the pannonian great plain – a flourishing garden? - Landscape Europe

the pannonian great plain – a flourishing garden? - Landscape Europe

the pannonian great plain – a flourishing garden? - Landscape Europe


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éVa konkoly GyUró

The pannonIan GreaT

plaIn a floUrIshInG


waTer as a key To The hIsTory and fUTUre

of The cenTral lowlands In The

carpaThIan basIn

Europe’s Famous Garden” is the title of a book on the historical ecology of the

Carpathian Basin (R. Várkonyi, 1993). This metaphorical title refers to several

explicit and hidden senses of a garden. It is humanised Nature coinciding with a

series of human needs: shelter, safety, food, beauty and paradise. The symbolism

of garden and landscape has common roots: it is the relationship of culture and

nature. The “famous garden” concept connects the rich potential and diversity

of the landscape with its role in the heart of Europe. Humans have shaped the

Carpathian Basin over several thousand years: the remains can be traced back to

the Bronze Age. The first settlers used the loess on the flood-safe plateaus, where

permanent changes resulted from the felling of deciduous forests, pasturage and

ploughing (Frisnyák, 1990). They formed a cultivated landscape, widely called a

cultural landscape: culture and cultivation have overlapping meanings. There are

parallels with the terms horticulture, sylviculture and agriculture. The Pannonian

Plain is the birthplace of the Hungarian people’s European history. A famous

writer explained that the resonantly open pronunciation of Hungarian makes it

the perfect language to carry over the sweeping plains. Travellers and geographers

sometimes described it as a world of a great diversity, and also of ambiguity and

extremes. Why is it important in the European context? It is a distinctive region of

the continent both culturally and ecologically. It conserves characteristics similar

to the Eastern Eurasian Steppe; it is the most western region, where originally the

forest steppe occurred, and it is a melting pot of the eastern and western cultures,

and also a threshold for many species coming from neighbouring climatic zones.

What does “Europe’s Famous Garden” look like today? How have inhabitants of

this area managed its potential and does the future hold?

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

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2 6 | Chapter 18: Konkoly Gyuró

Figure 1. Carpathian Basin in Central Europe. Source: Stiefel Map of Europe

landscape profIle of The GreaT

plaIn In The carpaThIan basIn

The Carpathian Basin, also called the Pannonian Basin, in the heart of Central Europe consists of two main

geographical units: the central lowlands and the encircling mountain ranges. The surface area of the whole

territory is 325,000 km 2 . A stretch of about 1,500 km of the Carpathian Mountains frames the basin (Figure

1). The internal lowlands: the Great Plain in the centre, the Little Plain on the western border, and the Transylvanian

Basin on the East, are separated by the Middle Ranges and the Trans-Danubian Hills. The central

Pannonian Basin, the Great Plain, is divided into three parts by two large rivers; the Danube and the Tisza. The

watershed of the Tisza catchments draws on the east to the ridges of the Carpathians. The catchments of the

Danube reach far into Western Europe. These two rivers and their tributaries shape the Great Plain, lying at

a maximum of 200 m above sea level on loess and sand. It is a continuous, unbroken lowland, covering about

100,000 km 2 , of which 52,000 km 2 belong to Hungary, comprising more than the half the actual area of the

country (93,000 km 2 ). Its western and northern borders, the Trans-Danubian Hills and the Northern Middle

Range, lie within Hungary, but to the East and South the Transylvanian Bihar Mountains, the Southern

Carpathians and the Balkan Massif are beyond the state boundaries, in Romania and Serbia (Frisnyák, 1990,

Beluszky, 2001).

The Carpathian Basin is a unique nexus point of various climatic effects and bio-geographical areas. The

variety of the flora and fauna has been shaped by the mixture of the southern (sub-Mediterranean and Pontic),

the western (sub-Atlantic and sub-Alpine), the northern (Boreal) and the eastern (Continental) climates and

species, together with the European and Euro-Asian species of a larger distribution area. As a consequence

the micro-scaled mosaics of the various habitats and vegetation types replace the large-scale vegetation zones

of Eastern Eurasia here (Varga, 1998). Additionally, it should be emphasized that the Eastern-European loess

plateau and the western tongue of the forest steppe reaches into the Pannonian-Basin (Figure 2); thus the

vegetation of the dry and alkaline steppes could be introduced into the lowlands of the basin via what was the

migration route of the Hungarian tribes (Fodor, 1996, WWF 2001).

The Great Hungarian Plain, being in the continental climate zone, usually has cold, snowy winters and

hot, dry summers. The annual precipitation is about 400-500 mm. Severe droughts may occur in summertime.

