Abstract In most intensively-managed European farming systems, the uncultivated elements present are linear features in the landscape, typically field margins, verges and watercourses. These elements are important for biological diversity in farming landscapes, but also are viewed as sources of weeds, pests and diseases. An understanding of the origins, functions and ecology of these semi-natural elements is required, if these man-made structures are to survive. Increasingly, their agricultural functions are declining in importance, while cultural and environmental roles are increasing. Significant research effort is in progress to understand the ecology of field margins at a range of spatial scales. This issue presents a number of papers addressing different aspects of the studies in hand in Europe.