Rural Affairs

England Rural Development Programme logo

1.1 Geographical Area and Physical Context

1.1.1 Topography, Geology and Relief

1. The South West Region, at 24,000 square kilometres, is the largest in England and represents 15% of the mainland area. As a peninsula, it is over 350 kilometres from the south western tip of Cornwall to the northern border of Gloucestershire. This encompasses an extremely varied topography (Map 1) and geology (Map 2).

thumbnail gif link to southwest relief gif

Map 1: Hill Shaded Relief

  1. There is a great range in altitude across the Region, with the highest points from 330m in the Cotswolds to the north, south through the Forest of Dean (279m), the Mendips (305m) and Salisbury Plain (212m) to the uplands of Exmoor (520m), Dartmoor (621m) and Bodmin Moor (419m). Between these upland masses are lower-lying landforms of plateaux, vales and river valleys, levels, estuaries and coastal strips. There are also the off-lying inhabited islands of Lundy and Scilly.
  2. Somerset as a county is probably the most varied of all, ranging from the upland expanse of Exmoor to the carboniferous limestone of the Mendips in the north and the clay/sand complexes of the Blackdown Hills in the south, with the red soils of the Quantocks and the peat/clay Levels in between. Devon has at its heart the moorland vastness of Dartmoor, with the soft landscapes of the South Hams to the south and the heavy Culm clays to the north.

Thumbnail gif link to South West geology gif

Map 2: Solid Geology - 1:250,000 scale (Source: British Geological Survey, NERC)

  1. Dorset is dominated by the chalk downlands, with sand and gravel river valleys intersecting these together with Greensand hills and clay vales in the west and the limestone landforms in the south, whilst Wiltshire is largely a plateau landscape of rolling chalk upland, bounded by Greensand fringes and clay vales. Gloucestershire is characterised in the east by the Jurassic limestone escarpment of the Cotswolds rising from the estuarine levels of the Severn valley. In the western part of the county lies the Forest of Dean, a heavily wooded series of ridges and basins with a complex geology of carboniferous limestones, shales and sandstones.
  2. Cornwall is a county of contrasts, with the hard granite in the northern part of the county reaching its highest point on the wilderness of Bodmin and a softer underbelly of coastal estuaries and river valleys in the south. The high degree of coastal exposure in Cornwall is reflected throughout the region, with a very high coast to landmass ratio.

[Back to top]

1.1.2 Climate

  1. The climate of the South West is varied, with the main influences being altitude, aspect and proximity to the sea. The overall pattern is one of warm winters, cool summers and relatively high rainfall with consequent advantages for crop growth; although this can constrain field working due to impassable ground conditions and allied to exposure, can constrain livestock grazing periods. The data in Table 1.1 show features of the Region's climate in comparison with England, which have an effect on agricultural production.
Table 1.1: Regional climate data (Source: FRCA National Environmental Database)
Feature Mean Maximum Minimum Mean for England
Average Annual Rainfall (mm) 1,006 2,320 614 836
Accumulated Temp. above 0ºC 1443 1654 949 1352
Moisture Deficit of wheat (mm) 85 124 -10 90
Moisture Deficit of potatoes (mm) 73 123 -36 79
Field Capacity Days 206 365 132 178
Altitude above sea level (m) 120 580 0 109
  1. The western coasts are exposed to moist, mild, westerly winds but maritime influences decline further eastwards leading to lower rainfall and colder winters. Broadly speaking temperature decreases with altitude, while wind speeds are highest in the west and on the coast, and exposure is most severe on the coast and in the uplands. Only in a few western coastal districts and on lowlands in the east is annual precipitation less than 1000mm, while Dartmoor and Exmoor receive more than 2000mm (Map 3).

