Figures published yesterday by the Department of Health showed a surprising reduction in the number of abortions carried out in England and Wales – the first such fall since 2003.

In 2008, the number of legal abortions was 195,296 compared with 198,499 in 2007, and procedures carried out on girls under the age of 16 also fell compared to the previous year.

The figures were part of a raft of population statistics released yesterday which provide an intriguing snapshot of modern Britain. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the fertility rate in England and Wales has reached its highest level for 35 years, while mortality rates have fallen to the lowest level ever recorded.

Health minister Dawn Primarolo said improved access to contraception had played a "vital role" in preventing teenage pregnancy. "Last year we invested £26.8m and have made a further £20.5m available this year to improve women's access to contraception, and help reduce the number of abortions and teenage pregnancies," she said.

The data came as a welcome surprise to health charities, which had predicted the abortion rate would pass 200,000. The number had been rising steadily since 2002, when it was 175,932.

More than 1,000 abortions were recorded among under-15s, of which 166 were on girls under the age of 14. Procedures on women who had previously had an abortion numbered 64,715.

The statistics showed the fertility rate in England and Wales reached its highest level since 1973. In 2008, there was 708,708 live births, with women having 1.95 children each on average compared to 1.92 the previous year.

According to fertility experts, a likely cause of the rise is the changing priorities of women, increasing numbers of whom are having children when they are aged 40 and over. Over the last decade, the number of live births to mothers in this age group has almost doubled, rising from 13,555 in 1998 to 26,419 in 2008.

Immigrants, who often favour larger families on cultural or religious grounds, have also contributed to the increased fertility rate. Almost a quarter of all babies born last year belonged to mothers who originated from outside the UK. However, although the rate has risen for the last seven years, the UK still has an ageing population.

Dr Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said: "It's good that the fertility rate is increasing, but it's still below where we should be. Until we reach 2.1 children per woman, we are not replacing ourselves, and are declining as a population."

The mortality rate for men and women is the lowest ever recorded, falling to 6,860 deaths per million men and 4,910 per million women.

Circulatory diseases, such as heart disease, remain the biggest killers, contributing to about a third of all deaths. Cancer accounted for just over a quarter of all deaths in 2008.