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Soil erosion and flooding on the eastern South Downs, southern England, 1976–2001

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The South Downs in southern England have been farmed for 5000 years: the initial loess cover is now a thin, stony remnant as a result of erosion. During the 1980s, field monitoring of erosion events in an area of 36 km2 showed that average rates of erosion are low (0.5–5.0 m3 ha−1 yr−1), but that occasional storms result in losses of over 200 m3 ha−1 yr−1 on individual fields. On soils that are only 15 cm thick, such rates pose a threat to future farming. Almost all recent erosion has been on fields of winter cereals, which are bare in the wet autumn period. Of greater significance in the short term are the effects of soil-laden runoff (or muddy floods) on urban areas. Flood damage to property has been a regular event since the conversion of this area to winter cereals in the 1970s. Soil conservation measures have been negligible and flood protection has consisted mainly of engineering works and limited land-use change at sites where property damage has occurred. Conversion to grass under the Set Aside, and an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme, could be an effective soil conservation and flood protection approach. In the longer term, increasing stoniness of soils, the economic incentives for arable farming in marginal areas, and the success of legal proceedings relating to flood damage, will determine the future of erosion on the South Downs. Current farming systems clearly are unsustainable and would become more so under future climates without substantial site-targeted land use change.
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Keywords: South Downs; flooding; monitoring; property damage; soil erosion; sustainability

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Environmental Change Institute and School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3UB, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: June 1, 2003

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