  Thumbnail gif link to South West Average Annual Rainfall gif

Map 3: Average Annual Rainfall (mm) 1941 - 1970 (Source: The Meteorological Office)

  1. In the driest parts of the region there can be a significant deficit below the national mean leading to drought conditions during the summer and poor availability of water resources.
  2. The accumulated temperature measured from January shows that parts of the Region have early cropping potential and an advanced growing season compared with the rest of the country. However, in both the more exposed and the more "continental" parts of the Region not experiencing a maritime effect, the growing season lags behind that experienced in the west of the country as a whole. These areas however, compare favourably with the eastern half of the country (Map 4).

Thumbnail gif link to Accumulated Temperature for South West gif

Map 4: Accumulated Temperature above 0 degrees C (Jan to June) 1941 - 1970
(Source: The Meteorological Office)

[Back to top]

1.1.3 Land Quality and Use

  1. More than 80% of the land resource in the South West is agricultural land, and one of the principal determinants of agricultural land use is physical land quality. The MAFF Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) system grades agricultural land quality according to its versatility for agricultural production. Geology, soils, slope, stoniness, climate, wetness and other factors are assessed by field survey to grade land, Grade 1 being the best and Grade 5 the worst. The distribution and proportions of the grades are shown in Map 5.

Thumbnail gif link to Agricultural Land Classification gif

Map 5: Agricultural Land Classification (Source: MAFF)

  1. Grade 1 (excellent quality) land is mapped in sizeable areas in all of the counties except for Cornwall. This land has very minor or no physical limitations to its agricultural use. Yields will be consistently high and the cropping will be highly flexible including exacting horticultural crops. The main concentrations of this grade are in the Vale of Pewsey, around Newent in Gloucestershire, on the sandy soils of South Somerset, in the valleys of the Rivers Exe and Culm and to the west and north of Taunton. Smaller areas are found elsewhere in Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. There is also a small area between Penzance and St Ives, thought to be the only Grade 1 land in Cornwall.
  2. The distribution of Grade 2 (good quality) land is similar to that of the Grade 1 land only it is more extensive. This land has some minor limitations to its agricultural use that may hinder the cultivation and harvesting of crops or lead to lower yields. In general though, a wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops can be grown. The main areas that have been mapped are the sheltered valleys on the south coasts of Cornwall, Devon and to a lesser extent Dorset.
  3. The majority of the South West is Grade 3 (good to moderate quality) land with moderate limitations to its agricultural use due to the soil, relief and climate, or some combination of these factors that restricts the choice of crops, timing of cultivations or the level of yield.
  4. Areas of Grade 4 (poor quality) land with severe limitations are found throughout the Region and agricultural use is restricted generally to low output enterprises. A high proportion is under grass, with occasional fields of oats, barley or forage crops. The Grade 4 land is mapped usually in river valleys and on the uplands of the Cotswolds, Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. Other areas include parts of the Upper Thames Valley, the Blackdown Hills and higher ground in mid-Devon. Steeply sloping areas throughout the Region are also shown as Grade 4.
  5. Grade 5 (very poor quality) land with very severe limitations is restricted mainly to Exmoor, Dartmoor, the Quantock Hills, Bodmin Moor, parts of West Penwith, areas on the Mendip Hills and heathland around Poole Harbour and Bournemouth. These areas are used as rough grazing, except for occasional pioneer forage crops.
  6. Non-agricultural land is not urban but includes areas of derelict land, mineral sites, airfields, Ministry of Defence property, forestry, etc.
  7. MAFF's provisional Agricultural Land Classification grading (Map 5) indicates that the proportion of Grades 1 and 2 land is below the average for England as shown in Figure 1.1.
Graph of Agricultural  Land  Classification

 Figure 1.1: Source: MAFF/FRCA ALC mapping.

  1. There is however a significantly higher proportion of Grade 3 land compared to England. The proportions of Grades 4 and 5 are similar to the national average. The percentage of land classed as urban (7.3%) is, however, about two thirds that for England (10.6%), emphasising the rural nature of the Region. The prudent use of this natural resource, which underpins the agricultural industry, is relevant not only to sustaining agriculture, but also its ancillary industries and its associated communities and environment.

