The soil water regimes, flow paths of water and concentrations of nutrients in this water were measured for a clay soil growing winter wheat in 1978–9 and 1979–80. The soil was either drained with mole drains at 2 m spacing connected to plot drains 46 m apart or undrained. In the 1st year a compacted layer at about 20 cm depth caused a perched water table in the Ap horizon in both drainage treatments, and prevented the mole drains at 60 cm from affecting the water table. In 1979–80 after cultivation to disrupt the compacted layer, midway between the mole drains the depth to the winter water table was 20 cm greater than in undrained soil.
Surface flow, interflow at the depth of the plough layer and deep drainflow from mole and pipe drains responded rapidly to winter rainfall events. During both winters the mole and tile system removed most of the rainfall on the drained plots and the peaky hydrographs were typical of a mole system in a clay soil. In the undrained plots only a small proportion of the winter rainfall was accounted for in flow from the top 30 cm, and up to 75% of the water was able to percolate downwards possibly to below the barriers that separated the plots. Long-term water-balance studies indicated that a proportion of the water moving to depth in the undrained plots was probably entering the deep drainage system of the drained plots. As a result, the mole and pipe drainage system often removed more water than the rainfall input less evapotranspiration. This problem did not affect the depth to the water tables.
For each flow component concentrations of nitrate, ammonium, nitrous oxide, phosphorus, potassium and calcium were measured in the drainage water. Concentrations of nitrate-N from all drained plots were largest in autumn, being in the range 50–95 mg N/1, but then decreased to 1–5 mg N/1 by the end of March. Losses of nitrate-N were mainly through the mole drains and amounted to 43·6 and 59·7 kg N/ha in the 2 years. The quantities of nitrate-N lost in surface runoff or in flow in the cultivated layer were small on both treatments. Gaseous nitrous oxide, ammonium and phosphorus contents were very small. Potassium concentrations were somewhat larger, but not exceeding 3·5 mg/1. The calcium concentrations were in the range 40–210 mg/1. Concentrations of herbicides measured in November 1980 were negligible.
In the 2nd year water was taken up from a greater depth in the drained than in the undrained plots from April onwards. These results are discussed in relation to water supply to the crops at this site.