Land use changes



For thousands years steppe was used by nomadic people for grazing their livestock and moving from place to place following seasonal changes in weather and food abundance. The first and the most significant change to the steppe happened during the Soviet “Virgin lands” campaign started in 1950s, which transformed up to 60% of dry grasslands into arable fields (6,7). This transformation had a negative impact on the whole steppe ecosystem, first of all, because huge areas of the steppe became completely unsuitable for most of the steppe’s flora and fauna. Huge fields stretching from horizon to horizon lead to declines of many steppe breeding species (1,3). Virgin land campaign brought millions of people into the steppe and they in turn brought with them infrastructure, disturbance and invasive species.

The second major change had a positive effect on steppe ecosystem as a whole, however negatively affecting some species. It started in 90-s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and during the economic crisis in all the post-soviet countries, when huge areas of previously cultivated steppe were abandoned, so that the total area of farmed arable land declined by nearly 40% during the following decade (8). Fields were abandoned either for reasons directly related to the economic crisis (lack of money to purchase equipment, seeds and fuel) or because some areas had a very low productivity, which made them unprofitable to use. Thanks to subsidies from the state, in Soviet times crops were grown even on saline and weak soils and in the areas of so called ‘risky agriculture’ which often meant several years of low yields due to lack of rain. At this period of economic instability, livestock breeding practices changed dramatically as well - livestock numbers in Kazakhstan rapidly decreased and the remaining animals, mainly privately owned sheep and cattle, were kept for grazing in the proximity of settlements. And this had a positive effect on the steppe, with exception of some species and areas. Some areas previously intensively utilized have remained abandoned already for more than 20 years and, although very slowly, are turning into natural steppe (2). As shown by a study looking at habitat use of a number of bird species in steppe areas of central Kazakhstan, abandoned fields created a good habitat for a number of steppe birds, such as Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis and Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus. (4). Areas around settlements which were previously under cultivation became available for livestock grazing, creating additional habitat with strongly grazed short vegetation, favoured by a number of steppe birds such as Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius and White-winged Lark Melanocorypha leucoptera (4,5). Grazing is also suggested to be one of the main drivers of the vegetation regeneration on old fields (2).

The third major change in land use practices began with Kazakhstan’s rapid economic development during the last decade, when large areas of abandoned fields have been reclaimed and livestock numbers largely recovered. If these changes continue with current rate several species of birds which are currently benefiting from land abandonment and localized grazing are expected to strongly decline (4).

All above suggests that there is not only a need for conservation of the remaining pristine steppe habitat but also efforts should be made to preserve extensive areas of abandoned fields and maybe, to some extent, to support the current grazing regime. The solution of following ‘land sparing‘ approach (i.e. minimizing demand for new farmland through agricultural intensification of existing arable land), suggested by Kamp et al (2011) seems to be the most appropriate in given circumstances.

With time I hope to accumulate here more information related to this issue and input from anyone interested is very welcome.


1. IUCN (2014) The IUCN list of threatened species. Downloaded from on 02/02/2014

2. Brinkert, A. (2012) Vegetation development on old fields in the southern steppe zone of Central Kazakhstan. Master’s thesis. University of Munster.

3. Dolgushin, I.A. (1962) Birds of Kazakhstan [Ptitsy Kazakhstana] (ed. I.A. Dolgushin), pp. 94-101. Academy of Sciences Kazakh SSR, Alma-Ata

4. Kamp, J., Urazaliev, R., Donald, P.F., Holzel, N. (2011) Post-Soviet agricultural change predicts future declines after recent recovery in Eurasian steppe bird populations. Biol. Conserv. 144, 2607-2614

5. Kamp, J., Sheldon, R.D., Koshkin, M.A., Donald, P.F. & Biedermann, R. (2009) Post-Soviet steppe management causes pronounced synanthropy in the globally threatened Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius. Ibis, 151, 452-463

6. Mirkhashimov, I.H., et al (1997). Biologicheskoe I landshaftnoe raznoobrazie Respubliki Kazakhstan. Almaty.142 p. (Biological and landscape diversity of the Republic of Kazakhstan).

7. Rachkovskaya, E.I., N.P. Ogar and O.V.Marinich. (1999). “Faktory antropogennoi transformazii I ikh vliyanie na rastitelnost stepei Kazakhstana“. Stepnoi Bulleten. 5: 22-25 (Factors of anthropogenic transformation and their influence on steppe vegetation in Kazakhstan)

8. Suleimanov, M. & Oram, P. (2000). “Trends in feed, livestock production, and rangelands during the transition period in three Central Asian countries”. Food Policy 25: 681–700.

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