Thumbnail gif link to South West Dominant Land Cover gif

Map 6: Dominant Land Cover 1990 (Source: Institute of Terrestrial Ecology)

  1. The South West has the highest proportion of land in agricultural use of any English region (80%). The agriculture within the Region is varied but dairy farming predominates. The uplands of the western parts of the Region are dominated by beef and sheep farming; by contrast, more of the east and north of the Region is associated with arable cropping (Map 6).
  2. From the following table (Table 1.2) it can be seen how dominant grassland is within the Region, where the percentage of managed grassland is significantly higher than the figure for England. This follows on into the agricultural sector where the proportion of tilled land is significantly lower than the figure for England. Taken together these two facts start to show how 'rural' the South West is.
Table 1.2: Percentage Landcover, 1990 (Source: DoE, Institute of Terrestrial Ecology)
Class South West England
Urban/suburban 7.3 10.6
Tilled 21.0 33.7
Managed Grassland 49.5 34.6
Bracken, heath/moor & rough grass/marsh 10.6 11.7
Woodland 10.3 7.8
Inland Water 0.1 0.3
Other 1.2 1.3
  1. Much of the Region's farmland is of average quality, hence grassland dominates in 65% (including 5% rough grazing) of the total agricultural area. This figure fell from 75% in 1974 due to the expansion of arable cropping, especially forage maize. Almost half of all farms are dairy whilst nearly a third are in cattle and sheep production. However, within the Region differences do occur. There is a greater emphasis on grassland farming in Devon and Cornwall than in the remainder of the South West (around 77% compared to 59%); for comparison the figure for England is around 48%. However, intensive dairy farming is declining whilst other less intensive livestock farming is increasing. Arable cropping, i.e. crops, fallow and set-aside, constitutes 30% of the South West agricultural area compared to around 47% nationally. Again, a large difference is apparent within the Region, with only about 18% of agricultural land within Devon and Cornwall under arable crops, compared to 36% in the remainder of the Region. This figure will be even higher for the northern and eastern parts of the Region.
  2. The principal uses of agricultural land in the South West are shown in Figure 1.2. The area of crops, fallow and set-aside has increased over the last 10 years despite a 15% fall in the area of cereals. This is partly because of the increase in the area of maize and potatoes, and significantly the area of oilseeds and pulses which has increased to 51,600 hectares in the Region as a result of subsidies.
  3. In the period 1987 to 1997 the potato area has increased by around 7%, several growers having grasped a market opportunity to build business competitiveness with the removal of potato quotas. The area of other crops (primarily forage maize) and fallow has increased by 116% due to the favourable climate for forage maize production in the area, and set-aside now covers 33,264 hectares, nearly 2% of the farmed area in the Region. These changes have contributed to a corresponding drop in grassland area of nearly 8%.
Graph of Agricultural land use

Figure 1.2: Source: MAFF Agricultural Census.

  1. The area under horticultural crops has not changed significantly over the period from 1987-1997. Important horticultural areas in the Region include the Isles of Scilly, West Cornwall and Tamar Valley, where market advantage derives from a long growing season, and the transport links for these areas to markets in the larger towns and cities have improved significantly over the last 20 years. The horticultural industry has seen falls in the areas of vegetables (4%) and fruit (10%) but an increase of 36% in other outdoor horticultural stock, primarily bulbs and flowers. Cornwall has at least 20% of the world market in flowers and bulbs.
  2. Forestry is a significant land use with a higher proportion (9%) than England (7.5%) and a range of types from small farm woodlands to large traditional estates, with the majority of this being types of woodland other than farm woodland and Community Forests. Both conifer and broadleaf woodland are managed with land ownerships covering both the agricultural and forestry land. The area of farm woodland has increased due to a combination of grant aid incentives, an increase in awareness of environmental opportunities and a better appreciation of the value of woodland products. However, there is still considerable opportunity to develop this integration, and given the higher than average area of Grades 3 and 4 agricultural land, to extend the woodland area with all the sustainable benefits which follow. The success of woodland establishment projects, such as the South West Forest, illustrates this.
  3. The area of land classified as "Other Land" includes large tracts owned by the Ministry of Defence, particularly in Wiltshire and Dorset, which are still farmed both for arable and livestock. These areas are not be included in the statistics for farmed land.
  4. Agriculture in the South West is variably affected by urban fringe pressures. Whilst there are some constraints on agriculture in close proximity to larger urban areas, in the shape of pressure for development and anti-social influences, these areas also provide marketing opportunities for farm produce and visitor attractions.

