Upper Kiskunság Steppe
Area: 11,061 ha
Biogeographic region: Lower Danube region
After the Hortobágy region, this is the second largest saline steppe of the Great Hungarian Plain; its most famous part is Apaj. The area is located in the former low-lying floodplain of the Danube River. The bed of former water courses can still be seen in the hydrologic and botanical patterns of the area. After the draining of the area, the high salt content of the soil has enhanced salinization. Presently the landscape is dominated by alkaline carbonate-rich steppes, saline meadows, pastures, playas and, embedded among these, ridges formed by sandy-loessy wind-blown deposits. Present hydrologic patterns are a result of wetland draining initiated in the 1910s and the regulation of the Danube River. Most early spring waters are removed by drainage canals and the rest evaporates by early summer. The only permanent water body of the area is the Apaj Fishponds. Its 450-ha surface is maintained artificially.
Plantlife of the saline steppe is constrained by harsh habitat conditions (the soil has a very fine texture, unfavourable water economy and high salt content), allowing for only low-diversity halophitic vegetation.
The fauna of the saline steppes is also adapted to the extreme conditions. A unique member of the insect fauna is the longhorn beetle Dorcadion fulvum subsp. cervae. Its larvae live in the soil and feed on grass roots. Another remarkable invertebrate is Hungary’s largest spider, the Chinese Wolf Spider. Its head and thorax combined (without the abdomen) can be longer than 15 mm, thus its large body makes it an important predator of steppe ecosystems.
The most spectacular and well-known animals of the landscape are the birds. Masses of shorebirds (Tringa and Calidris sandpipers) stop for feeding in the shallow wetlands during their northerly migration in spring. This period coincides the lekking of Great Bustard. The Great Bustard population of the region is the largest of Hungary; it counts 730 individuals. As migrating birds pass, the steppe gets silent; we can encounter only those birds that remain for breeding. The Red-footed Falcon is a widespread, albeit rare breeder; it mostly feeds on insects. At the end of summer and during autumn, the steppe fills again with migrants, this time on their journey to the south. The area is an important wintering ground for some arctic passerines and raptors. Mammals of the steppe are rather inconspicuous; they live a cryptic, night-shift life. For example, the extremely rare Southern Birch Mouse is known only from owl pellets.
Extensive grazing has a centuries old history in the saline steppe. The local sheep and cattle populations have an important role in maintaining primary grasslands.