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The United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as Britain, constitutes the greater part of the British Isles lying off the northwest coast of continental Europe. It is composed of four major political divisions: England, Scotland, and Wales on the island of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland.

Moderately temperate climate, including adequate rainfall, a well situated maritime position and a complex geological structure including great resources of coal, have made it one of the world's great industrial and trading nations while sustaining intensive agriculture.

A wealth of rivers, including large estuarine areas, as well as extensive lake area in the north, provide considerable water for inland fishing. Despite setbacks from development associated with land and water use, especially pollution, commercial fishing for salmon continues to yield a rich harvest, and angling for coarse fish or trout is found throughout the country. Freshwater aquaculture primarily for salmonids is now well in progress. Angling, however, which has long been a very important element in British recreation and tourism, continues to be dominant.

1 Some of the description of the UK are presented in more detail than those for other countries in this report. In some cases this is due to difficulties in presenting generalized statements covering all of its somewhat autonomous components. In others it is due to difficultiès in compilation. “British” statistics are often presented rather loosely even by governmental bodies, and one must be careful to note whether they refer to the entire UK, to the island of Great Britain, to only England and Wales (often considered together), or to one of the other components. The nearby Channel Islands (197 km2) and the Isle of Man (588 km2) which are Crown dependencies and not part of the UK, are not considered in this survey


Table 1

Area of the United Kingdom

 Total area km2Land area km2Inland watera
Area km2Percent of total
United Kingdom244 100240 8823 2181.32
Great Britain
229 979227 3992 5801.12
England and Wales
151 207150 3198880.59
130 439129 6817580.58
20 76820 6381300.62
78 77277 0801 6922.15
Northern Irelandb
14 12113 4836384.50

a Excluding tidal waters
b Excluding certain tidal waters that are part of statutory areas

Source: Dennis (1991)


Table 2

Population of the United Kingdom

 1988aDensity (inh/km2)
United Kingdom57 065 000b234
47 536 000364
2 857 000138
5 094 00065
Northern Ireland
1 578 000112

a Mid-1988 estimate
b UN (1986) estimates the population of the UK in 1990 as 56 190 000 (a density of 230 inh/km2)

Source: Britain (1990)


The UK lies between 50° and 60°N latitudes and 1°45'E and 8'W longitudes.

Great Britain. The largest of the British Isles is Great Britain, an island on the northwest coast of Europe between the Atlantic Ocean on the north and the North Sea on the east. It is separated by 35 km from France by the Strait of Dover and the English Channel (France's La Manche), and by 21 km by the North Channel, Irish Sea and St. George's Channel from the island of Ireland.

Great Britain has an overall length of 965 km and a breadth of 508 km. Its altitudinal range is from just below sea level to 1 342 m. Lowland is considered to be the area from 0 to 105 m, low hills 105 210 m, uplands 210–600 m, and mountains above 600 m.

Its deeply furrowed coastline, excluding many small islands, totals 8 045 km. It varies from the steep cliffs at Dover to the low-lying estuarial coast of eastern England. Submerged river valleys or rias are characteristic of the southwest coast. The west coast of Scotland has long deep inlets or sea-lochs similar to the fjords of Norway, i.e., submerged glacial troughs, making its length alone about 1 600 km.

Great Britain comprises three political sub-divisions, often termed “countries”: Scotland in the north, England to its south, and Wales to the west of England.

