The debate among ecologists on the optimal number of reserve sites under a fixed maximum total reserve area-the single large or several small (SLOSS) problem-has so far neglected the economic aspects of the problem. This paper argues that economic considerations can affect the optimal number and size of reserve sites and should therefore be taken into consideration in the SLOSS discussion. The paper presents a tractable analytical model to determine the socially optimal number of reserve sites to be allocated in a farming area under a fixed total reserve area, taking the opportunity costs of nature conservation (in this case, agricultural profits) into consideration. Furthermore, the effect of land trade and related transaction costs on the socially optimal number of reserve sites is analyzed. The analysis suggests that in the presence of diminishing returns to farming area, the socially optimal number of reserve sites (which maximizes social welfare) is generally larger than the ecologically optimal number (which maximizes an ecological objective such as population viability). When the opportunity costs of conservation can be offset by land transactions, however, the socially optimal number of reserve sites might be closer to the ecological optimum. (C) 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.