Soil management standards for farmers

Good soil-use practices for farming activities, and how to meet cross compliance requirements.


Farmers need to protect the soil from a number of possible threats such as erosion, organic matter decline, compaction and contamination.

This guide explains the cross compliance soil management standards you must comply with in order to protect the soil, and gives guidance on how you can do this.

It also outlines good soil management practices for various farming activities and how to meet cross compliance requirements. These include arable farming, fruit and flower growing, restoring and recreating habitats for biodiversity, maintaining landscape features, and grazing and keeping outdoor pigs.

Soil use and cross compliance

To qualify for full payment under the Single Payment Scheme (SPS) and other direct payments (eg the Environmental Stewardship schemes) you must meet all relevant cross compliance requirements. These requirements are split into 2 types:

  • Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs)
  • requirements to keep your land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC)

GAEC 1 comprises the standards applying to soil management and protection in a revised Soil Protection Review (SPR). Under GAEC 1, you must carry out and submit by 31 December each year a SPR. In your SPR you will need to identify whether any of the following occurs on your land and if so, how you intend to prevent or counteract its effects:

  • erosion
  • organic matter decline
  • compaction
  • salinisation – the accumulation of salts
  • landslides
  • contamination
  • soil sealing – covering so that it is unusable

GAEC 1 – the SPR and all standards for soil management

GAEC 1 consists of a revised SPR and the 3 previous GAEC standards that covered post-harvest management of land, waterlogged soil and crop residue burning restrictions.

Special requirements apply to certain forms of animal husbandry.

You must also include in your SPR any of your land not in agricultural production – ie land not in agricultural use on 17 May. In general, under SPR 2010 you are required to:

  • identify and record any existing and potential problems with your soil
  • assess and make a note of the soil types comprising your land and their particular risks of degradation
  • choose and carry out measures to prevent and/or reduce the problems and risks you have identified
  • review the risks and measures you are taking each year and make any changes that become necessary

As part of your SPR, you also need to:

  • record access to waterlogged land and any actions you take to correct damage that occurs
  • select and take appropriate post-harvest measures
  • comply with the Crop Residues (Burning) Regulations 1993

You will need to refer to the 2010 SPR and soil management handbooks for the full picture. If you have not received hard copies, you should download the:

You can also complete your SPR online on the Whole Farm Approach website (registration required).

Breaches and penalties

RPA inspects farms that receive SPS funding and other direct payments, to check they meet cross compliance requirements for soil protection.

If you do not meet GAEC standards, RPA can reduce your payments by 3% – or more if you have breached the standards.

If your compliance requirements under certain Rural Development schemes conflict with GAEC measures, the Rural Development scheme requirements will usually take priority. For guidance, call the RPA Customer Service Centre on 0345 603 7777 or email them at (call charges).

Environmental Stewardship schemes

Farmers with soil management options in Environmental Stewardship schemes have greater improvements in soil management than through following GAEC standards. For more information, see the guide on Environmental Stewardship: the basics.

England Catchment Sensitive Farming Delivery Initiative (ECSFDI)

The ECSFDI encourages farmers to improve soil structure so that it absorbs as much rainfall as possible. This minimises runoff and soil erosion, and so reduces diffuse water pollution from farming. See the guide on Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF).

Buffer strips to protect vulnerable watercourses

While not mandatory until 2012 at the earliest, you may also want to introduce buffer strips next to vulnerable watercourses. You can get advice on buffer strip placement from Catchment Sensitive Farming officers, Natural England advisers, Campaign for the Farmed Environment and other farm advisers.

Payments for buffer strips are available under Entry Level Stewardship (ELS). For more information on ELS, see the guide on Environmental Stewardship: the basics.

