Soil erosion and suspended sediment dynamics in intensive agricultural catchments

  • Sophie C. Sherriff

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Excessive delivery of fine sediment from agricultural river catchments to aquatic ecosystems can degrade chemical water quality and ecological habitats. Management of accelerated soil losses and the transmission of sediment-associated agricultural pollutants, such as phosphorus, is required to mitigate the drive towards sustainable intensification to increase global food security. Quantifying soil erosion and the pathways and fate of fine-grained sediment is presently under-researched worldwide, and particularly in Ireland. This thesis established a sediment monitoring network upon an existing catchment study programme (Agricultural Catchments Programme) in five instrumented catchments (~10 km2) across Ireland. The research used novel, high quality measurement and analysis techniques to quantify sediment export, determine controls on soil erosion and sediment transport, and identify sediment contributions from multiple sources in different agricultural systems over time to evaluate approaches to fine sediment management.

    Results showed suspended sediment measurement using a novel ex situ methodology was valid in two of the study catchments against in situ and direct depth-integrated cross-section methodologies. Suspended sediment yields in the five intensive agricultural catchments were relatively low compared to European catchments in the same climatic zone, attributed to regionally-specific land use patterns and land management practices expressed in terms of ‘landscape complexity’ (irregular, small field sizes partitioned by abundant hedgerows and high drainage ditch densities) resulting in low field-to-channel connectivity. Variations in suspended sediment yield between catchments were explained primarily by soil permeability and ground cover, whereby arable land use on poorly-drained soils were associated with the largest sediment yields.

    Storm-event sediment export and sediment fingerprinting data demonstrated that sediment connectivity fluctuations resulted from rainfall seasonality, which in turn regulated the contrasting spatial and temporal extent of surface hydrological pathways. Increased transport occurred when and where sediment sources were available as a result of hillslope land use (low groundcover) or channel characteristics. Field topsoils were most vulnerable when low groundcover coincided with surface hydrological pathways; frequently on poorly-drained soils and following extreme rainfall events on well-drained soils as storage decreased. Although well-drained soils currently demonstrate low water erosion risk, past sugar beet crops exposed freshly drilled soils during periods of greater rainfall risk and soil removal during crop harvesting. Sediment loss from grassland catchments dominated by poorly-drained soils and extensive land drainage (sub-surface and surface) primarily derived from channel banks due to the delivery of high velocity flows from up-catchment drained hillslopes. Catchment specific soil erosion and sediment loss mitigation measures are imperative to cost-effectively preserve or improve soil and freshwater ecosystem quality worldwide.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsTeagasc - Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority & Australian Bicentennial Scholarship Fund
    SupervisorJohn Rowan (Supervisor), Daire Ó. Huallacháin (Supervisor), Owen Fenton (Supervisor), Phil Jordan (Supervisor) & Alice R. Melland (Supervisor)


    • Sediment
    • Water
    • Soil erosion
    • Agricultural intensification

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