitats (Plieninger, 2012). In addition, scattered fruit tree meadows provide critical regulation services by improving the locate climate, buffering groundwater pollution, or controlling surface-runoff and soil erosion (Thiel et al, submitted). Also the cultural services provided by the orchards are manifold. The recreational service contributes al lot to local well-being and attracts day tourists. Concerning the landscape aesthetics, this kind of cultural landscape is characterized by its high diversity, not only spatially, but also temporal in the course of the seasons (Herzog, 1998).

Figure 5: The scattered fruit tree meadows are a constitutive part of the Swabian Alb cultural landscape and closely linked to regional identity.

The scattered fruit tree meadows today

Due to the variety of valuable ecosystem services perceived by the inhabitants, deep societal concerns are caused by the decline of scattered fruit trees which could have been witnessed in parts of the Swabian Alb during the last decades. Losses were caused both by intensified and extensified land-uses. On the one hand, especially green belts around villages suffer from increasing urbanisation. On the other hand, many orchards have been abandoned as a result of a lack of profitability and have been converted into forests. Many remaining fruit trees are overaged, lack regeneration, and suffer from neglect.

Figure 6: Maintenance condition in relation to the productiveness of scattered fruit trees (results for the federal state of Baden-Württemberg). Maintenance efforts are substantial for the conservation of the orchards, however, the data collected shows great deficits (based on: MLR, 2008).

However, surveys show that changes in the spatial arrangements of orchards were much stronger than their overall area changes. Thus, the landscapes structure is threatened by large-scale simplification and agricultural upscaling (Plieninger, 2012). Large-scale clearances have affected the inhabitants’ minds and have brought the importance of landscape scenery and its role for regional identity into the public focus. The look back on the history of this type of land-use system reveals the fundamental role of economical driving forces for its development. Today, however, the ecological and cultural value of the scattered fruit trees and orchards predominate and evokes strong public support.

Maintenance of scattered fruit tree meadows

In the case presented, a number of different policy measures for preservation, maintenance and revitalizing of orchards are provided. Most of the measures acknowledge the crucial role of those stakeholders who are in fact the land-users: the owner of the orchards. On the state level, the agri-environment programme of Baden-Württemberg (MEKA III) asks farmers to undertake environmental activities and pays income losses and costs (more than 4 Million Euro in 2008). Another scheme, the EU co-financed Life+-Project, has started in 2009 and aims at protecting birds in scattered fruit tree habitats and maintaining the habitats at the same time by promoting bird-friendly cutting of trees and revitalising trees on communal land. Other supporting schemes entail the processing and marketing of fruits given that the profitability of this land-use type is an important factor in the farmers’ perspective. In many areas, juice from scattered fruit trees is commercialized with an additional charge for maintenance efforts. The strong support of project work in the field is partly due to the structure of private, small-scale ownership of the orchards. Building of networks, information and education campaigns as well as market research are promoted. One of the most prominent schemes is the PLENUM-project which aims to preserve and develop nature and environment. Under its umbrella, e.g., juice and liquor brands have been established combined with an additional premium for producers for adhering to specific production practices (MLR, 2008).


The case of the Swabian Alb scattered fruit tree meadows illustrates the locally persistence of traditional land-use systems. Then again, it points out that the linkage of agricultural use and economic incentives to nature conservancy is of critical importance. These findings underpin the Satoyama approach that a harmonization between development of human activities, especially agriculture, and conservation of biodiversity is necessary in order to preserve cultural landscapes. However, further research is needed in order to understand processes of landscape change. Although there are manifold counter measures, the extent of well maintained scattered fruit tree meadows still decreases. Neither a sound survey of the spatial extent of changes nor a sufficiently explanation of the reasons behind efforts to either maintain or clear orchards does exist so far. The reasons for strong public support and local efforts to maintain the traditional surroundings remain vague.

Main efforts of the Ecosystem Services Research Group

The drivers, impacts and policy options regarding Central European cultural landscapes are firmly in focus of the Ecosystem Services Research Group. The project is jointly managed by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities; the Ecologic Institute, Berlin; the Öko-Institut e.V.; and the Institute for Landscape Management at the University of Freiburg. It aims at analysing the relations between ecosystem services, market-based policy instruments and quality of life in Central European cultural landscapes. Three questions are central in this context: (A) How do market-based instruments affect land-use practices and the provision of ecosystem services? (B) What effects do changes in land-use have on selected ecosystem services, and what connections and interactions exist between ecosystem services? (C) How can the relationship between ecosystem services and quality of life as well as economic welfare be conceptualized? These relations are examined, amongst others, using the example of the biosphere reserve Swabian Alb.

Local actors are closely incorporated into the analyses. The research group assumes that complex resource use problems, like the case of the scattered fruit trees, are connected with heterogeneous interests and knowledge-intensive ecosystem relations which may be tackled more efficiently and sustainable by integrating scientific expertise, regional (resource use) knowledge, and stakeholder interests. Therefore, the group initiated a scenario process in two Swabian Alb municipalities. Moreover, uncertainty, or merely a lack of data, about the value of different ecosystem services may be stated. In particular aesthetic and spiritual services provided by cultural landscapes and their crucial role for identity, social networks, and lifestyles of the local population are usually under-represented in both research and land use policies. Here, the research group aims at contributing to overcome these deficits. A key aim of this collaborative investigation of different disciplines is to point out opportunities for sustainable design of incentive instruments concerned with ecosystem services. In the case of the scattered fruit tree meadows these could be opportunities to adapt this kind of land use to the current demands of land-users and their personal interests.

The Ecosystem Services Research Group is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, under the Social-Ecological Research Programme (duration: 01.05.2009–30.04.2013). The state of work can be found on the website


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Kizos, T., Plieninger, T., Schaich, H. & Petit, C. (2012): HNV permanent crops: Olives, oaks, vines and fruit trees. In: High Nature Value Farming in Europe – 35 European Countries, Ex-periences and Perspectives. Oppermann, R., Beaufoy, G. & Jones, G. (eds.). Ubstadt-Weiher: Verlag Regionalkultur, in press.

LGL (2012 [1828]): Reproduction, map 1:2500 sheet NO 0527, detail. Landesamt für Geoinformation und Landentwicklung Baden Württemberg,  Az.: 2851.3-A/664.

MLR (2008): Streuobstwiesen in Baden-Württemberg. Daten, Handlungsfelder, Maßnahmen, Förderung. Stuttgart: Ministerium für Ernährung und ländlichen Raum des Landes Baden-Württemberg.

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Weller, F. (2006): Streuobstwiesen. In: Konold, W., Böcker, R. & Hampicke, U. (Eds.), Handbuch Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege 2. Landsberg: ecomed, XI-2.11.