Maintaining good soil structure and organic matter

Compaction reduces space in the soil for water and air. There are a number of ways you can protect soil from compaction, such as by:

  • not cultivating wet soil
  • reducing the number of times the ground is compressed through a plough and press combination
  • regularly checking fields for signs of compaction - particularly after wet weather, or during cultivation or harvest

Soil capping

When finely textured bare soil is exposed to heavy rain, a cap or hardened surface will form. You should leave seedbeds as coarse as possible to protect soil from capping.

Soil erosion

Wind and rain can erode exposed soil, however there are measures you can take to prevent this. Some of these measures include:

  • working across a sloped field (whenever this is safe and possible). However, you must be aware of complex slope patterns that may channel runoff
  • planting trees, hedges or grass buffer strips to prevent soil erosion and runoff into rivers and roads
  • maintaining crop cover for as long as you can over winter
  • increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil to make it less susceptible to erosion. When doing this, you must take account of waste regulatory controls
  • protecting fields that are at risk of runoff and erosion, by avoiding sowing late harvested crops such as potatoes or sugar beet, or by harvesting them in drier conditions
  • managing livestock so that they don’t trample pasture into wet, muddy patches (poached soil), and avoid out-wintering livestock on slopes where runoff is likely to erode the soil

Measures to maintain soil organic matter

Arable farming can reduce soil organic matter. However, if not carried out properly it can damage the soil structure and increase the risk of capping, slumping and erosion. It can also decrease soil fertility.

You can add organic matter to soil by returning crop residues to the soil or introducing cover crops to your rotation. These are crops that replenish the soil with nutrients and organic matter. You can also replenish soil organic matter by leaving longer periods of fallow grass so the soil can recover from growing crops. You should also consider applying bulky organic manures to restore nutrients.

You will need a nutrient management plan which includes organic matter as well as inorganic fertiliser. Adding organic matter allows you to recycle nutrients, and means you use less inorganic fertiliser, which can save money. It also helps to protect the environment as excess nutrients do not enter groundwater, surface water or sensitive biodiversity habitats.

If you are in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone, you must be able to explain any nitrogen you add to the land. You must also not exceed the nitrogen limit you are allowed to apply to organic manures. You may only apply some types of organic manure during specific times of the year. For more information, see the guides on Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) and managing nutrients and fertilisers.

If you want to add organic matter to your soil by importing waste organic materials, you must comply with Environment Agency exemptions or permits. See the guide on environmental permits.

Cross compliance GAEC 6 applies if you plan to carry out any specified operation on land notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). If your land is in an SSSI, you may have to notify Natural England in writing and get their consent before carrying out operations that could affect the features and/or fauna in the area. See the guide on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and historical monuments.

Maintaining biodiversity and landscape features by managing soil of land not in agricultural production

GAEC 12 sets standards to prevent unwanted vegetation from encroaching on habitats and land that is not in agricultural production or that is being used for non-agricultural activities.

Land not in agricultural production is defined as land on which agriculture is not being carried out on 17 May.

See Rural Payments Agency (RPA) information on GAEC 12.

Other changes in GAEC 12 have:

  • removed the requirement to establish and maintain a green cover
  • transferred soil protection management on GAEC 12 land to the SPR, which you must maintain throughout the year and submit by 31 December each year
  • removed the ban on the use of non-farm vehicles
  • made land not in agricultural use subject to the non-agricultural use and storage requirements of the Single Payment Scheme

Download the RPA’s 2010 edition of soil management guidance.

Download the Cross Compliance Soil Protection Review 2010 handbook.

Soil management in habitat re-creation and restoration

If you are part of the Environmental Stewardship scheme and are considering land for habitat re-creation and restoration, you will need detailed information about the soil on the proposed site. This will require accurate soil sampling and interpretation of the soil analysis.

To order a publication on the interpretation of soil analysis, call the Natural England Enquiry Service on 0845 600 3078 (call charges).

Soil management in Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority habitats

If you plan to improve a BAP priority habitat such as existing heathland, or recreate heathland, you need to manage its soil carefully. Heathland soil often contains archaeological remains, which you must not interfere with.

