The spatially distributed soil erosion and sediment delivery model WATEM/SEDEM was used to simulate the impact of riparian vegetated filter strips (RVFSs) on river sediment delivery at different spatial scales. For a field plot with a straight slope, sediment reduction by the RVFSs is comparable to results obtained through experimental set-ups elsewhere (i.e. > 70%). However, at the scale of an entire catchment, sediment reduction is much less (i.e. +/- 20%) due to (1) overland flow convergence, which reduces the sediment trapping efficiency of an RVFS, and (2) because part of the sediment bypasses the RVFSs through ditches, sewers and road surfaces. These results suggest that, at the catchment scale, RVFSs should be accompanied with other conservation techniques that are more appropriate for reducing river sediment loads, and that also reduce on-site soil erosion. Copyright (c) 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.