Geographers, however, often divide Great Britain into Highland Britain and Lowland Britain, and, after making some adjustments for the Central Lowlands of Scotland, the division is generally a valid one for both the terrain and the inland waters. (The irregular boundary, really a zone of transition, runs southwestward from the mouth of the River Tees (Hartlepool) to the River Exe (Torquay).) Highland Britain comprises Scotland, most of Wales, the broad central uplands, Pennines, and Lake District of England. This hilly or mountainous area, above 305 m in elevation, with thin, poor soils, much of it moorland, is characterized by outcrops of old and erosive-resistant rocks such as granites and schists. Conversely, the newer and softer rocks, such as claystones, sandstones and chalk, covered with rich vegetation, lie in Lowland Britain. This latter area, midland, southern and eastern England, is mostly gently rolling, cultivated, and settled country below 305 m. Even climatically, the two areas are different, the upland, being subject to maritime influence, is wetter and milder than the eastern lowland subject to continental effects. Only about eight percent of Great Britain is now wooded; there has been progressive loss of forests since Neolithic times. Oak, once dominant in the heavier soils is now largely replaced by beech and ash in the limestone and pine and birch in sandy soils and heathlands. Above 520 m there are few trees and Arctic-Alpine vegetation predominates above 610 m.

The leached and acidic podsols on granites and schists of Upland Britain are thin and poor. Less leached and more productive brown forests soils are more representative of the east and south. The soils of the two regions have a decided influence on their respective waters (see section 5).

England. Constituting 57 percent of Great Britain, England lies to the south of Scotland, bounded partly by Wales on its west, and otherwise bordered by the sea. It includes the whole of Lowland Britain, and with the exception of a few patches of health and forest almost all of this area has been cultivated. Farmland generally covers the area except in urban and industrial settlements.

About one-quarter of England is mountainous, principally: (i) the Lake District of the northwest, with a radial pattern of glaciated troughs occupied by large ribbon lakes and many mountain tarns; (ii) the Pennine Chain of mountains, footlands and moors, stretching south from the Scottish border to central England, and (iii) the hill masses of the southwestern peninsula of Devon and Cornwall.

Making up about three-quarters of England is the southern and eastern mass, a lowland of undulating downs and some flat plains. The harder chalk and limestone formations stand out as ranges of low grasscovered hills separated by rich vales of farm land.

Owing to tidal scour, which sweeps away much of the sediment, the English rivers do not form deltas, but empty into estuaries forming good ports. There are many such openings, some deep and some shallow. The east coast between the Humber and Thames estuaries is lowlying and protected by embankments.

Much of Great Britain's population is concentrated in England as is its agriculture and industrial heart (see Section 6).

Wales. This principality, considered together with England for various administrative matters, occupies nine percent of Great Britain. It is about 220 km in length (N-S) and 153 km (E-W).

A great upland massif, its highest portion, to the northwest, culminates in Mount Snowdon (1 086 m). The remainder of the massif, which lies between 183 and 610 m, is moorland country with grass cover and peaty surfaces. Much of the area is bleak pasture land. The valleys are deep and the coastal plain narrow. The north coast is relatively smooth with an estuary at the mouth of the Conway. In the south, rias are well developed with straight stretches of spit-dependent marshlands fronting the high mountains.

Agriculture, which occupies about 70 percent of the land area, is mainly concerned with sheep and cattle grazing and the dairy industry. Coal mining, electrical production, and water resources are important, and new industries are developing. Most of the settlement is in the south.

Scotland. Occupying 34 percent of Great Britain, Scotland occupies three parallel zones:

  1. The Highlands, in the north, a glaciated crystalline plateau dissected by glens (narrow valleys) and wider straths, occupies three-fifths of Scotland. It contains hundreds of peaks over 900 m including Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles (1 347 m) and has extensive rocky and moorland areas. Rivers and streams are present in all areas and there is an extensive system of large lakes (lochs) in ice-scoured valleys, as well as many smaller tarns. The Highlands are divided by a northeast-southwest depression, the Great Glen, occupied by lochs connected by canals which connect the North Sea with the Irish Sea (see section 5.4). The Highlands and the many associated islands are thinly populated. They depend mainly on fishing, fish farming, sheep farming, whisky production, forestry and tourism.

  2. The Central Lowlands, averaging 150 m, is a great rift valley with some small hills, deeply penetrated by inlets. The heart of Scotland, it contains most of its resources and most of its population. It has good farming land but is primarily industrial and has the country's largest cities.

