Acidification of previously limed upland pastures: An overlooked flood risk factor?

Caroline Freeman, Osian Gwyn, Dylan Gwynn-Jones, Hefin Williams, Katie Medcalf, John Scullion*

*Corresponding author for this work

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In low-lying land, the impact of agriculture on flooding has focussed on soil compaction, whilst in the uplands there has been more interest in the influence of afforestation. The potential effect of acidification of previously limed upland grassland soils on this risk has been overlooked. The marginal economics of upland farms has led to inadequate lime application on these grasslands. In Wales, UK, agronomic improvement of upland acid grasslands with liming was widespread in the last century. The extent and topographical distribution of this land use in Wales was estimated and these characteristics were mapped in four catchments studied in more detail. Then 41 sites on improved pastures within the catchments were sampled, where lime had not been applied for periods of between two and 30 years; unimproved acid pastures adjacent to five of these sites were also sampled. Soil pH, organic matter, infiltration rates and earthworm populations were recorded. Grasslands at risk of acidification without maintenance liming were estimated to cover almost 20 % of upland Wales. The majority of these grasslands were located on steeper slopes (gradients >7o) where any reduction in infiltration would promote surface runoff and limit rainwater retention. The extent of these pastures varied markedly between the four study catchments. There was a 6-fold reduction in infiltration rates between high and low pH soils, and this trend was correlated with reductions in anecic earthworm abundance. The vertical burrows of these earthworms are important for infiltration and no such earthworms were present in the most acidic soils. Recently limed soils had infiltration rates similar to those of unimproved acid pastures. Soil acidification has the potential to exacerbate flood risk but further research is needed to assess the extent of any impact. Modelling of catchment specific flood risk should include the extent of upland soil acidification as an additional land use factor.
Original languageEnglish
Article number163063
Number of pages6
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date30 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jun 2023


  • Earthworms
  • Flooding
  • Infiltration
  • Soil acidification
  • Topography
  • Animals
  • Soil
  • Agriculture
  • Floods
  • Oligochaeta
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration


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