THE number of shows in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s programme has dropped for the first time in its 70-year history.

In 2016 there are 3,269 shows registered in the Fringe programme, down 45 on the previous year.

Though, only a relatively tiny drop, it comes at the end of a decade of growth that has seen the festival almost double in size.

The Fringe, an open-access event where anyone can put on a show if they can find a venue and then register with the society, remains, by some considerable distance, the world’s largest arts festival.

Shona McCarthy, the new chief executive of the society, said the programme was packed: “The breadth and diversity of talent that comes to the Fringe is unparalleled, and this year is no exception. At its core the Fringe is an open access festival, which welcomes anyone with a story to tell, and for that reason, amateur and professional artists from around the world continue year after year to come here to share their stories, hone their skills, create new opportunities for themselves and their work, and celebrate the joy of live performance.”

One source close to the Fringe suggested that a mixture of the Rio Olympics and Euro 2016 could be putting performers off, but suggested the more likely reason was that those doing free shows were choosing not to register with the society.

Rather they would just turn up in August and put a show on without paying the Fringe Society the registration fee of £393.

This year’s programme lists 643 free shows compared to 807 last year.

Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said the festival remained an opportunity to show off Scotland to the world.

“The Edinburgh Festival Fringe offers another exciting, wonderfully varied programme for 2016.

“Remaining the largest fringe festival in the world, it attracts thousands of visitors from home and abroad every year, and is a fantastic opportunity to show what Scotland has to offer to the rest of the world.”

Around a third of the shows at this year’s Fringe are comedy, and a quarter are theatre.

Some of the more well-known names at this year’s festival include comedians Rory Bremner, Nicholas Parsons, Paul Merton, Susan Calman and Limmy.

Richard Wilson is reviving Victor Meldrew, for a special one man show at Assembly. Mary Lynn Rajskub, who is best known for playing Chloe O’Brian in Fox network’s 24, is to make her Fringe debut.

Richard Lewis, Edinburgh City Council’s festivals and events champion, said: “The Edinburgh Festival Fringe continues to go from strength to strength and the 2016 programme is a testament to the continued popularity of the festival as a place that performers from all over the world flock to showcase new work and meet new audiences.

“Edinburgh is world renowned for its festivals and we are always looking for ways to develop and ensure that visitors and locals continue to have the best experience possible when attending these truly international events.”