Nitrogen additions as NH4NO3 corresponding to 0 (N0), 1 (N1), 3 (N3) and 10 (N10) g N m(-2) yr(-1) were made to Sphagnum magellanicum cores at two-week intervals in situ at four sites across Europe, i.e. Lakkasuo (Finland), Mannikjarve (Estonia), Moidach More (UK) and Cote de Braveix (France). The same treatments were applied in a glasshouse experiment in Neuchatel (Switzerland) in which the water table depth was artificially maintained at 7, 17 and 37 cm below the moss surface. In the held, N assimilation in excess of values in wet deposition occurred in the absence of growth, but varied widely between sites, being absent in Lakkasuo (moss N:P ratio 68) and greatest in Moidach More (N:P 21). In the glasshouse, growth was reduced by lowering the water table without any apparent effect on N assimilation. Total N content of the moss in field sites increased as the mean depth of water table increased indicating growth limitation leading to increased N concentrations which could reduce the capacity for N retention. Greater contents of NH4+ in the underlying peat at 30 cm depth, both in response to NH4NO3 addition and in the unamended cores confirmed poor retention of inorganic N by the moss at Lakkasuo. Nitrate contents in the profiles at Lakkasuo, Moidach More, and Cote de Braveix were extremely low, even in the N10 treatment, but in Mannikjarve, where the mean depth of water table was greatest and retention absent, appreciable amounts of NO3- were detected in all cores. It is concluded that peatland drainage would reduce the capture of inorganic N in atmospheric deposition by Sphagnum mosses.