AN ECOLOGICAL NETWORK FOR STEPPE GRASSLANDS
IN EASTERN EUROPE
Theo van der Sluis, Biodiversity expert Mott MacDonald / Alterra, Wageningen UR
Steppes are natural grasslands with a typical continental climate, 380-400 mm. rainfall, often
on productive Chernozem soils. Over the past century the areal extent of steppic grasslands
has shown a tremendous decline due to changes in land use. These were induced by political
and economical changes in Eastern Europe. Naturally, the steppes would form some 40 % of
the territory of the Ukraine (ECENECE 1990). Due to conversion of natural grasslands, mainly
for wheat production, as much as 90% of the former steppe habitat was lost. These extended
cultivated areas were prone to erosion and degradation. With the loss of habitat there was a
concomitant decline in its accompanying flora and fauna. In the 1990s the transition of land
ownership from large kolkhozes to private ownership resulted in land abandonment.
The EU-supported Eurasian Steppe project aims to restore degraded farm land to steppe and Fig. 1: Feather grass (Stipa sp.), a
conserve virgin steppe in Lugansk Oblast and Rostov Oblast (map 1). Aim of the overall typical steppe grass species
project is to improve rural livelihoods and develop new opportunities for regional development.
The region is one of the hotspots for biodiversity, with a unique flora and fauna adapted to
Map 1: The remaining steppe habitat in Lugansk and Rostov Oblast,
based on satellite imagery and field investigations (Djos 2009, Demina
2009, mapping by A. Axem).
Steppe habitat (both virgin steppe and degraded steppe) has been mapped and flora and
fauna surveys were done in 2008. Core areas and potential corridors were identified in Rostov
and Lugansk Oblast, these form the basis for the ECONET (map 2, 3). ECONET is a concept
to integrate conservation and development of ecological networks in spatial planning (Bolck
et al. 2004). ECONET was adopted as a national approach for the Ukraine (Kostyushin 2003)
in 2004 and is here implemented at the Oblast level.
With support of the Eurasian Steppe Project farmers and regional authorities are stimulated to
restore the former steppe vegetation. Extensive grazing is proposed to maintain steppe habitat.
Protected Areas are currently being extended and management plans prepared. Improved
landscape connectivity results in recovery of the biodiversity of the fragmented steppe habitat.
Restoration of degraded areas, demonstration farms, and occasional reintroduction of species
form part of the project.
Fig. 1: Typical steppe vegetation with Bunch grasses (Festuca sp.) and Feather grass (Stipa sp.), with a
high proportion of forbs such as Salvia, Aconitum, Artemisia and Centaurea species. The species
richness is typically some 30-40 species/100 m2.
Map 2: The ecological networks of Europe (fig. 2a, www.seenet.info/images/maps ) and ECONET developed for
ECONET as rural development concept a Lugansk (fig. 2b, Van der Sluis 2009) and Rostov Oblast (fig. 2c, Demina 2009).
The Lugansk Oblast, Eastern Ukraine has adopted the ECONET approach and replicates the
pilot project for its entire territory, to be implemented in the coming decade. Conservation and
restoration of steppe is linked with sustainable land use and diversification of the rural
economy. Possibilities for ecotourism are explored to contribute to farm income. The steppe
provides income to both smallholder farmers and new agro-industries.
A trans-boundary ecological network is being developed, since steppe habitats are rare in
Europe and major steppe areas are in Russia (Kalmykia, Ohrenburg), Kazachstan and further
east. Here still viable populations can be found of Saiga antilope (critically endangered,
IUCN), Great and Little bustard, Spoonbill, Demoiselle crane etcetera. Landscape connectivity
should ensure their long-term survival, also in the light of climate change (Van der Sluis et al.
More work is currently done, in particular the assessment of core areas and identification of
trans-boundary corridors. The proposed network will be discussed in both Oblasts in the
summer of 2009, and the Oblasts are assisted in the implementation of ECONET.
The current approach has yielded the interest of the governments in Russia, Ukraine and
Moldova, as well as local authorities, farming communities and other stakeholders. Severely
fragmented and degraded steppe habitat is restored, resulting in increased biodiversity.
Extensive grazing land becomes functional for agricultural production. The approach
guarantees a future for prime steppe habitat and its associated flora and fauna.
Map 3: The identified trans-boundary corridors (O. Demina, F. Forosjoek, T. van der Sluis, I. Zagorudnik, 2009)
Borovyk, L.P./ Л.П. Боровик (2008): Материалы для создания трансграничной экосети по Луганской области в пределах Меловского и Беловодского районов.
Bolck, M., G. de Togni, T. van der Sluis, R. Jongman (2004): From models to reality: design and implementation process. In: R. Jongman & G. Pungetti, Ecological networks, and greenways – Concept, design, implementation. Cambridge studies in
Landscape Ecology, Ch. 8, p. 128-150.
Demina, O. (2009): Econet Rostov Oblast. Unpublished results.
Djoss,A.N../Джос А.Н. (2009): Подготовка электронных карт типов использования земель с уцетом сохранения биоразнообразия и ландшафов дпя пилотных уцастков луганской области.
Kostyushin, V. (2003): Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy (PEBLDS) Implementation: Set the Basis for National Ecological Network of Ukraine. IUCN European Program, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources
of Ukraine, National Ecological Centre of Ukraine.
Groot Bruinderink, G.W.T.A., T. van der Sluis, D.R. Lammertsma, and P. Opdam (2003): The design of a tentative, coherent ecological network for large mammals (Red deer) in Northwest Europe. Conservation Biology 17 (2) pp:45-57
Kusters, N. (2008): Towards a rural tourism strategy for the Lugansk Oblast North-east steppe region. Fact finding and program identification. July 2008.
Kusters, N. (2008): Towards a rural tourism strategy for the Manych Valley, Rostov Oblast. Fact finding and program identification. July 2008.
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe – Committee on Environmental Policy (1999): Environmental performance review of Ukraine, UNECE, Vienna
Van der der Sluis, T., M. Bloemmen and I.M. Bouwma (2004). European corridors: strategies for corridor development for target species. ALTERRA, ECNC, ISBN: 90-76762-16-3. Tilburg/Wageningen, The Netherlands
Van der der Sluis, T. (2009). ECONET Lugansk & transboundary corridors. Unpublished results.
Sustainable Integrated Land Use of the Eurasian Steppe
This project is funded by the EU TACIS program for cross-border cooperation, EuropeAid/124907/C/SER/Multi/5
EU Sustainable Integrated Land Use of the Eurasian Steppe project
21/12 Lyuteranska, off 15, 01024 Kyiv, Ukraine
Tel. +380 44 253 8124, E-mail: email@example.com
Tel. author: +31 317 481 752, E-mail: Theo.vanderSluis@wur.nl