The effects of overwinter cover cropping, delayed ploughing and method of straw disposal on the quantities of nitrate leached (averaged over three winters during 1989–93) from a chalk loam in Eastern England were examined. The recovery of ‘retained’ nitrogen (retained through cover crop uptake, delayed ploughing and immobilization by straw) in a following spring crop was also assessed. In the first two winters, the rye cover crop decreased nitrate leaching by > 90% (28 kg N/ha per year), as compared with bare fallow treatments. In 1992/93 this decrease was only 23% (10 kg/ha), due to the early onset of drainage before cover was well established. Delayed ploughing on bare treatments, to decrease autumn N mineralization and subsequent nitrate leaching, was ineffectual in 1989/90 but had substantial effects in 1990/91 and 1992/93; N mineralization, inferred from soil mineral nitrogen content, and nitrate leaching were decreased by 31 and 35% in 1990/91 and by 36 and 61% in 1992/93, respectively. Nitrate leaching (averaged over three winters) was unaffected by straw incorporation. There was no evidence of recovery of cover crop N in the spring sown test crops (barley or sugarbeet). In the low soil N input situation encountered in this experiment, it was unnecessary to sow cover crops before early September in years of average or below average rainfall to ensure that the average soil solution concentrations remained below the EU drinking water limit of 11 mg NO3-N/1. However, in wetter seasons substantial N leaching occurred before cover had taken up much N. In 1992/93 N retained against leaching by a rye cover crop in previous years was apparently being remobilized and lost through leaching, although if cover was grown again there was less leaching than from bare land. In the future, an increase in the extent of cover cropping might increase transpiration rates and therefore lead to a decrease in aquifer recharge.