United kingdom
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United kingdom

United Kingdom


United Kingdom, officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, island nation and constitutional monarchy in north-western Europe, member of the European Union and Commonwealth of Nations. The United Kingdom lies entirely within and constitutes the greater part of the British Isles. Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles and so called to distinguish it from Brittany, or “Little Britain”.

It comprises, together with numerous smaller islands—including the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, and the Scilly, Orkney, Shetland, and Hebridean archipelagos—the formerly separate realms of England and Scotland, and the principality of Wales. Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster, occupies the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland. The United Kingdom is bordered to the south by the English Channel, which separates it from continental Europe, to the east by the North Sea, and to the west by the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; the only land border is between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The total area of the United Kingdom is 244,110 sq km (94,251 sq mi). The capital and largest city is London.

The names “United Kingdom”, “Great Britain”, and “England” are often used interchangeably. The use of “Great Britain”, often shortened to “Britain”, to describe the whole kingdom is common and widely accepted, although strictly it does not include Northern Ireland. However, the use of “England” to mean the “United Kingdom” is not acceptable to members of the other constituent countries, especially the Scots and the Welsh. In this article “United Kingdom” and “Britain/British” are used synonymously; “Great Britain” is used only in reference to England, Wales, and Scotland.

England and Wales were united administratively, politically, and legally by 1543. The crowns of England and Scotland were united in 1603, but the two countries remained separate political entities until the 1707 Act of Union, which formed the Kingdom of Great Britain with a single legislature. From 1801, when Great Britain and Ireland were united, until the formal establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the kingdom was officially designated the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are direct dependencies of the British Crown, and not part of the United Kingdom. They have their own legislatures and legal systems; the British government is responsible only for their external affairs and defence. The defence, external affairs, internal security, and public services of the various British dependent territories are also a responsibility of the government, normally exercised through governors appointed by the Crown.

The dependent territories are: Anguilla; Bermuda; the British Antarctic Territory; the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT); the British Virgin Islands; the Cayman Islands; the Falkland Islands; Gibraltar; Montserrat; Pitcairn, Ducie, Henderson, and Oeno; St Helena and the St Helena Dependencies (Ascension and Tristan da Cunha); South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Virtually all are internally self-governing and have opted for various political and economic reasons to remain under British control. The exceptions are the British Antarctic Territory, which has no permanent population; and the BIOT, which comprises the Chagos Archipelago, and particularly Diego Garcia, which is leased to the United States and is an important US naval base. Hong Kong S.A.R., formerly a dependent territory, which contained all but 200,000 of what was then the 6 million combined population of the dependencies, was returned to China when Britain’s lease on the territory ran out in July 1997.

Included in the following account of the United Kingdom are sections on the land and resources, population, education, art and culture, economy, government, and history (since 1707) of the nation. Except where otherwise stated, all figures cited include England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Relevant material covered elsewhere in Encarta may be summarized or omitted in this article; the topic headings under which such material may be found are indicated. Numerous other articles containing additional and more-detailed information on important aspects of the United Kingdom are cited at appropriate points in the text.


The maximum overall length of the United Kingdom is 1,264 km (787 mi): the most northerly point is Out Stack, off Unst in the Shetland Islands; the most southerly is St Agnes in the Scilly Isles. The kingdom’s maximum width is 670 km (417 mi), from Lough Melvin in south-western Northern Ireland to Lowestoft in Suffolk, England. The mainland of the island of Great Britain is 974 km (605 mi) at its longest and 531 km (330 mi) at its widest; however, the highly indented nature of the island’s coastline means that nowhere is more than about 120 km (75 mi) from the sea.