To order a publication on protecting soils and the historic environment when restoring or re-creating lowland heathland, call the Natural England Enquiry Service on 0845 600 3078 (call charges).

Soil protection and landscape features

The layout of your farm and landscape features can affect soil erosion and runoff. You need to take these into account when completing your SPR for cross compliance purposes.

If you have chosen a soil management option in an Environmental Stewardship scheme, your plan will need to be more detailed than the cross compliance SPR. You can get help with this from Natural England, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and Linking Environment and Farming.

You can apply to your local Rural Development Agency or Rural Development Programme for England to help with funding for soil management training. To find more information, see the guide on the Rural Development Programme for England. You can also see the guide on agricultural skills and training.

Managing soils for arable farming and fruit and flower crops

GAEC measures to protect arable land and land used for fruit and flower crops include:

  • maintaining minimum soil cover to reduce the risk of erosion of arable land in winter
  • reducing the risk of wind erosion in spring by sowing nurse crops (plants that help the main crop to grow) such as barley
  • reducing the risk of soil capping (the formation of a hardened top layer) and breaking caps that form
  • rotating crops to maintain good levels of organic materials in the soil
  • managing crop stubble to maintain good levels of organic materials in the soil
  • preventing soil saturation by good drainage, and avoiding using tractors or motor vehicles on the land if it does become saturated
  • protecting boundary features and landscape features

Arable farming and fruit and flower crops

Compaction is likely to occur along old tramlines, tracks, headlands and gateways. You can remove this by cultivating or loosening the soil after harvest. You can reduce the risk of runoff and erosion by planting crops on land which is naturally free-draining, or has effective field drainage. To prevent sealing and runoff, irrigate uniformly, with application rates that are not too high and a droplet size that is not too big. Cultivating land to produce a rough surface as soon as possible after fumigating will help to protect against capping.

You can choose options under the Entry Level Stewardship scheme to help you reduce the risks of erosion.

Cereals and other combinable crops

On soils vulnerable to capping and slumping, consider early drilling of autumn-sown cereals to establish cover and avoid very fine seedbeds. With shallow cultivation, take care to prevent soil compaction near the surface, and regularly loosen sandy and silty soils.

Potatoes, beet, vegetables and salad crops

A wider bed system will reduce tyre compression damage. You can remove compaction following planting by cultivating headlands, gateways and ‘wheelings’ (compression from tractor or other tyres). Where possible, you should use tied ridges and dykes in furrow bottoms to improve infiltration and reduce runoff.

After harvest, you should consider rough ploughing to stop capping and slumping of sandy and silty soils.

Maize and other forage crops

Early-maturing maize varieties will let you harvest early if you are planting on fields that are at risk of compaction, runoff and soil erosion. You should remove any wheelings and compaction by cultivating as soon after harvest or grazing as the weather allows.

You should try to minimise ‘poaching’ (wet, muddy soil) and runoff caused by forage crops and crop residues. You can do this by:

  • limiting periods of access
  • providing run-back areas
  • starting at the bottom of sloping fields and back-fencing
  • cultivating strips across the slope to reduce runoff - where practical
  • avoiding slopes vulnerable to erosion and runoff

Energy crops

Before planting energy crops such as short rotation coppice and miscanthus, you should remove any compaction. These crops do well on well-drained land.

Harvesting in dry conditions will help protect the soil. During harvesting, you can use miscanthus cane as a mulch in gateways if required, and use existing tracks when travelling across nearby fields.

Fruit crops

To minimise soil damage, you should plant fruit crops in dry weather and to grub out plants and trees when the soil is fairly dry.

Straw mulch will protect the soil between rows. You can also help to prevent erosion between rows of perennial crops by allowing vegetation to regenerate naturally, or by establishing grass.

Managing soils for outdoor pigs and poultry

The keeping of outdoor pigs and poultry is considered a high risk activity in terms of soil protection. It will require special attention in your Soil Protection Review (SPR) and in the measures you take to prevent or minimise potential damage.