  3. The Southern Uplands, to the south, rises again (to 843 m), although most of the area is below 460 m. Consisting of smooth rounded or rolling moorland cut by many important rivers, it is primarily agricultural, fitted for sheep raising, and has some forests. It is separated from England on its south by the Tweed River, Cheviot Hills and Solway Firth.

The coast of mainland Scotland is very irregular, deeply indented by numerous narrow sea-lochs and wider funnel-shaped inlets called firths. There are 789 islands, mostly on the west coast, excluding rock skerries.

With one-third of Britain's agricultural land, about 75 percent of Scotland consists of unimproved grazing. The soils are generally young. It accounts for about one-half of the forest land, and has large supplies of unpolluted water. Some of its traditional industries (e.g., coal, steel, textiles, ship-building) have declined, but a new offshore oil industry has provided growth in other areas: engineering, electronics, etc.

Northern Ireland. Constituting 5.8 percent of the UK, Northern Ireland occupies the northeastern portion of the island of Ireland. It is bordered on the northwest and south by the Republic of Ireland for 412 km, and is separated from Scotland to its east by only 21 km across the North Channel. Its highest point is 852 m, but most of its area is lowland and the average elevation is only 91 m. Topographically, it can be considered to be a saucer centred on Lough Neagh (the largest lake in the UK), the rim constituting its highland and rising to over 600 m. Much of Northern Ireland is moorland, its varied soils include peat and earth soils. The coast is deeply indented by sea-loughs (inlets).

Lacking many mineral or energy resources (coal and oil are imported), agriculture, mainly livestock and their products, is the most important single industry, Northern Ireland is still predominantly rural, and one-third of its population is concentrated into two cities.


The climate of the UK, generally warmer than average for its latitude, is usually mild and temperate, being determined by its southwesterly winds and the North Atlantic Drift. Cold and dry continental weather may, however, persist for weeks during the winter.

Average temperatures in the UK, north to south, range from about 4°C to 6°C in the winter and from 11.6°C to 17°C in the summer. Mean daily air temperatures in °C at sea level during the 1951–80 period are shown below (Dennis, 1991).

England and Wales4.016.09.8
Northern Ireland4.014.49.0

The growing season, based on acceptance of a system whereby a monthly mean temperature of 6°C is a valid index, varies from as little as four months in the higher part of the Highlands and Snowdonia (Wales) to between 9 and 12 months along the western and southern coastal areas of Wales and southwest England. Over most of Upland Britain it lasts 5 or 6 months and over most of the lowlands 7 or 8 months.

The rainfall in the UK averages about 1 100 mm annually. During 1941–70, it averaged 912 mm annually in England and Wales, 1 431 mm in Scotland, and 1 095 mm in Northern Ireland. It is distributed fairly evenly throughout the year, although heaviest in October–January and lowest in March–June. Geographically, rainfall has an east-west gradient; the mountainous areas of the west and north have far more precipitation than the lowlands of the south and east. Within isolated areas, the mean ranges from about 5 000 mm on some high grounds in Wales, Scotland and the Lake District to less than 500 mm annually in southeast England. The streamflow response to rainfall is rapid.

Only in limited areas will snow cover last over 50 days, and annual snow depths exceed 300 mm only in the north. There are a few snowmelt floods during the spring. None of the mountains in the UK are quite high enough to support permanent snows or icebeds. There is an annual range in evapotranspiration of from 356 mm in the Shetlands to 584 mm in the extreme southwest. Eighty percent of this occurs in June–August. Over most of England, more than 50 percent of the precipitation is lost in evaporation, but this may fall to less than 25 percent in Wales and parts of Scotland.

From May to June the mean daily duration of sunshine in the UK varies from 5 hours in northern Scotland to 8 hours in southeast England. During the November–January period, sunshine averages only half an hour a day in some areas of northern Scotland and two hours a day in the south of England.

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