Water flow in macropores is an important mechanism of infiltration in natural soils and, as such, is crucial for the prediction of runoff generation. The major flow processes controlling macropore flow are the initiation of macropore flow (water supply into macropores) and the water transfer from the macropores into the surrounding soil matrix (interaction). The water movement during infiltration and the resulting flow paths were studied with combined sprinkling and dye tracer experiments under different rainfall intensities and initial soil moisture conditions. The dye tracer was continuously applied with the sprinkling water on 1 m2 plots. After the sprinkling, horizontal and vertical soil sections were prepared for surveying dye patterns, which showed the cumulated flow pathways in the soils. These experiments were carried out on four hillslope sites covered with grassland, where earthworms mainly built the macropore system. The evaluation of the flow processes in the soil was based on classified dye patterns and measurements of water content and matric potential. The results illustrate how flow in earthworm channels influences general hydrological flow processes during extreme rainfall events. Macropore flow was initiated from the soil surface or from a saturated or partially saturated soil layer. Transfer of water from the macropores into the soil matrix was mainly influenced by the soil properties and soil water content. The permeability of the underlying bedrock in combination with this transfer of water controlled the drainage of the macropores. Finally, major effects of macropore flow processes on the hydrological response were extracted. Infiltration excess overland flow was reduced if water bypassed the less permeable layer through macropores, saturation excess overland flow was less affected by macropores, and subsurface flow was activated very rapidly because the infiltrated water bypassed the soil matrix. This study highlights the most important processes that have to be considered in order to understand better and to model infiltration in natural soils in the future. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.