[Back to top]

1.1.4 Main Centres of Population and Transport Links

  1. Over half the Region's population of nearly 5 million live in rural areas and towns of less than 20,000. Peripherality and remoteness are significant issues for the population in large parts of the Region.
  2. One third of the population lives in towns of over 100,000 residents (Map 7). The main urban concentrations lie in the east of the Region, with the Bristol/Bath and Swindon axis in the north and the Bournemouth/Poole conurbation in the south east. In the west, Devon contains the key settlements: Plymouth is the main urban area, with the coalesced towns of Torquay and Paignton forming a second urban focus, and Exeter third in the county in terms of scale. Other significant urban centres in county terms are Weston-Super-Mare, Cheltenham, Gloucester and Taunton. Elsewhere in the Region the pattern is very much of market towns with a rural hinterland, particularly so in Cornwall, Somerset, North Devon, rural Dorset and Gloucestershire. Outside these market towns, there is a dispersed settlement pattern, particularly in the remote western parts of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.
  3. The north and east of the Region are generally well served by transport infrastructure. The main transport routes by land run east to west in the Region. The trunk road network of the M4/M5 and A303/A30 fan out from London and the south east towards the Region, with the M5 also providing a link into the Midlands and the North. It should be noted that the A30 and the A303 are not dual carriage-way for their whole length. The A30 is only dual carriage-way between Exeter and Okehampton, around Launceston, Bodmin, Indian Queens, Redruth and Camborne. The A303 is mostly dual carriage-way in Somerset and Wiltshire but there are important stretches which are still single carriage-way. The Bournemouth conurbation links more to the Solent area and the M27 than with the rest of the Region.

Thumbnail gif link to South West Main Centres of Population and Transport Links gif

Map 7: Main Centres of Population and Transport Links

  1. North to south links within the Region are less developed, although improvements are being made off the trunk road spine, e.g. the North Devon Link Road from the M5 to Barnstaple. The main railway network also runs east to west, either into London Paddington via Bristol/Taunton or from Exeter and Bournemouth to London Waterloo, with good connections to the Midlands and North via Bristol.
  2. Major roads in the South West are, surprisingly, the least well used amongst the English regions, averaging 13,000 vehicles per day in 1996, 5,000 lower than the average figure for the country as a whole. A similar picture can be found on motorways where average daily traffic flows are relatively light; 45,000 vehicles per day in 1996 compared to the English average of 66,000. Within the Region there are exceptions such as the M3 and M5 motorways where in 1997 the average daily motor vehicle flows were 69,000 and 54,000 respectively. Road usage is more seasonal than other regions, i.e. severe congestion in the summer when large numbers of tourists come into the region but not in the winter.
  3. Regional international airports are found at Bristol, Bournemouth Gloucester, Exeter, Plymouth and Newquay, although there is no single regional focus for air traffic. Sea routes run to the European continent from Plymouth, Weymouth and Poole, and there are a host of smaller ports, mainly along the southern coast, which are important for freight and fishing traffic, for example Penzance, Falmouth, and Brixham near Torquay. Along the northern coastline accessibility is greatly affected by the tidal range in the Severn Estuary, although the Bristol port of Avonmouth retains its status as the Region's main industrial port.

