A steppe in the heart of Europe

After some quality time with friends in Budapest and two very interesting visits, we headed towards the Hungarian Puszta, as we were eager to see a very special landscape you don’t often experience in Europe. If you don´t speak Hungarian, the word ‘Puszta’ might not have any meaning to you. So, let us enlighten you: ‘puszta’ is used as an adjective in Hungarian, and it means ‘abandoned’, ‘bare’ and ‘deserted’. This doesn’t sound so interesting, does it? Well, hopefully this article can convince you otherwise.

The Puszta is actually home to Hortobágy National Park, Hungary´s oldest and largest national park, and the largest semi-natural grassland in Europe. It is a national park since 1973, a World Heritage Site, and a Dark Sky Preserve all at once. All this is due to the fact that it is actually part of the vast Eurasian Steppe. So what is there to know about this savannah-like landscape? We met up with Bence Bessenyei, a long-time ranger of the national park, who guided us through some of the most characteristic areas in the park.

A brief history of the Pannonian steppe

You don’t have to travel to Russia, Kazakhstan or Mongolia to experience the steppe – it exists in Europe as well. The Hungarian Puszta within the Great Hungarian Plain is part of the so-called Pannonian steppe. In the late Pleistocene era (over 12,000 years ago), the landscape of the Great Hungarian Plain consisted in large part of arid alkaline treeless grasslands – this is where the name “puszta ” comes from. In current times, most of the national park territory is taken up by saline grasslands managed by livestock grazing, as well as a smaller percentage of arable land. The rest of the landscape is made up of fishponds, marshes, bogs and reed beds, with a few settlements, roads and a small amount of woodland (remnant, planted and floodplain). 

While traveling with Bence and seeing the managed pastures, we cannot help but ask: How would this landscape look if suddenly, livestock grazing would be stopped?

To understand, we have to look into the past. Historically, several large mammals occupied these excessive, open grasslands. Aurochs, red deer, roe deer and wild boar dominated this landscape, moreover, findings showed traces of wild horses, the steppe bison as well as the onager (a wild ass species currently inhabiting desert regions of Asia). Research has found that these herbivorous mammals were even accompanied by a steppe-type large predator, a lion species (Panthera leo persicus) 4-6 thousand years ago. Looking at this landscape with Bence, it is incredible to imagine that once, really not so long ago on a planetary timescale, lions roamed here, in the Hungarian steppe (interestingly, the only findings of this lion species apart from the Carpathian Basin from the last 10,000 years are from Greece and Ukraine). In fact, studies show that the forests did not close in the area in the past 30 thousand years, with the exception of the immediate vicinity of the rivers. The Hortobágy was always a more or less unwooded area. 

The main habitat types of Hortobágy National Park

Bence shows us a series of habitat types characteristic for the region. Most dominating are alkaline meadows, which in former times (before the regulation of the Tisza river) were flooded for a longer period during spring. In the past century, these grasslands were heavily grazed. However, since the national park was established, the number of grazing animals has been managed much more strictly. Bence tells us that to conserve the natural heritage of this landscape, one of the most important tasks of the Hortobágy National Park Directorate is to increase the number of grazing animals. According to him, the number of grazers is currently too low to benefit these alkaline meadows. 

We also visit specific loess areas that developed due to the peculiar topography development conditions of the Hortobágy. Many endangered plant communities different from those of surrounding alkaline areas occupy nutrient-rich soils here. Unfortunately, most of these loess areas were ploughed and built on in the communist regime, therefore only a few loess sites remain untouched. 

The agricultural areas within the national park provide excellent feeding areas for many species of birds, such as the great egret, grey heron, white stork, hen harrier and others. Agricultural areas are also important for the common crane, which is the symbol of the National Park Directorate. During crane migration from mid-September to end of November and from mid-March to late April, the most important food of cranes are the remaining maize seeds left behind after harvesting. The National Park Directorate views these feeding areas as highly important for protecting nature, for nesting and providing abundant food for many bird species who need to fill up their energy reserves.

