Soil- and stream-water data from the Plynlimon research area, mid-Wales, have been used to develop a conceptual model of spatial variations in nitrogen (N) leaching within moorland catchments. Extensive peats, in both hilltop and valley locations, are considered near-complete sinks for inorganic N, but leach the most dissolved organic nitrogen (DON). Peaty mineral soils on hillslopes also retain inorganic N within upper organic horizons, but a proportion percolates into mineral horizons as nitrate (NO3−), either through incomplete immobilisation in the organic layer, or in water bypassing the organic soil matrix via macropores. This NO3− reaches the stream where mineral soilwaters discharge (via matrix throughflow or pipeflow) directly to the drainage network, or via small N-enriched flush wetlands. NO3− in hillslope waters discharging into larger valley wetlands will be removed before reaching the stream. A concept of catchment ‘nitrate leaching zones’ is proposed, whereby most stream NO3− derives from localised areas of mineral soil hillslope draining directly to the stream; the extent of these zones within a catchment may thus determine its overall susceptibility to elevated surface water NO3− concentrations.
hillslope hydrology immobilisation nitrate leaching zones nitrogen saturation