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Grass ecosystems in the steppe zone

Image "Grass Ecosystems in the Steppe Zone"

No essential changes have been observed in the state of the natural steppe ecosystems since the last issue of the National Report. Just as before, the scattered and small remains of virgin and old fallow steppes on the slopes of river valleys, ravines, high banks and sea limans continue gradually to degrade under the impact of various anthropogenic factors (cattle grazing, construction, recreation, pollution, destruction of vegetation sites, etc.). This tendency has been somewhat reduced since cattle grazing has become less intensive because herds have been considerably diminished at the agricultural enterprises. However, large natural pasture territories in the steppe strips are in the third and fourth stages of degradation. If the isolated steppe remains in this condition for a prolonged period of time, the result will be an irreversible loss of biodiversity. More and more botanists express concern that species and regional specificity of the steppe flora might be in decline, and worry about the introduction of species related to human activity into the local flora. Evidently, these phenomena are most clearly pronounced in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine.

Breakdown of phytocenotic barriers and overall propagation of foreign phytocomponents to the destabilized grass ecosystems are facilitated by the not quite known phenomenon of enhancing of long-term climatic changes of cyclic character, which fosters swamping of the steppe vegetation cover against a background of poor reclamation activities because many hydraulic structures need repair.

At the same time the remains of the steppe area have been heavily exploited by the creation of private vegetable gardens, construction of private houses, and other activities (communications, quarries, summer cattle enclosures, waste dumps, etc.). As a result of recent climatic changes, many petrophyto- and psamophyto-steppe vegetation areas previously unfit for cultivation due to low precipitation have now become useful for such purposes in many steppe regions. This has resulted in a further exploitation of the steppe remains with their valuable evolution developments - the biodiversity of the steppe biome. Thus, a long-term degradation of the steppe grass ecosystems is a part of the general process of environmental degradation in Ukraine.

High dynamics of grass ecosystems in biospheric and natural steppe reserves is related to the so-called reserve successions caused by system limitation of biocenosis and an extremely degraded zoocomponent. As a result, the majority of the reserves are presented by a series of groupings being in different stages of vegetation cover regeneration. And only a small part of absolutely untouched reserve areas either approaches a formation of phytosystems corresponding to local environmental conditions or has already reached this stage. These processes are opposite to those observed in the intensively exploited steppe areas.

In general, the methods of using natural resources in the steppe zones are based on long-standing traditions and need to be totally changed. The prevailing ideology of consumption without due regard to the ideas of sustainable development of society and the European orientation in the sphere of nature protection and preservation of biodiversity creates conditions for total elimination of Ukrainian steppe ecosystems, which is a natural part of the gigantic biome of the Euro-Asia biospheric scale.

There are quite a lot of problems in the creation of steppe nature reserves, which makes it really difficult to save the inconsiderable remains of the steppe territories in the south of Ukraine with a lot of abandoned arable lands. Unfortunately, the rates of increasing of the steppe reserve territories in the south of Ukraine are far behind the rates of destruction, modern anthropogenic degradation of ecosystems and losses of autochtonous biodiversity. While the total area of nature reserves and natural parks has increased by more than 53% in recent times (383,200 hectares), the area of steppe reserves has increased only by 2.2%, mainly by the creation of the reserve "Elanets Steppe" in Mykolaiv Region. In other newly created steppe reserves (National Parks Azov-Sivash and "Svyati gory", Dnieper-Oril Reserve) steppe vegetation is either absent, or present in very small territories. Besides, large territories with traditional economic activity, seawater areas and limans have also been included into the composition of nature reserves, thus creating a misleading picture of a good representation of steppe territory within the protected area.

Opposition of local authorities and population impedes fast approval of documents for establishing new protected territories, while the number of Red Data Book species is rapidly increasing, and almost half of them continue to increase outside the protected territories. Moreover, 80-90,000 hectares of arable lands have become eroded and extremely depleted.

The steppe biome is degrading continuously and imperceptibly because the economic situation of the state for a long time has made impossible the implementation of any nature protection and research programmes aimed at the grass ecosystems of the steppe zone. The actual situation of the grass ecosystems in many regions of Ukraine, as well as new tendencies of development, cannot even be guessed at, because there has been no investigation or analysis. Data on grass ecosystems obtained before Ukraine became independent are outdated, so it is extremely important to collect new data on the natural resources (land, water, forest, steppe, meadow) of the steppe zone, tendencies towards changes, and general projections for the immediate future.

Taking into account the large disproportion in degradation rates of the steppe remains, the existing mechanism of giving them the status of protected area, and the urgent necessity to protect them, it seems advisable to grant the status of national heritage to the remains of the virgin steppe territories in the steppe zone of Ukraine (Donbas, Northern Black Sea area and Azov area, Steppe Crimea), to develop legal and economic-ecological fundamentals for protection of the biological diversity, and to design a corresponding programme as a part of the national policy.


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