Pigs and poultry kept outdoors can cause trampling and compaction of topsoil, erosion and runoff on slopes, which can lead to vehicle tracks becoming deeply rutted. As such the most relevant good agricultural and environmental condition measures for pig management address:

  • erosion and poaching of land
  • field drainage
  • overgrazing
  • the protection of boundary features
  • the protection of landscape features

Advice for keeping outdoor pigs

You should avoid keeping pigs on slopes and slow-draining soils that will create runoff, and you should lay out paddocks and tracks to avoid channelling of water. You can catch runoff by establishing grass buffers. If runoff and erosion occur, you will need to move pigs to other paddocks.

Developing a rotation to move pigs on to fresh grass will allow the old grass to recover. After you move pigs to another paddock, loosen any compacted soil or cultivate as soon as weather permits.

Further information on soil management

One of Defra’s main roles is to help the farming industry operate as efficiently as possible. This includes planning and promoting good practice for the sustainable use and management of soils.

To find out more, please email the Defra Soils Policy team at

The RPA is responsible for licences and schemes for growers as well as for running the SPS. For more information, call the RPA Helpline on 0345 603 7777.

You can also read the guide on the Single Payment Scheme (SPS).

In England, the Farming Advice Service (FAS) advises farmers about cross compliance. For further information, call the FAS Helpline on 0845 345 1302 or find information on the FAS on the Defra website (call charges).

The National Farmers Union (NFU) represents the farmers and growers of England and Wales. It aims to promote successful and socially responsible agriculture and horticulture, while ensuring the long-term viability of rural communities.

Read about the work of the NFU on the NFU website.

Natural England, an independent non-departmental public body, provides funding, advice and information on managing land in ways that improve the environment. It also takes regulatory action to protect the natural environment and runs the Environmental Stewardship (ES) scheme, which contains soil management options. ES includes the Organic Entry Level Stewardship.

Natural England’s free Organic Conversion Information Service (OCIS) can give advice on converting to organic farming. You can call the Natural England Organic Conversion Information Service Helpline on 0800 980 0048. For other information, you can also contact the Natural England Enquiry Service on 0845 600 3078 (call charges).

Farmers are likely to come into contact with local authorities over a number of farming, land use, food standards and environmental regulations. Your local authority may also be able to provide further information or resources.

For more information, see the guide on the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE).

The Environment Agency has a responsibility to protect the quality of soil and has produced Think soils - a soil assessment to avoid erosion and runoff..

The Environment Agency is also responsible for regulating the spreading of waste materials on land, which are often used to help increase organic matter in soil. Contact the Environment Agency on 03708 506 506 (call charges).

The ECSFDI aims to improve water quality by advising farmers how to reduce the amount of soil, nutrients and pesticides entering watercourses. It aims to do this by encouraging best practice fertiliser, manure and pesticide use, and promoting good soil structure by reducing intense grazing, protecting watercourses and changing crop types and woodland planting. You can find information on ECSFDI on the Natural England website.

Further information

Natural England Organic Conversion Information Service Helpline 0800 980 0048

Environment Agency Helpline 03708 506 506

Natural England Enquiry Service 0845 600 3078

RPA Customer Service Centre 0345 603 7777

Defra Helpline 08459 33 55 77

Cross Compliance Helpline 0845 345 1302

Find out about call charges

Download the RPA’s 2010 edition of Cross Compliance guidance for soil management

Download the Cross Compliance SPR 2010 handbook

Download Defra’s Protecting our water, soil and air - a code of good agricultural practice

Download the Think soils manual

See the RPA’s GAEC 12 - agricultural land which is not in agricultural production

See FAS advice and support information

See NFU work and services information

Published 11 September 2012
Last updated 13 June 2013 + show all updates
  1. Fixing references to specialist guides
  2. First published.