Abstract. The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) has classified the 1 km squares in Great Britain (GB) into thirty-two environmental strata, termed land classes, as a basis for ecological survey. The classes have been used in biogeographical studies of the distribution of individual species and species assemblages. The concept behind the technique is that there is an association between the environmental character of land and ecological parameters. The initial classification was based on a sample of squares drawn from a regular grid. The data for the 12121 km squares classified were drawn from published maps; the number of squares was limited by the available computing power. Subsequently the availability of more powerful computers and the need to improve geographical definition have led to the allocation of every 1 km square to its appropriate class. This paper has been written to summarise the principles involved in the development of the system and indicate the range of projects for which it has been used. The extension of the classification from a sample to the complete coverage of GB revealed the importance of the structure and style of data used to produce the classification. The significance of these conclusions for future work is discussed, with particular reference to automated methods of data capture.