Thus the soil and vegetation cover, as well as their potential uses, are largely dependent on the geology, the micro-relief,

and the related water supply coming from the surface and underground waters. It is an environmen-

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

Figure 2. Forest steppe in Eurasia. Source: Molnár Zs, Kun L 2000. WWF Hungary

Figure 3. Original water-regime of the Carpathian Basin. Source: Atlas Historic of Hungary Figure 4. Original vegetation types. Source: Prinz In: Frisnyák, 1990

Figure 5. Ethnic groups in Hungary in the 11th century. Source: Kniezsa, Glaser In: Frisnyák 1990 Figure 6. Turkish occupation. Source: Atlas Historic of Hungary

tally sensitive area as all the rivers flow in from the neighbouring countries; therefore both the quality and the

quantity of the influent waters are dependent on the management of water and landscape by the neighbouring

countries; i.e., Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine and Rumania. When discussing the original potential vegetation

of the Great Plain, four main vegetation types can be identified. Formerly the open, dry and wet grassland

covered about 15% of the surface. The forest steppes, spreading originally both on loess and sand, comprised

about 40% of the region. Closed, riparian forest mantle was typical along the river courses and covered about

35% of the territory. It is estimated that the third formation, of marshland forests, extended to 10% (Figure

3, 4). Consequently, open and closed forests, including the riparian and the marshland forests of the wetter

areas, dominated the original vegetation of the Great Plain. Grasslands and bare areas were present to a lesser

extent. (Konkoly Gyuró Bartha 2002.)

Several ethnic groups periodically used this region of varied natural mosaics until the conquest by the

Hungarians in the 9th century. Afterwards a dense network of villages and market towns was established,

based on an adaptive landscape management system which did not significantly disturb the natural environment.

Traditionally, the specific agricultural profiles and the management of the micro-regions reinforced

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

| 2 7

2 | Chapter 18: Konkoly Gyuró

Figure 7. Dry agricultural surfaces.

Photo: Konkoly Gyuró É

Figure 10. Invasive plants (Amorpha fruticosa)

on the fallow land and pine plantations around

Nagykörű near to Tisza. Photo: Konkoly Gyuró É

Figure 8. Flood at the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers at the

foot of Tokaj mountain in 1998. Source: http://www.eletestudomany.


Figure 9. Robust agricultural areas with forest belts of poplars and black

locust. Photo: Konkoly Gyuró É

the regional identity, which was also influenced by the varying cultures of the different races (Figure 5). An

absolute change occurred after the Turkish occupation (Figure 6), with land drainage in the 18-19th century,

the modernisation of agriculture, and the 20th century communist era. Therefore a completely different situation

exists today.

The natural geographical landscape distribution, considering the Great Plain as a macro-landscape,

divides into 13 mezzo- and in 62 micro-landscapes. (Pécsi 1989.) However the differences are still more or less

visible. The new water regime and the modern techniques considerably dissipated the characteristics, destroying

the small scale, multifunctional farming systems.

On the other hand new differences emerged depending upon the intensity of cultivation. The formerly

rich, diverse Great-Plain was transformed into two types, representing two extremes. One is characterised

by large-scale, intensive agriculture, with some horticulture, while the other consists of semi-natural, mostly

peripheral, depopulated areas, designated as national parks or landscape protection areas. The first is typical

in the regions where the soil quality is high. The second is mostly where the production is not profitable due

to the poor soil conditions, or in areas that often have problems with water availability. In the recent decades

extremes in the water supply have become regular, with alternating floods and droughts (Figure 7, 8).

Despite having several natural geographical micro-landscapes, and extremes of both intense land use

and of naturalness, both geographers and sociologists agree that the Great Plain as a whole differs significantly

from other parts of the country. It can be considered as distinct in its entirety, due to “dilatory development”

(Beluszky, 2001). A typical sign of that is that industry has never been significant, settlement structure is less

dense, and towns are scarcer than in other parts of the country. The last is the result of the depopulation and

disappearance of little villages during the Turkish era. A distinctive type of town called an “oppidum” was

developed. They were historic market centres for agricultural products, and they were more like villages than

the mountain towns or those in Western Europe. This characteristic faded somewhat during the communist

period, but it is still recognizable. Another feature, developed after the Turkish occupation, was dispersed

farms and homesteads around the towns, on large sandy areas. Many of these micro-settlements; which had

the potential to become the nuclei of today’s multifunctional landscape management; were destroyed during

communism, but recent research shows that about ten thousand still exist (Kovács, 2005).

“Dilatory development” is not necessarily undesirable, as it might help to avoid unsustainable situations.

In the case of the Pannonian Plain there are also other aspects to consider. The harmonious man-nature

relationship was broken because of the exclusively technological concept of land drainage, and everything

that happened afterwards was only a partial solution. This was compounded by political and social drawbacks

throughout history and also more recently. In addition, non-holistic thinking predominated, concentrating

on technological solutions and a top down approach, and not recognising the landscape as an integral whole,

where man and Nature are inextricably linked. As a result, there was dissonance and unbalanced extremes,

from which arose severe ecological and social problems. This leads to the consideration of the two main character-types

of the Great Plain.

