South West 2001 was published by the Environment Agency and the South West Regional Assembly (SWRA) on 11 July. The report brings together the input of many environmental groups, local authorities, pressure groups, charities and academics, highlighting the many environmental improvements that have been made in recent years and shedding light on the pressure the south west environment is under from factors such as housing, transport and intensive land use. The survey covers an area of 23,829 square kilometres from Gloucestershire and Wiltshire to the Isles of Scilly, and represents almost 10% of the UK’s total population.

Among the more positive findings of the survey are:

  • water quality is generally excellent, with 97% of the region’s rivers of good or fair quality, the highest proportion in England, and over 60% of the country’s designated bathing waters situated in the region. Of these, last year almost 96% of these met the mandatory water quality standard set by the European Commission;
  • air quality is generally good and is improving;
  • over three-quarters of the total land area is agricultural, two thirds of this is grassland;
  • protecting the countryside is vital for the South West’s economy in terms of ensuring success for agriculture and tourism industries. More British tourists visit the South West than any other area of the country, with numbers in 1996 more than tripling the resident population and 78% of all holiday trips being motivated by conserved landscape;
  • nationally and internationally important wildlife sites cover one tenth of the region; and
  • the south west supports twenty five species that are globally important and over 700 that are of national conservation concern, with examples including the greater horseshoe bat, with over 70% of the UK population occurring in the South West, and the sand lizard – once found throughout the South West but now only found on fragmented heathland in southeast Dorset.

However, there are still many challenges facing the region and improvements to be made. Some of the most important issues that need addressing include:

  • the number of properties flooded has increased steadily since 1996 with worsening weather patterns, floodplain development and possibly changes in land use leading to increased run off contributing to the problem – in 2000, Almost 1 in 10 of houses for which planning applications were made were in floodplains;
  • in approximately six years time there will be no landfill space left in the region, with more waste needing to be minimised, reused and recycled;
  • around half of all the land in the south west is increasingly suffering from soil erosion problems;
  • concern over air quality standards in Bristol city centre and Avonmouth;
  • water abstraction has increased by over 10% between 1990 and 1997 – already showing very low flows in the summer are the River Tavy in Devon, the Upwey Springs and the River Piddle in Dorset and the River Avon at Malmesbury in Wiltshire;
  • nitrate levels in groundwater supplies are rising as a result of agricultural activity;
  • the introduction of invasive and alien species is posing a threat to native wildlife with numbers of native crayfish plummeting since the introduction of the American signal crayfish and alien plants becoming a major problem – such is the case with Japanese knotweed in Cornwall; and
  • pressure on habitat has seen the decline of many farmland birds – across the region, two out of every three lapwing have been lost since 1987.

The intention of the report is to stimulate greater information sharing, particularly through the development of the ‘South West Regional Observatory’, which will co-ordinate sharing data between environmental organisations, local authorities and government departments and agencies.

“We have a high quality environment and it is a precious resource that we must protect and enhance for a successful future,” said Richard Cresswell, south west regional director for the Environment Agency. “There is much to celebrate in the south west but there are also challenges and this report will serve as a benchmark against which we can test our future success.”

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