Marshes can also be found in Hortobágy, as it was a temporary floodland area of the Tisza river up to the mid 19th century. The marshy meadows are the former oxbows of ancient rivers filled up to different degrees. In recent years unfortunately, the area has seen serious droughts. Therefore, the National Park Directorate is also artificially flooding designated wetlands and has reconstructed various marshes to create a better network for the waterflow and habitat for many species. Even though fishponds and canals were created after agricultural and economic requirements, they nowadays provide a resting place for an incredible amount of bird species. Of the 380 species of birds observed so far in Hungary, 325 species were seen in the Hortobágy, and of those 266 species were recorded in the fishpond complex of Hortobágy. A true paradise for birdwatchers!

Drought and wildfires

As one can imagine, climate change shows its face in this landscape. The nature of Hortobágy National Park Directorate has been strongly affected by dry, rainless and increasingly warm weather. Bence tells us that during winter time, there is barely enough snow and most importantly frost to freeze the grounds, and in springtime, most of the wetlands of the national park remain dry, with significant water cover only on small patches. Therefore, the National Park Directorate has to redirect a significant amount of water each year to flood the habitats strongly affected by the drought. 

The situation is dire. As we start our tour with Bence, we spot a fire coming from an agricultural field. This landscape is in constant danger from drought, and Bence tells us that such fires have been common, with the last big fire hitting the national park only a month ago. The last one burned down several hectares of grassland, and as we are getting closer to the fire, Bence estimates that tens of hectares will be affected this time. As this area falls under his management as ranger, his phone doesn´t stop ringing. As we find out, this fire was started by a small spark while mowing that made the dry grass immediately catch on fire. With such droughts and blowing wind, small flames form and spread very easily. In the meantime, the fire brigade arrives and eventually, after hours of work, can stop the fire from spreading further. However, most often it is almost impossible to quickly extinguish the fire, as the dry vegetation catches on flames in an instant and burns very well.

Watching the fire together with Bence, we feel powerless and our hearts get heavy. The damage to nature conservation is considerable, and with such frequency of fires, it is simply not enough to hope for rain. The land needs more moisture, and the National Park Directorate is prepared to irrigate the ground artificially.

Involving locals

The extent of the ‘puszta’ landscape over much of the Great Hungarian Plain was drastically reduced by the extensive drainage and irrigation works carried out during the nineteenth century. The Hortobágy National Park therefore conserves the last intact puszta and aims to protect not just its natural, but also its deeply rooted cultural heritage as well. 

One of the most interesting approaches of the National Park Directorate in our eyes is the cooperation with and involvement of local communities. The pastures operated by the Directorate are grazed by the livestock of locals. They can express their interest, and if they are selected, they enter into a 10-year contract with the Directorate focusing on the grazing management. Within this contract, they must follow the requirements set by the Directorate on where, with how many animals per hectare and what kind of animal to graze, as well as in what time period. Apart from the pastures, some reed fields of the Directorate are also leased to locals, who harvest the reed and make roofs and other products with it. Keeping traditional livestock breeds, such as the Hungarian grey cattle, racka sheep, mangalica pig, as well as various breeds of Hungarian shepherd dogs like the puli, the pumi, the kuvasz and the komondor, are also encouraged by the Directorate and kept by locals mostly for tourism purposes. 

In this way, the National Park Directorate aims to bridge the gap between locals and conservationists that is usually created when a protected area is established. Supporting local livelihoods, aiming to keep locals engaged in sustainably managing their land benefits both parties in Hortobágy. It also builds awareness and pride in local communities about the natural and cultural values of their home, and encourages them to take an active part in protecting it. For Bence, this relationship is crucial in his work as a ranger. As we drive through the landscape, he is often stopped by local shepherds, who greet him as a friend. And this is what us conservationists should never forget. Nature conservation needs allies on all levels, and especially within local communities to be effective. Local communities are important stewards of natural resources, and they are crucial to create a future where human needs and well-being are met in harmony with nature.

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