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

Figure 11. Hortobágy. Source: http://www.vilagorokseg.hu/hortobagy/


robUsT aGrIcUlTUral areas

On rich soils, tree rows and the remains of the former forest belt system divide large areas of arable land

(Figure 9). They comprise predominantly black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and poplar clones (Populus x

euramericana): few of them consist of indigenous tree species. Forest patches are particularly scarce. Invasive

plants are spreading on the frequently bare balk and on the fallow lands. The slightly undulating sandy areas

are dominated by large vineyards and orchards, and plantations of pine (Pinus silvestris) are also common.

Beyond the compact villages and small towns, the white walled houses of the remaining farmsteads show up

in the shadows of groves of trees. Ploughing had never been predominant before drainage, but afterwards a

conspicuous spread of arable land occurred. Today it takes up 55% of the whole area, while 13% is covered by

grassland and 12% by forest. Vineyards, gardens and orchards comprise 3%, and 17% consists of water and

settlements. The current scenery is largely the result of collectivisation during the communist period. Sixteen

years after the political change in Central Europe the landscape patterns of the Great Plain have not changed

much. Although most of the state farms and the co-operatives are gone, large arable fields still dominate,

despite the change in land ownership. The most significant change of the last ten years is an increase of the fallow

land, resulting in habitats of natural succession, or areas where invasive plants are spreading (Figure 10).

Extensive use can be found on about 10% of the Great Plain covered mostly by grasslands. With all probability

it will increase due to the growing significance of the agro-environmental schemes.

1: Black locust the misleading “beauty”

In Hungary there are more Robinia pseudoacacia trees than in all the other European countries put together. This highly invasive tree species, coming from

North America, was first planted in the Paris Botanical Garden in 1601 by Jean Robin. (Bartha, Oroszi, 1995.) On the Great Hungarian Plain the decrease

of woods and forest patches on sandy soils resulted in the formation of the sand-dunes. The black locust was one of the trees planted on the Great Plain,

during the 18-19th, centuries to stabilise the shifting sand. It was also used on the foothills of the Middle Ranges after phylloxera killed the vine-stocks.

Later, during the 20th century, the lowering of the ground water level allowed areas of unstable sand to grow. In addition the shortage of timber increased

dramatically after WWI, as 85% of the forested areas were lost beyond the country’s new frontier. It

was not easy to find adequate species for the forest plantations on the dry lowland. The black locust

was one of the most preferred species of the 20th century. The plantations multiplied very quickly

and this aggressively spreading tree conquered the whole country. Apart from its manifold use in the

rural areas (hard timber for utensils, fences and heating, honey production etc.), the black locust is

extremely unpopular from the point of view of nature conservation. It drops into all possible little

niches, invades the indigenous forest, and the fast growing roots weave through the soil and displace

the original vegetation. Due to its intensive growth, eradication of black locust requires the use of

a total herbicide that eradicates all living organisms in the soil, and it takes time to replace it with

Figure 15. Flowering black locust tree avenue.

Photo: Konkoly Gyuró É

Figure 12. Juniper and poplar on the sand dunes Kiskunság

Photo: Seregélyes, Szollát

other species. In spite of its sweet smell and the beauty of the white flowers, it is evident that it has

drawbacks as an emblem of the Great Plain (Figure 15).

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

| 2

Figure 13. Kőrös river. Photo: In: Kalotás 1996.

Figure 14. Meanders of the Danube at Gemenc

Photo: Konkoly Gyuró É

300 | Chapter 18: Konkoly Gyuró

2 : World heritage and national park - commonwealths and conflicts: “puszta”, “paprika”, “gulash”

Hortobágy received the World Heritage diploma as a Cultural Landscape in 1999. It is a National Park and has always been most widely known as the

emblematic landscape of Hungary, the symbol of the steppic wilderness (Figure 16). All the folk tales and their romantic images of the Hungarian lowlands

tend to portray this area as evocative of the Eastern Steppe, where nomadic tribes of Hungarians roamed two thousand years ago. This land of legend lies

on the barren, dry, alkaline, almost table-flat and predominantly woodless plain; with its grazing sheep and cattle herds, its horses and well organised

equestrian events for tourists, and its ancient inns, called “csárda”. The crowning glory of its cuisine is the “gulyás”, a traditional dish that used to be

cooked in ancient times by cow-herders. The Hungarian name “gulyás” means cowherd. It is offered in the “csárda”, where the dry red paprika is not only

the most important spice in the dish, but also a decoration.

In fact, as described above, Hortobágy was once a forest steppe, and formerly much more water-rich.

