Macaulay Land Use Research Institute Homepage
Scottish Environment LINK - The voice of Scotland's environment movement



Soil physical damage – erosion, compaction, poaching

Overgrazing by sheep and/or deer, poor muirburn practices, hedge and windbreak removal, downslope ploughing, cultivation of excessively steep slopes, winter cropping which leaves soil bare at times of maximum rainfall and high winds can all lead to erosion. (SNH, 1995) There has been a major expansion of footpath networks in popular mountain areas, and much of this is eroding. Downhill skiing has also created localised erosion.

In general lowland soils are in better physical condition. In some arable areas, the general shift from spring to autumn sowing of cereals may have reduced soil erosion (Dargie and Briggs, 1991).

The best evidence of erosion is available from blanket peat. The greatest extent of peat erosion (20%) is in the Monadhliath Mountains (see Table 11.1). However, the most severely eroded areas are found in the eastern Southern Uplands and eastern Grampians along with evidence of land management pressure such as grazing and burning. Soil erosion can also result from forestry practices, particularly during planting and harvesting. Recent changes in ground preparation techniques, such as the use of mounding rather than ploughing, have reduced the risk of soil erosion (SEPA, 2001).

Compaction is a problem in intensive arable production on soils with high silt and clay contents, particularly systems where yield increases with late harvesting (root crops) or where multiple cropping takes place (intensive silage grass).

Poaching , on the other hand, is common in animal production on imperfectly drained soils in the wetter areas in the west of Scotland .

In forestry, clearfelling results in soil disturbance with possible erosion and compaction.

Table 11.1: Regional extent of erosion in upland Scotland
Region Extent of area eroded

Southern Uplands (east)

3.5 %

Southern Uplands (west)

1.1 %

Midland Valley

3.9 %


7.0 %


3.2 %

Central Highlands

5.8 %


1.5 %

Eastern Grampians

8.1 %


20.0 %

North west Highlands (south)

1.5 %

North west Highlands (central)

8.2 %

Easter Ross

10.1 %

Wester Ross

6.9 %


0.5 %

North west Highlands (north)

6.8 %

Western Isles

6.0 %

Source: Grieve et al. (1996)

Erosion is the most common type of soil physical damage in Scotland , caused e.g. by overgrazing, inappropriate cultivation of steep slopes, and the extension of footpath networks in popular areas.

Soil chemical and biological changes >>