Forest–Steppe and Steppe

South of Moscow, the forest gradually gives way to the steppe. Across the Oka River, the first patches of steppe begin to appear. The Tula and Orel regions have forest–steppe, while the Kursk and Belgorod regions are primarily in the true steppe zone. The steppe stretches across much of Ukraine to the lower Volga, to northern and central Kazakhstan, and to the foothills of the Altay.

Steppe forms in areas with moisture deficit that precludes tree growth. Although steppes are on average warmer than most of the forested biomes to the north, it is really the lack of water that determines the tree boundary. In North America, crossing from eastern to western North Dakota or from Iowa into Nebraska takes you across this climate boundary. In Europe, the most extensive steppes exist in Hungary. Although Eurasian steppes are warmer than the taiga zone, they can be brutally cold in winter with temperatures dropping to –40?C (plus massive wind chill). Snowfall is highly variable, and some winters see very little snow. The mean annual temperature may range from +9?C in Moldova to –6?C in the Tyva Republic.

Russia: Forest–Steppe and Steppe

The classic Eurasian steppe is treeless. The main plants are perennial grasses and forbs with deep root systems. They can resist droughts, fire, and cold extremely well. The two most widespread grasses are sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) and species of feathergrass (Stipa). Unlike in North America, there is no tallgrass prairie in Eurasia; its closest analogue is the northernmost and the wettest type of steppe, the meadow–steppe. One square meter of meadow–steppe can support over 50 species of flowering plants! Some shrubs (e.g., wild plum) and diverse wildflowers are common, especially members of the rose, legume, and sunflower families.

The soils underneath the Eurasian steppe are the legendary “chernozems” (literally “black earths”). They were extensively studied by Vasily Dokuchaev and are similar to the “mollisols” of the United States. The topsoil may exceed 1 m in depth, and is a rich black color due to a high proportion of organic matter (10–15%). Calcium carbonate accretions occur deeper in the profile. Salinization is a common problem in the drier areas, where so-called chestnut soils become dominant. The productivity of virgin chernozem is several times greater than that of the gray forest soils or podzols, allowing a bountiful harvest with minimal fertilization. Over many years of farming, however, even the best chernozems will be depleted. There is a considerable need for irrigation, especially when spring wheat or other summer crops are grown. Soil erosion due to plowing is common. Even 5% of tree cover in the form of windbreaks may dramatically reduce erosion, and many such windbreaks were planted in southern Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan in the 1950s.

The typical mammals of the Eurasian steppe include steppe foxes, ferrets, wild steppe cats, saiga antelopes, field hares, ground squirrels, gerbils, jerboas, and marmots. The typical birds include demoiselle cranes, bustards, eagles, harriers, kestrels, stilts, avocets, quails, hoopoes, bee-eaters, rollers, larks, and magpies. There are also a few dozen species of reptiles, including snakes and lizards.

There are few places where virgin steppe can still be seen. As in North America, over 99% of this biome in Eurasia was plowed under in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are very few restored steppe patches. However, small preserves provide glimpses of the steppe's original vegetation. The best examples in Russia include the Galichya Gora (Lipetsk), Kursky (Kursk), and Voronezhsky and Khopersky (Voronezh) Zapovedniks, as well as the Orlovskoe Poleye (Orel), Ugra (Kaluga), and Samarskaya Luka (Samara) National Parks. In Ukraine, the most famous preserve is Askaniya Nova in the Kherson region near the Black Sea. This unique territory was established by a visionary German landowner, F. Falts-Fein, in 1886. Today it is one of a handful of virgin steppe fragments left in Eastern Europe. The early history of the preserve included acclimatization experiments with exotic fauna; ostriches, zebras, antelopes, and llamas roamed the first Ukrainian safari park. Today, the descendants of many of these animals can still be seen in large enclosures. The remainder of the Askaniya Nova steppe is home to the native fauna.