It was used as the common pasturage of the town of Debrecen, the second largest town in Hungary,

and a former centre of live cattle export. Thus the modern landscape is the result of human usage. It

has neither original potential vegetation, nor an absolutely flat surface. Traditional architecture survives

in a series of buildings (shepherd’s houses, folds made from adobe and reed etc.), as do ancient

breeds of grazing animals, traditional handicrafts and the famous nine hole bridge in the central market

place. Typical Hungarian foods are still commonly cooked. All these contribute to the character of

the landscape. These are all important elements of the cultural landscape, which is part of the world

heritage. The distinctive scenery of this area is widely valued by tourists and would provide a good

example of how to achieve a better understanding of the positive and negative human impacts on the

Figure 16. Hortobágy. Photo: In: Kalotás

landscape, and how to harmonise the often divergent interests of nature protection and tourism.

A tanyákon túl a puszta mélyén

Áll magányos, dolt " kémény u "


Látogatják a szomjas betyárok,

Kecskemétre menvén a vásárra.

On the Puszta’s waste, close to a

ruined cottage,

With fallen chimney stands the

Csárda lonely dwelling.

There the Betyárs meet, from

many markets gathered,

There their songs are singing,

there their tales are telling.

From the poem: Az Alföld

(Hungarian Plains), Petofi, "

Sándor 1844. In the translation

by Bowring, John (1866):

Translations from Alexander

Petofi, " the Magyar Poet. Trübner

& Co, London

desIGnaTed areas

The semi-natural areas of the Great Plain are designated as national parks or protected landscapes. Natural

areas or wilderness, without human influence, occur only in small patches: they are especially scarce on the

Great Plain, due to 3000 years of human land use and the transformation of the hydrological system. The

most valuable and attractive habitat complexes resulted from human activities which valued Nature. The four

National Parks of the Great Plain represent different landscape types.

Hungary’s first and largest national park, the “Hortobágy”, one of the steppic landscapes, was founded

in 1973 (Figure 11). Situated on the north-eastern part of the Central Lowland, Hortobágy extends for 800

km². It is the largest steppe in Europe, even though it has been changed over time. Originally it was not a

dry grassland, but partly secondary steppe on dry alkaline soils, largely known as “puszta”, which means an

empty, barren area. Superficially the “puszta” seems an empty flatland, with only a few trees, some little white

houses, the grazing livestock and the typical shadoofs disappearing in the endless distance. However, to a

keen observer it is a diverse mosaic of grassy habitats; although it was more diverse before drainage. Today it

is significantly drier than it once was, despite the re-established, artificial pond system, created in the 1960ies.

Therefore one of the most important endeavours of nature conservation is to restore the water balance, in

order to enlarge the wetlands, which are also important stepping-stones for Eurasian migratory birds.

The second National Park is “Kiskunság”, situated between the Danube and the Tisza. It was created in

1975 and declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The park covers an area of 570 km². It is a representative

of the sandy lowlands, with a slightly variable relief, due to the remains of the sand-dunes. The park consists of

several land areas, interspersed with lakes, and all have their unique features. The most interesting landscape

unit was formed by the scarce vegetation on the sand dunes, consisting of white poplars (Populus alba) and juniper

(Juperus communis) (Figure 12). Both at Hortobágy and at Kiskunság the maintenance of the grassland

by grazing and hay cutting is a central target of the management.

The territory of the two most recently designated National Parks, (1990s) are determined by rivers and

wetlands. They are considerably reduced survivors of the former water habitats, still partly confined by dams.

The watercourses and the waterside vegetation are important parts of the European Ecological Networks as

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

iver corridors. The surrounding intensive agricultural areas also underline their significance. The “Kőrös-

Maros” National Park lies on the southeast, while the “Danube-Dráva” extends on the south-western part

of the Great Plain. The Kőrös and Maros rivers rise in the Carpathians and provide the water supply for the

loess surfaces of the lowland (Figure 13). Beyond the protection of the water related habitats and the highly

valued hardwood forest belts of the floodplain, the National Park conserves small remnants of the dry loess

grasslands. The southern river reach called “Gemenc” contains the remains of the flood plain of the wandering

Danube (Figure 14). This large territory between the river and the dams still hosts the ancient meanders,

little watercourses and channels, as well as the largest Hungarian lowland forest. It is a favoured location for

holidays and hunting, well known for its deer population. The Dráva, the border river between Serbia and

Hungary, rises in the Alps and is one of the most natural river courses on the south-western tongue of the

Great Plain.

3 : Spas at the Great Hungarian Plain

Figure 17. Lake at Gyopárosfürdő

The Carpathian Basin, its mountains, hills and lowlands, are extremely rich in thermal and mineral waters

with healing properties. Currently there are more than a thousand wells in Hungary that give warm water

above 30°C, most of them are medicinal-water containing radioactivity, sulphurous acid, or bromine,

carbonate, or iodine salts. The bath-culture goes back to Roman times 2000 years, but the Turks also

built several spas in Buda during the 17-18th century. After a series of elegant and highly attractive bathsettlements

were developed in the Carpathians before WWI, the thermal wells of the Great Plain were

also discovered, and the construction of the spas was continuous during the 20th century. As part of the

development of new recreational areas, parks and urban forests have been planted, enhancing the appeal

of the landscape. Traditional spas are Hajdúszoboszló, near Hortobágy “puszta”, the castle spa of the town

Gyula and Orosháza-Gyopárosfürdő. Lake Gyopáros was referred as the Pearl of the Hungarian Plain by

the press, it was designated a spa bath in 1869 (Figure 17).

learnInG froM The pasT by shapInG

The fUTUre

The fate and also the future of the Hungarian Great Plain is strongly interrelated with its past; more significantly

so than the hilly and mountainous regions of the Carpathian Basin, because of the total transformation

of the water budget. Today, increasingly frequent extremes of droughts and floods show that the water regime

has collapsed: there is no security, either in agriculture or for the resident population, as insufficient capacity

for water retention exists. Both the economy and society face serious problems. However, the past suggests

adequate solutions.

The Hungarians, originating from the eastern steppes, settled down in the Carpathian Basin, in the 9th

century. The ancient seat of their roaming and settling, is also related to the forest-steppe zone. They were among

those few nomadic peoples who, wandering through the Eurasian plains, managed to take root on the continent.

One of the reasons for this was that the landscape management techniques and experience of the tribes coincided

with the given natural condition of the Pannonian Basin, where the precipitation was plentiful in comparison

with the Eurasian Steppe. The various forest-steppe landscapes had large biomass production, enabling

simultaneous pasturage and tillage around the settled villages. As well as the all important livestock breeding,

the rapid settling of the half-nomadic tribes made possible the evolution of agriculture and horticulture. Their

knowledge of a variety of landscape management techniques originated from the different cultures that they

met throughout several hundred years of wandering. The other reason was that they joined the European social

and cultural patterns of the Middle Ages by adopting Christianity and founding a feudal state (1000 AD, the

coronation of our first Christian King). Finally, the huge livestock herds of Hungary had a market in Western

Europe, as the Hungarian cattle exports satisfied the food requirements of the fast growing population.

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

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302 | Chapter 18: Konkoly Gyuró

: Lake-Tisza a multifunctional reservoir

In dry periods the Great Plain suffers extreme drought. The establishment of reservoirs has been an absolute necessity following the earlier drainage.

Unfortunately there are still very few large reservoirs. One of them is the Lake-Tisza, which serves as the dam of a hydroelectric plant near Hortobágy.

The lake was created in the 1970’s. One part is a recreational area and the other part mainly serves nature conservation. The flora and fauna have been

reintroduced very successfully into this restored water habitat. As an important stepping-stone for the

migratory water birds it is one of the Hungarian Ramsar areas (Figure 18).

Hungary has no sea, thus the role of open water is of utmost importance for summer recreation. It

is especially true in the eastern part of the country, where no large natural water bodies exist. Near Hortobágy,

Lake-Tisza offers several opportunities for water-related holiday activities. The varied lakeshore;

shaded by huge willows and poplars and partly fringed by reed beds; is a paradise for anglers, cyclists

and canoeists, but there are also beaches that attract holiday crowds. Bed and breakfasts, garden restaurants,

little holiday houses and bungalows have recently been constructed in the area. Unfortunately,

they do not always respect the traditional architectural style of white walls, thatch, and timber fences.

Figure 18. Semi natural areas on the Lake

Tisza Photo: Konkoly Gyuró É

It is important to show more good examples and to enhance the general understanding of landscape

characteristics and quality, and how they should be preserved by appropriate architecture and landscape


In the Middle Ages an ecological farming method, the “ancient floodplain” system was developed on

the Great Plain. This environmentally friendly management made use of the landscape’s potential in the best

possible way. Each surface level formed by the micro relief had a special role in this harmonious system. The

deepest soils gave place to temporary pastures; where running water was present fishing and the harvesting of

reeds and rushes were also characteristic. Forests, pasturage with slanders, and occasional orchards covered

the higher floodplains. In this zone livestock husbandry was most important. Higher up, flood-safe areas

were ploughed and settlements built. The plains were interspersed with little villages and small towns. In this

densely populated area people lived away from and close by the water, using adaptive management systems

that mainly concentrated on the diversion and use of flood waters. The Turkish occupation in the 17-18th century

resulted in marked depopulation, while the development of mining activities in the Carpathians caused

the thinning of the forest cover, and the little Ice-Ages brought more precipitation. These impacts resulted in

rising flood levels and increased intensity. The water surplus could not be diverted properly because of the

scarce population, thus spreading marshland and decreasing agricultural potential occurred in the 18th century,

just as an increased demand for crops arose. Land drainage seemed vital.