[Back to top]

1.1.5 Economic and Environmental Designations

  1. There are a number of key national economic and environmental designations which apply to the rural parts of the Region, together with existing or future designations under the EU Structural Funds Programmes.
  2. Rural Development Areas have been established on a county basis and have associated Rural Development Programmes under Regional Development Agency and Local Authority direction. Almost the whole of Cornwall, two thirds of Devon and Dorset, half of Somerset, a small part of Wiltshire and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, have been so designated (Map 8).

Thumbnail gif link to South West Rural Development Areas

Map 8: Rural Development Areas (Source: CACI Ltd.)

  1. There are seven Environmentally Sensitive Areas administered in the Region, as shown in Map 9. These areas have environmental objectives, which are discussed in more detail in Sections 1.2.1 and 1.5.1, but also have socio-economic impacts through management agreement payments made to farmers and landowners.
  2. There are two National Parks (Exmoor and Dartmoor) and 14 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), wholly or partly, within the Region. The former have their own Local Authorities, with countryside management and planning functions, whilst the administration arrangements for the latter range from Local Authority supported projects and area-specific management plans to solely recognition of the designation in relevant Local Authority development plans under the Town and Country Planning legislation. These areas are shown in Map 9.

Thumbnail gif link to South West Environmentally Sensitive Areas gif

Map 9: Environmentally Sensitive Areas, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks and National Nature Reserves (NNRs Source: English Nature)

  1. Much of the upland in the Region is designated as a Less Favoured Area (LFA), as shown in Map 10. These areas include Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor. Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances (HLCAs) are paid on top of basic livestock subsidies for eligible breeding sheep and cattle. See Section 1.5.1 for greater detail on HLCAs.
  2. Where groundwater is vulnerable to pollution Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) and Nitrate Sensitive Areas (NSAs) have been designated (Map 10). These are areas where the management of agricultural land is modified to reduce nitrate loss to groundwater sources. Further details on expenditure are given in Section 1.5.1.

Thumbnail gif link to South West Less Favoured Areas gif

Map 10: Less Favoured Areas, Moorland Line, Nitrate Sensitive Areas, Nitrate Vulnerable Zones and Heritage Coast

  1. Objective 5(b) is a designation made under the current EU programme of structural funds for the period 1994-99. The designated area covers Cornwall, northern and western Devon plus parts of South Hams, and western Somerset (Map 11). This Objective aims to target assistance for development and structural adjustment in disadvantaged rural areas. The impact of the programme is discussed in more detail at Section 1.5.1.
  2. Northern Devon and western Somerset have been proposed for Objective 2 status from 2000 with regard to EAGGF funded measures; Plymouth, Torbay and parts of South Devon together comprise an urban strand to draw down ERDF and ESF funds (Map 11). If Objective 2 status is not granted, or only partially granted to the current 5(b) area, the omitted area will be eligible for transitional relief.

Thumbnail gif link to South West European Structural Funds gif

Map 11: European Structural Funds 1994 - 1998 (Source: DETR)

  1. Cornwall has been designated with Objective 1 status from 2000.
  2. Around Swindon and Bristol the Great Western and Forest of Avon Community Forests, respectively are being developed. These projects are multifunctional and aim to provide a rich mosaic of managed wooded landscapes and land uses including farmland, villages, leisure enterprises and public open space on the doorstep of these two major cities, thus providing a high quality environment for homes, employment and recreation. Both forests have adopted plans and project teams which offer more guidance and expertise for these areas. Together they represent 21.2% of the national designated area.

Table 1.3: Community Forest Statistics (Source: Countryside Agency 1999)
Community Forest Area (km2) Local Authority Partners (no.) Existing Tree Cover (km2) Population within 20 km (million)
Forest of Avon 573 6 5.9 1.0
Great Western Forest 390 5 3.0 0.3

[Back to top]

Page last modified: 17 August, 2005
Page published: 1 October, 2000

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs