Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 25, Issue 12, pp 2543–2561 | Cite as

Spontaneous steppe restoration on abandoned cropland in Kazakhstan: grazing affects successional pathways

  • Annika Brinkert
  • Norbert HölzelEmail author
  • Tatyana V. Sidorova
  • Johannes Kamp
Original Paper


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, 12 million ha of cropland were abandoned in the steppe zone of Kazakhstan. At the same time livestock numbers crashed, leaving large areas of steppe without any grazing. We aimed to investigate, to which degree spontaneous succession on former cropland leads to the restoration of native steppe vegetation, and how this process is influenced by changing grazing patterns. We recorded biomass and vegetation characteristics as well as local soil and landscape variables in 151 quadrats of 100 m2, covering 89 plots on former cropland abandoned in the early 1990s and 62 reference plots of near-natural steppe grassland that was never ploughed. About half of the plots of each category were located in a remote region where grazing has been absent for ca. 20 years, whereas the other half was located in a region with moderate livestock grazing. While there were no differences in the diversity, structure and plant life form composition of currently grazed and un-grazed near-natural steppe grasslands, corresponding successional plots on abandoned arable land exhibited significant differences. Grazed plots on former fields showed higher species richness and a higher cover of dwarf shrubs (mostly Artemisia spec.), ruderals and perennial herbs. At the same time, immigration of typical steppe species was much more successful. Contrary, in the absence of any grazing we found species-poor swards dominated by Stipa lessingiana and Leymus ramosus exhibiting an increasing frequency of wildfires due to litter accumulation. After 15–20 years, secondary steppe grasslands still differed substantially from their near-natural references. Our results suggest that grazing is mandatory to fully restore the original near-natural steppe vegetation and the underlying processes of pyric herbivory.


Succession Fire Pyric herbivory Dispersal limitation Novel ecosystems Stipa 



We thank Timur Iskakov, Edith Koshkin, Tobias Koz, Alexandr Kuzminskii, Evgeniya Senyak, Ruslan Urazaliev, Frederike Velbert and Sergey Sklyarenko for assistance with fieldwork and logistical support. Soil samples were processed by Ulrike Berning-Mader, Madeleine Supper and Melanie Tappe. This study was supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and funded by the UK government’s Darwin Initiative (Project Ref-No. 18004) and the Volkswagen Foundation, project BALTRAK (Project Ref-No. A112025).

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (XLS 50 kb)
10531_2015_1020_MOESM2_ESM.docx (1.8 mb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 1824 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Annika Brinkert
    • 1
  • Norbert Hölzel
    • 1
    Email author
  • Tatyana V. Sidorova
    • 2
  • Johannes Kamp
    • 1
  1. 1.Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group, Institute of Landscape EcologyUniversity of MünsterMünsterGermany
  2. 2.Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK)AstanaRepublic of Kazakhstan

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