The re-shaping of the water system also started in the 18th century and extended to the whole of the

Great Plain during the 19th century. The regulation of river flows was achieved by cutting through river meanders

and by increasing the water velocity in the shortened riverbeds (Figure 21, 22). Dams contributed further

to flood defences. The greatest changes occurred on the Tisza river. The total length of the river was reduced by

40%, its fall was increased by 1.5%. The water schemes resulted in the drainage of 25,000 km 2 former wetlands

and made this area available for agricultural use. Besides the benefits, this huge landscape transformation

also had unexpected, negative ecological as well as economical impacts. By building dams, the floodplain

decreased from 38.500 km 2 to 1.800 km 2 . Due to these large-scale changes, the ground water level decreased,

thus also air humidity, so the climate changed too. That was the starting point of the climate change in the

Pannonian Basin. The groundwater and the humidity had influenced the vegetation cover. The remains of the

former oak forest dried out or were cut down. Secondary alkaline soils and the dry steppes that the general

public calls the “Hungarian puszta” were formed,

According to the description of Mendöl, a well known geographer of the mid 1900s, society has “erased

the difference between the two main landscape types, the floodplains and the higher elevations, thus transformed

almost the whole region into a flood-free territory and made the arable-land rule the landscape”. The

growth of ploughed land was at the expense of wet meadows, marshes and woods. Another determining

anthropogenic influence was the fast evolution of industrialisation, urbanisation and the development of the

technological infrastructure. A fast growth of population from 1850 to 1914 increased the market demands

for food, not just in Hungary but also in the whole of Europe. Agricultural production transformed into

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

intensive cultivation, which made use of the land in a less environmentally friendly way. At the same time,

after the emancipation of the serfs in 1848 the felling of woodland and the ploughing of grasslands became


In 20th century a number of political changes influenced the landscapes of the Carpathian Basin. First

of all, the peace-treaty of Trianon resulted in the break up of the previous economic and regional co-operative

structure, which was based upon the complementary potentials of the different regions. There were repercussions

on the natural resource, with 87% of woodlands (out of 8.4 million, 1.1 million were left) and 76% of

grassland being lost over the border. The land use proportions changed dramatically. The percentage of woodland

fell to 11%. The reforestation programme of the Great Plain started in 1923 and was intended to secure

the wood supply in the future and to improve the climate of the Great Plain region. Due to the word-wide

economic depression, and the lack of saplings, the programme fell through and was finally implemented after

WWII. The new plantations, consisting mostly of non-indigenous species (black locust, poplar clones, pines)

doubled the forest cover, but led to a drastic decrease in the number of sites with natural and semi-natural

vegetation. However, it is true that the non-ploughed areas of the dried out lowland only provided adequate

habitat for a few species. One considerable achievement, which had a great effect on the landscape, was the

plantation; begun in the 19th century; of tree rows and forest belts. Besides the reforestation, agricultural

industrialisation and the changed character of settlements also affected the Great Plain and resulted in largescale

homogenisation of the area, effacing both natural and cultural virtues. Change in the peripheral regions,

with poor agricultural potential, was less significant. Since the 60’s, professional Nature Conservation has

emerged, with the purpose of protecting the remaining natural heritage from detrimental land-use.

Since the change of the political system in 1990 the impact of earlier, mistaken, ecological and socioeconomic

action has become apparent. The instability of the water regime profoundly influences both living

conditions and development possibilities. In today’s villages, only a few of the youngsters are interested in the

traditions of the landscape they live in. Their main ambition is to migrate to the towns and make use of the

services on offer. Very few people think that there is any point in retaining the authentic roots of rural life.

In the fifteen years of the post-communist era, this is a nation; still in a phase of moral uncertainty - whose

sense of identity and self-respect have been damaged; that is trying to find its path towards a joint European

future. However, positive policy options and new initiatives have also been undertaken, of which encouraging

examples follow.

exaMples of Good landscape pracTIce

The new Vásárhelyi plan

Pál Vásárhelyi was the co-ordinator and engineer of the water regulation programme for the Tisza and its

tributaries during the 19th century. This huge work was called “the second conquest”. Certainly this was, and

remains, the most dramatic landscape transformation ever to be effected in the Carpathian Basin. Alongside

the benefits, negative ecological consequences became apparent: as presented in the historical description. The

clear signs of climate change and the frequency of weather extremes; the floods, the severe droughts - threats

to people and commodities; and the problems facing the rural economy and society, have drawn public attention

to the problems of the water budget. Scientists, water managers, landscape planners and politicians

agreed that a new management concept for both water and landscape was necessary. That is the New Vásárhelyi

Plan, which tends to favour the resurrection of the ancient systems, where surplus floodwater was not

channelled off as fast as possible, but diverted to the deep soil areas, to irrigate the pastures and the forests.

According to this concept, new periodically flooded reservoirs are designated and will be created (Figure 23,

24) where extensive farming is to be reintroduced. Apart from significantly improved flood security, the plan

provides manifold opportunities for multifunctional land use to evolve, giving more people work and enhancing

the production capacity of the landscape. Another important impact of this scheme will be the probability

of mitigating the effects of climate change. According to the predictions, climate change would turn the Great

Plain into a semi-arid area. Increasing the capacity for water retention, and the water resources of the lowlands,

is crucial in avoiding this undesirable scenario.

