GAEC 5: Minimising soil erosion
You must have minimum land management which reflects site specific conditions to limit erosion.
To minimise soil erosion you must put measures in place to limit soil and bankside erosion caused, for example, by:
- cropping practices and cropping structures
- livestock management, including outdoor pigs and poultry, causing overgrazing and poaching
- vehicles, trailers and machinery
Where soil compaction may cause soil erosion, you must, where appropriate, cultivate post-harvest land and late harvested crops using primary cultivation methods, such as ploughing.
You could lose some of your scheme payments if you have not taken all reasonable steps to prevent erosion over a single area of 1 or more hectares, or caused by livestock trampling along a continuous stretch of a watercourse that is 20 or more metres long and 2 or more metres wide.
The penalty will depend on the scale of the soil erosion.
You can recognise soil erosion by the signs in the following table.
|Water erosion||Channels (rills and gulleys) in the soil|
|Soil wash or sheet erosion where soil is washed but no channels are formed|
|Deposits of eroded soil in valley bottoms, adjacent land, roads, watercourses, semi-natural habitats and / or property|
|Localised flooding and pollution of watercourses with silt or muddy water|
|Wind erosion||Soil blown over crops, adjacent land, roads, watercourses, semi-natural habitats and / or property|
Minor erosion of less than 1 hectare can be found around gateways, ring feeders and corners of fields where there is minimal soil loss. Minor erosion resulting in minimal soil loss will not be penalised.
Minimising soil erosion from cropping practices
Soil compaction and capping caused by cultivation
- Soil erosion can occur where the soil has become compacted or capped during and following cultivation and crop establishment
- Compaction can occur if the soil is worked when it is too wet
- Capping can also occur due to the battering of rain drops, particularly on fine sandy and silty soils where the seedbed has been worked to a fine smooth tilth. Soil erosion tends to occur on these soil types when winter crops are established too late in the year, particularly in high-rainfall areas on steep slopes
- Bare soil in worked-down fine seedbeds with an unstable structure can slump and cap, forming a seal that causes runoff and soil erosion
- Particular attention is needed on top headlands. These are a common source of compaction, runoff and soil erosion further down the slope
Runoff and soil erosion further down the slope
Pressed soil in a seedbed that is slightly too wet can cause compaction along wheel marks and subsequent runoff and soil erosion
You can limit soil erosion by:
- establishing crops early in the autumn during dry conditions that ensure good soil structure and good crop cover over the winter
- using coarse seedbeds and/or chopped stubbles on the soil surface
- deep cultivation, such as subsoiling, to remove compaction
- removing compaction from headlands
Soil erosion in row crops
Row crops have an inherently high risk of causing soil erosion.
Soil erosion can occur in crops planted in rows and beds where runoff can be channelled down a slope. Stone and clod separation, and bed formation in early spring, can destabilise soil structure. This can cause compaction, increasing the risk of soil erosion, particularly if soils are worked when they are not dry enough.
Fine, smooth seedbeds are vulnerable to capping on sandy and silty soils, and compacted wheelings can generate and channel water. Excessive or inappropriately timed irrigation also causes soil erosion.
The problem is most acute in wet summers and with heavy downpours of rain when soils are bare before crop cover is established.
Polytunnels and vehicle traffic on headlands and tracks are also a common cause of compaction and runoff which can lead to soil erosion.
Wherever possible, you should choose relatively flat fields for growing row crops.
Capped seedbeds, polytunnels and compacted wheelings can be a source of runoff that causes soil erosion
To limit soil erosion in row crops you can also:
- plant headland rows and beds across the base of the slope to intercept runoff from high-risk ground
- remove compaction in some wheelings to allow water to penetrate into the soil (although care is needed not to make the soil erosion worse)
- use specialised equipment to leave ridges and indentations in the soil to trap runoff
- establish grass strips in valleys or along contours or slopes to reduce runoff
- create banks and diversion ditches within the field to intercept and slow down runoff
Compacted wheel ruts in light soil can be loosened where this does not interfere with crops
Minimising soil erosion from livestock
Compaction caused by poaching
Compaction develops where hooves press into the soil – this is known as poaching. Where regular poaching occurs, a compacted layer may form over large areas of a field, causing runoff which can lead to soil erosion. This is a particular risk where soil cover has been damaged.
Vehicle traffic when supplementary feeding livestock is also a common cause of soil compaction which can also lead to soil erosion.
Out-wintering and the grazing of winter forage crops can cause soil erosion and soil loss on trampled banks
To avoid soil erosion when out-wintering livestock, where possible:
- choose well-drained, relatively flat fields
- move stock regularly and use back fencing
- fence watercourses, where appropriate, to avoid excessive bankside erosion
- loosen the soil as soon as conditions allow, for example by ploughing, subsoiling and sward lifting, to help water to penetrate the soil
Outdoor pigs and poultry
Pigs and vehicle movement compact soils, particularly during the winter, which can lead to runoff and soil erosion. Outdoor poultry farming can cause similar problems where there are heavy volumes of farm traffic.