Relative to its size, the scenery of the United Kingdom is very diverse and can change dramatically within short distances. This diversity reflects in part the underlying rocks, which range from the ancient Precambrian mountains of the Highlands of Scotland to the recent Quaternary deposits of the Fens in eastern England. All of the United Kingdom—except the area of England roughly south of a line drawn between the Thames and Severn
estuaries—was covered in ice during the Pleistocene ice age, and glaciation shaped its most spectacular scenery, including the English Lake District, the loughs of Northern Ireland, the Welsh valleys, and most of Scotland, including the lochs. Human activity has also played a key part in creating the landscape, including the southern downlands of England, the Norfolk Broads, the Fens, and the moorlands of northern Scotland.

A Great Britain

Great Britain is the world’s eighth-largest island. It has an area of 229,870 sq km (88,753 sq mi), equivalent to just over 90 per cent of the total area of the United Kingdom. It is traditionally divided into two main regions, the highlands (above 100 m/330 ft) and the lowlands, along a line running from the mouth of the River Exe in Devon, north-east to the River Tees estuary. Scotland and Wales lie within the highland region, as well as northern, north-western, and south-western England. Scotland is divided into three regions: the Highlands, which contains the United Kingdom’s highest point, Ben Nevis (1,343 m/4,406 ft), and is its most mountainous area; the Central Lowlands; and the Southern Uplands. Wales comprises primarily the Cambrian Mountains; the highest point in England and Wales (1,085 m/3,560 ft) is in the Snowdon massif.

England is divided into three main upland regions, and two lowland areas—East Anglia and the South-East—connected by generally rich agricultural plains. The upland area of the south-western peninsula includes Dartmoor, Exmoor (see Exmoor National Park), and Bodmin Moor; in the north are the Pennine Hills and in the north-west the Cumbrian Mountains of the Lake District.

B Northern Ireland

The Sperrin and Antrim mountains in the north and north-east are an extension of the Scottish Highlands. With the Mourne Mountains, which contain Northern Ireland’s highest point, Slieve Donard (852 m/2,796 ft), they edge a central plain, containing Lough Neagh (390 sq km/150 sq mi), the United Kingdom’s largest freshwater lake.

A brief summary of the climate, natural resources, and plant and animal life of the United Kingdom follows. More detailed coverage of these subjects, as well as of the United Kingdom’s physical geography and geology, can be found in the articles dealing with the component parts of the kingdom.

C Climate

The climate of the United Kingdom is mild relative to its latitude. The mildness is an effect of maritime influences, especially of the warm Gulf Stream. This current brings the prevailing south-westerly winds that moderate winter temperatures and bring the depressions which are the main day-to-day influence on the weather. The western side of the United Kingdom tends to be warmer than the eastern; the south is warmer than the north. The mean annual temperature is 6° C (43° F) in the far north of Scotland; 11° C (52° F) in the south-west of England. Winter temperatures rarely drop below -10° C (14° F), and summer temperatures rarely exceed 32° C (90° F).

The sea winds also bring plenty of moisture; average annual precipitation is more than 1,000 mm (40 in). Rain tends to fall throughout the year, frequently turning to snow in the winter, especially in Scotland, the mountains of Wales, and northern England. The western side of Britain is much wetter than the eastern: average rainfall varies from more than 5,000 mm (196 in) in the western Highlands of Scotland, to less than 500 mm (20 in) in parts of East Anglia in England.

D Natural Resources

The soils of the United Kingdom vary from the thin, often acidic soils of the Highlands to the rich loams of East Anglia. Overall, about three quarters of the kingdom’s land area is suitable for agriculture. About 40 per cent of this is suitable for arable farming, concentrated mainly in eastern and south-central England, and eastern Scotland. The majority of land is under grass and given over to livestock grazing. Most sheep and cattle are reared in the Scottish Highlands, and on the hill and moorland areas of Wales, Northern Ireland, and northern and south-western England.

Forests and woodlands cover about 7 per cent of England, 15 per cent of Scotland, 12 per cent of Wales, and 5 per cent of Northern Ireland. The overall average is just under 10 per cent and is well below the 25 per cent average for the whole of Europe. Even so, the managed forest area has doubled since the founding in 1919 of the Forestry Commission, the government department responsible for the protection and development of Britain’s forest and woodland resources.