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

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30 | Chapter 18: Konkoly Gyuró

Figure 21. Tisza river and the natural floodplain at the end of 18th century.

Source: Military maps of the Habsburg Empire. Military Archive Budapest.

Figure 22. The cross-cut of meanders at the Tisza river at the end of 19th century.

Source: Military maps of the Habsburg Empire. Military Archive Budapest

activities of nGo-s

In Hungary, a significant contribution to the evolution of the nature conservation movement was made by

the activities of the Nature Walkers from the end of the 19th century. The Association for the Protection of

Birds and Nature was founded in 1896 and became very popular, with several subunits, and it is still one of

the broadest, civil organisation networks. NGO-s were underrepresented during the communist period, but

play an increasing role since the political change in 1990. Several aims of the organisations are related to

landscape protection (organic farming, healthy food, enhancing settlements, local development, nature and

environmental conservation). On the Great Plain we can find organisations championing the reintroduction

of handicrafts and the traditional local economy, based on the landscape potential, and a smaller scale version

of the ancient floodplain farming system. Active in the “Bodrogköz” region; eastwards from the confluence

of the Bodrog and the Tisza river, on the north-eastern part of the Great Plain; is the “Palocsa” Association,

which aims to restore the ancient fluvial management system in this micro-landscape, where the prevalence

of water and serious depopulation have caused severe problems. International NGO-s are also present. WWF

Hungary co-ordinates several local and regional projects related to the restoration of watercourses and wetlands:

the use of floodplains for cattle breeding, the control of invasive plants, in addition to a Life Nature

project in the Tisza floodplain called “Living with the River”.

conclUsIon: challenGes for The


Regarding the relationship between man and nature in the central lowland of the Carpathian Basin, two

contrasting periods can be identified. These occurred similarly in the other European lowlands and, even

though there were certainly regional characteristics and differences in duration, in essence they do not differ

significantly. The first was the period of adaptation, when people used nature without interfering with basic

ecological functions. The second was, and remains, the time of transformation, when humans drastically

affected basic natural systems; e.g., water regimes. The negative consequences are obvious. We should learn

from the past and reintroduce the concept of people living with and from nature: the approach of the ancient,

complex, management techniques. They utilised empirically the multi-functionality in the landscape. Within

this harmonious management system every patch had its specific role, the landscape was highly diverse, productive,

and had high tolerance and ecological stability.

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

Figure 23. The planned reservoirs along the Tisza river in Hungary

Source: www. http://www.vizugy.hu/vtt/index.html

The most important step is the restoration of the water system, which can also help to mitigate the

negative consequences of climate change. If we restore the abundance of water, the Great Plain could be transformed

into theflourishing garden” of Central Europe, both literally and metaphorically. Richness would develop

due to the increase in biodiversity, cultivation and multiplicity of use. Gardening, eco-, rural-, cycling-

and health tourism could find a perfect setting. History, ancient and modern, shows that humans are able to

create and restore values: if they consider complexity, and if they have a holistic overview of the functions and

relationships of the landscape.


Ángyán J, Fésüs I, Podmaniczky L, Tar F, Vajnáné Madarassy A (1999). Nemzeti Agrárkörnyezetvédelmi

Programme a környezetkímélő, a természet védelmét és a táj megőrzését szolgáló mezőgazdasági termelési

módszerek támogatására. Földművelésügyi és Vidékfejlesztési Minisztérium Agrár-környezetgazdálkodási

Tanulmánykötetek I. [Agro-Environmental Schemes for the Subsidies of the Environmental-friendly agriculture

serving the nature conservation and landscape protection. Agro-environmental management studies

of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development I.]

Andrásfalvy B (1973). A Sárköz és a környező Duna-menti területek ősi ártéri gazdálkodása és vízhasználatai

a szabályozás előtt. Vízügyi Történeti Füzetek 6. pp 1-64. [Ancient fluvial management before the water

reclamations. Studies of the Water Management History 6]

Bartha D, Oroszi S (1995). Magyar erdők. In: Járainé Komlódi M (szerk) Pannon Enciklopédia, Dunakanyar

2000. pp 220-230. [Hungarian Woodlands In: Járainé Komlódi M (ed) Pannonian Encyclopaedia]

Beluszky P (2001). A Nagyalföld történeti földrajza. Dialóg Campus, Budapest-Pécs. [Historical Geography

of the Great Plain]

Fodor I (1996). A gazdálkodás és a társadalom változó képe. In: Fodor I (szerk) A honfoglaló magyarság.

