European Learning Network on<br /> Functional AgroBiodiversity
European Learning Network on
Functional AgroBiodiversity

Soil and surface water protection using conservation tillage in Northern and Central Europe (SWOP)

Category:  Soil management
Country:  United Kingdom
Contact person:

Jane Rickson
Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation
Cranfield University
T: +44 (0)1234 750111



Soil erosion has been identified as a major threat to European soil resources and their ability to provide ecosystem goods and services such as clean water and biodiversity. Policy drivers such as the forthcoming Soil Framework Directive, the 6th Environment Action Programme and the recent Communication on Soil Protection emphasize the need for environmental protection in the European Union. How such policies might be put into practice is the objective of a joint EU LIFE Environment / Syngenta funded demonstration project entitled “Soil and surface water protection using conservation tillage in Northern and Central Europe” (SOWAP).

SOWAP represents a collaborative attempt by industry, NGOs, academic institutions and farmers to address the environmental, economic and social concerns arising from the practice of conventional agriculture and cultivations. The project was carried out in pilot areas in Belgium, the UK and Hungary. Conventional and conservation-oriented soil management practices were applied at the farm-scale. This scale of implementation allowed a full ecological, economic and environmental evaluation to be carried out on the different land use systems. The land management applied was based on state-of-the-art research and practical experience of soil protection in close collaboration with the participating land managers. The project ran for three years (2003 - 2006).


The project aims were to demonstrate:

  • the viability and effectiveness of “conservation oriented” arable land management systems in protecting soil resources, improving catchment water quality and promoting biodiversity.
  • the environmental, ecological, economic and social benefits of “conservation oriented” land use practices.
  • the environmental impacts associated with “conventional” arable land use practices, where intensive soil management can lead to degradation of soil resources, water pollution, reduced biodiversity and less carbon sequestration.
  • how a unique database can be disseminated successfully at the local, regional, national and EU level via workshops, multi-media resources, field visits, publications and the internet.


Leuven University, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Geographical Institute), ISRIC, Harpur Adams University College, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Allerton Trust, the Ponds Trust , the National Trust and the agricultural machinery manufacturer, Vaderstad.


SOWAP has shown that conservation (non-inversion) tillage can deliver a number of environmental benefits, when compared to more conventional tillage practices which invert the top soil. Soil erosion can be reduced by up to 90% and surface run-off by up to 40%. Nutrient losses in sediment and water can also be reduced. The habitat for earthworms and soil microbiology is improved and over-wintering farmland birds favour fields with non-inversion tillage. There are also benefits for the land manager – yields can be maintained and crop establishment costs can be reduced. Beyond the farm, in the wider catchment, there is evidence to suggest that conservation tillage can favour aquatic biodiversity. However, the link with improved chemical quality of water-bodies is not clear, and the intensity of the agricultural system can change the relationship.

The environmental, economic and social effects observed were dependent on the type of soil and crop and prevailing weather conditions. Results confirm that conservation tillage is not suitable everywhere in Europe and that these tillage practices have their limitations. So, questions remain. There is a need to comprehend better the drivers and constraints to adoption of the technology in Europe and to understand what conservation tillage can deliver in the long-term, particularly in the face of climate change.

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