Britain has relatively few mineral resources. Zinc, tin, iron ore, and copper are all produced in small quantities, together with tiny amounts of gold and silver. Non-metallic minerals produced include limestone, slate, talc, kaolin and other clays, fuller’s earth, chalk, sandstone, salt, and gypsum. In contrast, Britain has the richest energy resources of the EU—including large deposits of coal, mined for more than 300 years, and oil and natural gas, both primarily found in the British sector of the North Sea, off eastern Scotland and eastern England respectively. Oil was first discovered in 1969 and production began in 1975; by 1980, 15 fields were producing virtually all of Britain’s requirements. In the mid-1990s, 96 offshore and several onshore (notably in Dorset, southern England) fields were in production, and Britain was within the world’s top-ten oil producers. Production of natural gas
1967; today Britain is the world’s fifth-largest gas producer.

Although Britain’s mineral resources are limited, they have been important historically. The coal deposits of north-central England, Wales, and Scotland, and the iron ore deposits of the Pennines area played an important role in Britain’s development as the world’s first industrial nation. Together with other mineral resources, coal and iron ore also helped determine the location and development of many of Britain’s towns and some of its largest cities. Earlier, during the Middle Ages, the ancient tin mines of Cornwall were so important to the prosperity of England that the miners were granted special legal and other privileges by the Crown. However, since the end of World War II the iron-ore, coal-, and tin-mining industries have been hard hit—by the exhaustion of reserves (iron ore and tin), by competition from cheaper overseas producers, and since 1980 by changes in government policy. The last surviving Cornish tin mine, South Crofty, continued a 3,000-year-old tradition, dating back to the Phoenicians, until its closure in 1998. In September 2001 it re-opened, hoping to re-start mining by 2003. Iron ore production has virtually ceased, while coal production is down to one fifth of its 1913 peak of 292 million tonnes.

D1 Flora

The United Kingdom’s flora is as varied as its landscape, but has been strongly influenced by centuries of human activity and settlement. Most of Britain, outside the mountains and moorlands of the north and west and the wetland areas, was once cloaked in oak-dominated deciduous forest. Today, only remnants of this native forest remain, notably in the south. Plantations of quick-growing conifers in Wales and north-eastern Scotland make up much of the 10 per cent of Britain that is still forested.

About one quarter of Britain, mainly in Scotland, south-western England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is heath and moorland. Wild though they appear, these areas have been affected by grazing and by controlled burning intended to encourage an environment suitable for game birds. Vegetation includes heather, gorse, peat moss, rowan, and bilberry. The drainage of Britain’s major wetland areas, like the East Anglian Fens and the Somerset Levels, began more than 200 years ago, transforming them into pasture and arable land. More marginal wetland areas, like marshes, water-meadows, and river estuaries, largely escaped improvement until after 1945. However, widespread reclamation for both farming and housing purposes has led to many wetland plant species being threatened; some are now limited to conservation areas.

D2 Fauna

The red deer of the Scottish Highlands and Exmoor, and the roe deer of the woods of Scotland and southern England are Britain’s only surviving native large wild mammals, although semi-wild ponies are to be found on Exmoor, the Shetland Islands, and in the New Forest. Wild boar and wolves, once abundant, were long ago hunted to extinction. Other native mammals include fox, badger, otter, stoat, weasel, wildcat, pine marten, polecat, red squirrel, hedgehog, mole, brown rat, brown hare, and various species of mice, vole, and shrew. Several are endangered or are very limited in distribution. The wildcat is found only in parts of Scotland. The otter is found mainly in south-western England, and in the Shetland and Orkney islands and the red squirrel is limited primarily to the Isle of Wight and Scotland. It has been driven from most of the rest of Britain by the grey squirrel, an introduced species. Other introduced species include rabbit, black rat, muntjac deer, wallaby, and mink. Britain has five species of frog and toad, three species of newt, and three species of snake, of which only the adder is venomous. There are no snakes in Northern Ireland.