Nemzeti Múzeum. pp. 27-30. [Changing economy and society. In: Fodor I (ed) The conquest of the Hungarians]

Frisnyák S (1990). Magyarország történeti földrajza. Tankönyvkiadó, Budapest. [Historical Geography of


Kartográfia (eds) (1986): Történelem atlasz. Kartográfiai Vállalat Budapest. Atlas Historic of Hungary

Kalotás Zs (1996). Nemzeti Parkjaink. Jelen és Jövő. Aqua Budapest. [National Parks in Hungary. Present and


Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

Figure 24. One of the planned reservoirs. Source: www. http://www.vizugy.hu/vtt/index.html

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306 | Chapter 18: Konkoly Gyuró

5 : European landscape characterization of the Great Hungarian Plain

The Great Hungarian Plain lies in the continental climate zone, with usually cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers. The annual precipitation is about

400-500 mm, while severe droughts may occur in summertime.

The Great Hungarian plain is dominated by especially three European landscape types. The first one is the landscape type Continental lowland dominated

by sediments and arable land (Cls_al). The second landscape type is Continental lowland dominated by sediments and heterogeneous agriculture

(Cls_ha). The third landscape type Continental lowlands dominated by sediments and shrubs & herbaceous vegetation (Cls_ha). In the two study areas

(indicated by the yellow lines in the below figure) the environment is dominated to a large extent by other landscape types. These landscape types belong

mainly to the Continental hills with sediments and dominated respectively by forests, pastures, arable land and shrubs & herbaceous vegetation (Chs_fo,

Chs_pa, Chs_al and Chs_sh). This case study puts forward a strong point on the importants of the river system for understanding landscape change and

undertaking landscape restoration. The European landscape map could provide additional information on riparian corridors as relevant landscape subtypes.

This Box has been produced by C.A. Mücher, D.M. Wascher and P. Dziamski

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

6 : High Nature Value map

Hungary hosts a high proportion of High Nature Value farmland. In particular the analysed areas correspond to two important biodiversity high spots of

Eastern Europe. As is shown in the map, they are characterised by the presence of large NATURA2000 sites and Important Bird Areas, mostly overlapping.

Part of the area consists of industrial, extensive arable lands which host species of high conservation importance.

This box is a joint product of JRC/EEA.

Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

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30 | Chapter 18: Konkoly Gyuró

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für Naturschutz und Landespflege. Europa und aussereuropäische Länder. Ungarn XIV.4. Ecomed

Verlag. pp 1-20. [Nature and landscape conservation in Hungary In: Konold W, Hampicke U (ed) Manual

of Nature Conservation and Landscape Management]

Konkoly Gyuró É Bartha D. 2002: Landschaftswandel und Vegetationsveränderung der Ungarischen Tiefebene.

2. Freiburger Geobotanischen Kolloquium „Landschaftsanalyse aus geobotanischer Sicht -Struktur

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[Transformation of the landscape and vegetation at the Hungarian Great Plain]

Kordos L (1987). Climatic and ecological changes in Hungary during the last 15.000 years. In: Pécsi, M. &

Kordos, L. (eds.) Holocene Environment in Hungary. Geogr. Res. Inst. Hung. Acad. Sci., Budapest. pp


Kovács A D (ed) (2005). Tanyás térségek környezete. Tanyakutatás 1. füzet. MTA RKK Alföldi Tudományos

Intézet, Kecskemét. [Environment of the homestead’s regions. Studies of the Homesteads vol.1]

Lászlóffy W (1982). A Tisza. Vizi munkálatok és vízgazdálkodás a Tisza vízrendszerében. Akadémia Kiadó,

Budapest. [The Tisza. Water Reclamations and Water Management in the Tisza Catchments]

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In: Alföldi Mozaik. KTM Természetvédelemi Hivatala Tanulmánykötetei. pp 65-97. [The

role of the traditional agriculture in shaping the Great Plain In: Mosaic of the Great Plain. Studies of the

Ministry of Environmental Protection]

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[Settlement history, Settlement geography, Historical geography]

Military Maps of the Habsburg Empire 18-19 Century. Military Archive Budapest. Reprint.

Molnár Zs, Kun L (eds) (2000). Alföldi erdőssztyepp maradványok Magyarországon. WWF Füzetek. 15. [Remains

of forest-step at the Great Plain in Hungary]

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and Budapest Hungary. [River corridors in Hungary: A strategy for the conservation of the Danube and

its tributaries (1993-94)]

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Orpheusz. Budapest. [Europe’s famous garden. Historical ecological Studies from Hungary]

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and plant communities]

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Fejlődés Bizottság. [Report on the biological diversity in Hungary. National Survey.]

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világörökség elvárásai. Magyar Tudomány. Új folyam, XLV. Kötet. 12. pp 1467-1510. [The use of Hortobágy.

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Internet documents





Pedroli B, Van Doorn A, De Blust G, Paracchini ML, Wascher D & Bunce F (Eds. 2007).

Europe’s living landscapes. Essays on exploring our identity in the countryside. LANDSCAPE EUROPE / KNNV.

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