Vegetation type affects the relationship between soil carbon to nitrogen ratio and nitrogen leaching

E. C. Rowe, C. D. Evans, B. A. Emmett, B. Reynolds, R. C. Helliwell, M. C. Coull, C. J. Curtis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


Nitrate leaching occurs when the soil's nitrogen immobilisation and plant uptake capacity has been saturated. Several widely-used models of nitrogen saturation incorporate a breakthrough function in which N begins to be leached at C/N values below an upper threshold, and is completely leached at C/N values below a lower threshold. In a survey of deciduous and coniferous woodland, acid grassland and heathland sites for which both C/N and nitrate flux measurements were available, deciduous woodland and acid grassland typically had lower C/N ratios, and began leaching nitrate at a lower C/N ratio, than coniferous woodland and heathland. Least-square fits of nitrate breakthrough functions gave upper thresholds (no nitrate leaching) of 27 mol C mol-1 N for deciduous woodland and acid grassland and 50 mol C mol-1 N for coniferous woodland and heathland. Upper thresholds were similar, at 24 and 51 mol C mol-1 N, respectively, for total inorganic N (NH4 + NO3) leaching flux as a proportion of total inorganic N influx. In conifer plantations, stand maturity had a large effect, suggesting that a breakthrough function is unsuitable for modelling systems that are in disequilibrium. However, there was sufficient evidence to suggest that using different breakthrough C/N thresholds for different groups of vegetation would improve predictions of N saturation and leaching at both plot and catchment scales. The difference may be related to the reactivity of soil carbon; soils with a large proportion of recalcitrant carbon are likely to begin leaching nitrate at a higher C/N value than soils with more labile carbon.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)335-347
Number of pages13
JournalWater, Air, and Soil Pollution
Issue number1-4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Deposition
  • Eutrophication
  • Forestry
  • Grassland
  • Heathland
  • Pollution
  • Retention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Pollution


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