Britain is in many ways a birdwatcher’s paradise. It has diverse habitats and lies at the focal point of a migratory network. Some 200 species are regularly found. Sparrow, blackbird, chaffinch, and starling are the most numerous and are resident year-round. Other well-known residents include robin, kingfisher, wren, woodpecker, crow, and the various tits. The swallow, swift, and cuckoo are the best-known summer visitors. Winter brings many species of duck, geese, and other waterbirds to British estuaries.

Freshwater fish include salmon, trout, roach, perch, and pike. Numbers, however, have been affected by pollution. Outside fish farms, freshwater fishing is almost solely recreational. However, Britain has a long tradition of sea-fishing, although the rich fishing grounds that once supported a large industry are now badly depleted. The main catch species are cod, haddock, angler fish, plaice, mackerel, hake, whiting, and herring.

D3 Conservation

Four government agencies are responsible for conservation in Great Britain. They are The Countryside Agency and English Nature, in England; the Countryside Council for Wales; and Scottish Natural Heritage. In Northern Ireland conservation is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. In the mid-1990s these bodies were responsible for the 22 per cent of England, almost 25 per cent of Wales, 13 per cent of Scotland, and 20 per cent of Northern Ireland designated as national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. There are also a number of voluntary bodies concerned with conserving the countryside; one, the National Trust, protects some 850 km (528 mi) of the coast in
England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The United Kingdom’s wildlife is protected principally by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; recovery programmes have been set up for threatened species, including the dormouse and the fen raft spider. In the mid-1990s there were around 340 state-funded nature reserves in the United Kingdom covering about 190,000 hectares (468,000 acres), as well as more than 2,000 reserves set up by organizations like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Europe’s largest voluntary wildlife conservation body. Environmental concerns in the United Kingdom increased in the 1980s and 1990s, and the welfare of the environment became a political issue. Of particular concern was the increase in air pollution, from emissions from power plants and vehicles, and water pollution, especially the pollution of rivers by agricultural and industrial wastes. Several road-building schemes were also strongly opposed by local and national groups.


The majority of the people of the United Kingdom are descended from the many peoples who invaded the islands in the two millennia before 1066 (the date of the Norman invasion), including Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Scandinavians. However, people of many other ethnic backgrounds have settled in the United Kingdom over the centuries, including Jews; Chinese; central, eastern, and southern Europeans; and, particularly since the 1950s, people from the Caribbean and South Asia.

The United Kingdom is one of the most urbanized of the world’s larger nations: about 89 per cent of the population lives in cities and towns. The distribution of population, notably in Great Britain, still largely mirrors the industrial history of the island. About 40 per cent of Great Britain’s population is concentrated in the seven English conurbations that focus on the cities of London, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, and Newcastle upon Tyne. All but London rose to prominence as manufacturing, mining, or trade centres in the first century of industrialization.

The concentration of two thirds of the Welsh population in the southern valleys, and three quarters of Scotland’s population in the central lowlands around Glasgow and Edinburgh, has a similar origin. Most of these population centres are having to adjust to the decline of the industries on which their economies were first built. During the 20th century, southern, and particularly south-eastern, England has reasserted its historical role as the focus of economic wealth and population growth in the United Kingdom.

A Population Characteristics

The United Kingdom has a population of 60,094,648 (2003 estimate), which gives an average population density of about 246 people per sq km (638 people per sq mi), one of the highest in Europe and the world. England has around 83 per cent of the United Kingdom’s total population and is its most densely populated part, with about 380 people per sq km (983 per sq mi). Scotland has just under 9 per cent of the population and is the least densely populated part, with an average of 65 people per sq km (168 per sq mi). Wales and Northern Ireland have almost 5 per cent and 3 per cent each of the British population; their respective average population densities are 141 and 119 people per sq km (366 and 309 per sq mi).

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