The United Kingdom is the sixth largest economy in the world, generating a GDP of £2.0 trillion ($2.6 trillion) in 2018. The United Kingdom is also one of the most urbanised countries, with 83.1% of the population living in urban areas according to the UN — a greater share than any of the five nations with a larger GDP than the U.K. other than Japan. Yet while the U.K. is one of the most advanced economies on the globe and is home to one of the most urbanised populations, much of the country’s land remains undeveloped. Some 28.7% of the United Kingdom is covered by pastures, 27.8% by cropland, 24.4% by forest and natural areas, 10.7% by wetlands, and just 8.4% by urban areas. The Republic of Ireland is similarly rural, with 30.0% of the country covered by pastures, 43.1% by cropland, 11.3% by forest and natural areas, 3.6% by wetlands, and 11.9% by urban areas.
To determine the distribution of land use types in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, QuickQuid used GIS data from the 2012 CORINE Land Cover inventory, a product of the European Environment Agency of the EU. CORINE uses satellite imagery to classify land use types in 44 categories with a minimum mapping unit of 25 hectares for 39 cooperating countries throughout Europe.
Types of Land Compared
Grouped together, land covered by pastures and cropland in the U.K. (a total of 56.5%) would encompass the entirety of England. The nation’s urban areas—which include continuous and discontinuous urban fabric, industrial, commercial, and transport sites like roadways and airports, mine, dump, and construction sites, and artificial vegetated areas like cemeteries and golf courses—constitute just 8.4% of the U.K., less than the total space occupied by the country’s 15 official national parks. All land covered by forests and natural areas, as well as wetlands (a total of 35.1%) occupies an area greater than the size of Scotland.
Land Used for Homes and Businesses
The amount of land covered by urban areas in the U.K. —just 8.4% of the country—is limited in part by the use of green belts. First introduced in 1938 and codified into law by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the policy allows townships to limit development in designated areas outside of cities known as green belts. Today, green belt-designated areas exist outside of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and other large cities, and cover an estimated 13% of land in England.
The United Kingdom has 15 areas designated as national parks under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and other, later statutes that collectively occupy 9.4% of the country. Another 15.0% of the U.K. is covered by undesignated forests and natural areas, together taking up about one-fourth of the country. Much of the land covered by forests and natural areas in the Republic of Ireland is designated as a Special Protection Area, a zone dedicated to the protection of wild species of wild birds classified under the terms of the EU Birds Directive.
Land for Food: Crops
According to data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, land used to grow wheat accounts for the largest share of cropland, followed by barley, oilseed rape, oats, potatoes, fresh vegetables, sugar, beans, peas, and other protein crops, fresh fruit, linseed, and plants and flowers. In the Republic of Ireland, a bulk of cropland is used for barley, followed by wheat, other crops, oats, beets, oilseed rape, protein crops, potatoes, and vegetables, according to data from the Ireland Central Statistics Office.
The bulk of cropland in the U.K. is non-irrigated land used to cultivate traditional crops under a rotation system. In the Republic of Ireland, by contrast, a majority of cropland is classified as agricultural land mixed with natural vegetation. Measured by the variance among land use types, cropland in the Republic of Ireland is more than twice as diverse as cropland in the U.K.
Land for Food: Meat
The largest land use category in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, pastures constitute 28.7% of land in the U.K. and 58.0% of land in the Republic of Ireland. Pastures are generally characterised by dense grass cover used for grazing by livestock. According to data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the U.K. is one of the largest producers of livestock in the EU, accounting for 39.5% of all sheep and goat meat, 11.5% of all beef and veal, 9.7% of all cows’ milk, and 3.9% of all pig meat produced in the region. The Republic of Ireland is also a major producer of livestock, accounting for 8.9% of all sheep and goat meat, 7.9% of all beef and veal, 4.8% of all cow’s milk, and 1.3% of all pig meat in the EU.
Some 10.7% of the U.K. and 13.5% of the Republic of Ireland is covered by land classified as wetlands. Nearly three fourths of land classified as wetlands in the U.K. is in Scotland. Much of the land covered by wetlands in the Republic of Ireland is designated as a Special Area of Conservation, a zone dedicated to the protection of Irish habitats and species such as raised bogs, turloughs, machair, freshwater pearl mussel, bottlenose dolphin, and Killarney fern under the EU Habitats Directive.
A bulk of wetland in the U.K. is classified as peat bog, land consisting mostly of decomposed moss and vegetable matter. Grouped together with other wetland classifications — inland marshes, salt marshes, salines, and intertidal flats — the land covered by wetlands in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland would encompass the entirety of Wales and Northern Ireland.
A Closer Look at Land Usage
A detailed look at clustered land use types shows some of the more specific functions of land in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. Discontinuous urban fabric — 5.4% of the U.K — consists of suburban residential areas on the edge of urban centers, and is primarily characterised by blocks of flats, individual houses, gardens, streets, and parks. While 83.1% of the U.K. population lives in urban areas, the entirety of land classified as discontinuous fabric throughout the country could fit inside of Northern Ireland.
Another large land use category in the U.K. is sports and leisure facilities, which include camping grounds, sports grounds, leisure parks, and — notably — golf courses. Modern golf originated in Scotland and spread quickly to Great Britain and Ireland. Today, Scotland is home to the most golf courses per capita of any country on the globe, according to Golf Digest magazine.
One land use feature that is roughly eight times as common in the Republic of Ireland as it is in the U.K. is diverse cropland. Area classified as diverse cropland is composed of small parcels of arable land, pasture, and orchards, and includes land occupied by the Republic of Ireland’s plentiful city gardens. Diverse cropland covers 1.0% of land in the Republic of Ireland, compared to 0.1% in the U.K.
The mix of pasture, cropland, wetland, forest, and urban area in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland reflect some of the political struggles over land use within the two nations and the economic tradeoffs that may result. While organisations like the Campaign to Protect Rural England are fighting to maintain the share of land occupied by countryside in the U.K., migration patterns within the country suggest a demand for more high-density development. As more residents move from the sparsely populated north to the densely populated southeast, the share of the U.K. population living in urban areas rose from 80.5% in 2007 to 81.3% in 2017. The share of the Irish population living in urban areas rose from 60.9% to 63.0% — and shows no signs of slowing down.
There are, however, obstacles to urban growth. Green belts, which cover an estimated 13% of England, limit urban sprawl and, according to some critics, reduces the stock of available housing and may ultimately limit economic growth in an area.
Over the last several years, the most urbanised regions of the United Kingdom have experienced the fastest economic growth. While the gross value added of London (where 64.9% of land is classified as urban areas, the most of any region of England) grew a nation-leading 3.2% from 2010 to 2016, North East England (where just 1.6% of land is classified as urban, the smallest share in the U.K.) grew just 0.7%, the slowest economic growth nationwide.
Land use in the U.K. may also be significantly impacted by the country’s exit from the European Union. Much of the U.K.’s environmental legislation, particularly the conservation of nation-specific habitats and species, is tied to EU policy. Special Areas of Conservation—which cover about one fourth of the U.K. and its waters, for example—are intended to protect certain habitats in countries throughout Europe as part of the Habitats Directive of the European Union. Special Protection Areas, which also cover a significant portion of the U.K. and are intended to wild birds under the EU Birds Directive — is also the result of legislation mandated by the European Union. As Brexit nears and internal population shifts continue to alter the layout of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, having a deep understanding of land use in the two countries will likely become even more important to both town planners and informed citizens alike.