A combination of sloping land and high rainfall will lead to soil damage, runoff and erosion. The ideal site for outdoor pigs and poultry is flat or gently sloping, freely drained and in a low-rainfall area. Pigs and poultry can be kept on sites which are less than ideal, but these will require careful management, especially for outdoor pigs.
Outdoor pigs can cause compaction, runoff and soil erosion. Tracks can also be a common cause of soil erosion when keeping outdoor pigs and poultry
To limit soil erosion you can:
- lay out paddocks so as not to channel runoff
- move pigs onto well established grass
- use large troughs to reduce soil damage
- use grass strips to intercept runoff
- use tracks across the contour where possible
- regularly divert runoff into field margins or soak away areas to prevent build up of runoff down slopes
- locate weaner sites, which have high volumes of farm traffic, away from slopes and watercourses
- reduce numbers on high risk steep slopes particularly in the winter
- rotate to avoid severe compaction
Preventing erosion in the uplands
In the uplands, erosion occurs when vegetation is removed, for example by burning, overgrazing or traffic, and where bare soil is exposed to rain and wind.
Erosion is most severe on peat soils and steep slopes, where it may take years for the vegetation to recover. Supplementary feeding and the use of tracks, particularly on slopes and next to watercourses, can increase the risk of erosion.
Out-wintering, supplementary feeding of stock, and use of sacrifice fields in upland areas can cause soil erosion.
To minimise the risks of erosion:
- use low ground pressure vehicles and machinery
- use established tracks to avoid vegetation damage
- adjust stocking rates to conserve vegetation cover and to avoid trampling of the soil and creation of sheep scars
- where possible, carry out supplementary feeding on level, freely drained ground and away from watercourses
Choice of well drained, flat fields for out- wintering stock reduces the risk of soil erosion
Minimising soil erosion from vehicles, trailers and machinery
There is a high risk of soil compaction causing soil erosion if you:
- harvest crops late in the year when conditions are wet
- spread slurry and manure during the winter
- carry out supplementary feeding of out-wintered stock
- use vehicles in wet conditions including non-agricultural use such as temporary car parks Where possible, it is best to avoid high risk practices on land at high risk of compaction, runoff and soil erosion (such as steep land in high rainfall areas).
In many cases, hard tracks with good drainage are needed for vehicle access with use of gates at the top of the hill.
You can also choose tyres that allow lower pressures, reducing damage to the soil. Soil compaction can be treated by:
- cultivation to shatter the soil when it is suitably dry
- subsoiling in some cases to shatter deep compaction
- providing land drainage on heavy land to allow water to drain away underneath and avoiding compaction in the first place
Digging to look at the soil will help you decide whether subsoiling is needed and whether shattering has been effective across and down the soil profile.
Cultivating post-harvest land and late harvested crops
Crops harvested late in the year and during the winter, such as maize and field vegetables, are a common cause of compaction causing runoff and soil erosion.
Where land is compacted with wheel ruts and especially where there is a risk of soil erosion, it should be cultivated to remove compaction and allow water infiltration into the soil.
To do this, you can use either mouldboard or chisel ploughing, deep tines and /or subsoiling, where conditions allow.
Chisel ploughing (on the left of the picture) has been carried out to prevent runoff following harvesting of swedes in the winter. Runoff causing soil erosion in the centre and foreground is from compacted wheel ruts
Land with a rough surface can be left over the winter, or another crop established if conditions allow.
However, crops sown late in the year including grass reseeds can be a source of runoff if the seedbed soil is compacted or becomes capped. Here, it may be better to establish the crop in the spring.
Try and work land immediately after harvesting late crops (or soon after) if possible to prevent erosion. If the land is too wet for cultivation, you should cultivate it as soon as conditions allow so as to prevent soil erosion. The worst damaged parts of a field should be dealt with initially and then further treatment applied under more appropriate dry conditions. It is important to take care not to make the situation worse.
With slow draining, heavy soils on slopes it may be better not to grow high risk crops that will be harvested late in the year.
Compacted land can be loosened by mouldboard ploughing, chisel ploughing and subsoiling where appropriate
Protecting bare soil from wind blow
Wind erosion can be a problem in some years in the flat, drier parts of England, especially on sandy and peaty soils.
The risk of wind erosion tends to be high during the spring in crops such as onions, carrots and sugar beet where the soil is bare for a relatively long period before there is protective crop cover.
Problems occur with fine, smooth seedbeds and loose soils where blown soil can abrade and bury crops. Soil loss can also affect neighbouring land, roads, ditches and watercourses.
Unstable, loose sandy soils, with naturally very low levels of organic matter are at risk of wind erosion. Dry peaty soils are also at risk. Blown soil can affect neighbouring land, tracks, roads and watercourses
Wind erosion can be limited by:
- creating coarse seedbeds where possible
- sowing nurse barley crops to protect the soil where appropriate
- using a fleece over vegetable crops
- applying regular applications of organic wastes to improve soil stability
- planting shelter belts to break the speed of the wind
Sugar beet drilled at an angle to furrow pressed, ploughed land can reduce the risk of significant wind erosion
Rural Payments Agency: 03000 200 301