People, who visited Hungary, have already heard about Hortobágy. In spite of the many tourists coming to Hungary, only few of them really saw Hortobágy. Even the local people, the people living in Debrecen say: – Why should I go there, there is nothing! However, people interested in the Hungarian desert, the so-called ‘Puszta’, may get acquainted with a wild, admirable world that is foreign even to the Hungarian eyes.
Those who heard about Hortobágy do know that Hortobágy is practically perfectly plane, there is not a single tree there. This is more or less true.
The present surface of the terrain of Hortobágy was formed by River Tisza, and actually this took place not so long ago. In the past 10-12 thousand years the river snaked across the landscape and on the occasion of floods it filled it up with its hard, clayey alluvium. The soil of Hortobágy, an alkaline soil becomes soft when soaked and it becomes hard like concrete when dry. The salt content of the soil water flowing below it, close to the surface, which is deposited and which comes to the surface from time to time is another factor that makes life for plants practically impossible here. Moreover these adverse circumstances are accompanied by the local continental climate, a climate that is the driest climate within the Carpathian Basin. The level of annual precipitation is around 500 mm; however its distribution is rather uneven. In the last 15 years there were years when the quantity of precipitation was 300 mm, while in other years the level of precipitation was 1200 mm.
Due to these conditions it is evident that agriculture has to be given up here. It is forbidden to plough the land, because if the thin surface top soil gets underground and the white, salty clay comes to the surface, then even weeds will not grow for years. Therefore the appropriate form of exploiting the area is grazing-based animal keeping. According to archaeological data, grazing animal keeping of “industrial scale” that had a decisive impact on the development of the landscape was started at the end of the Copper Age, about 4000 years ago in this region. Even in our days there is no better way for using the landscape in the long term, in spite of the abundant trials made.
Grazing may be considered to be a lucky effort from many aspects in the case of Hortobágy. Grazing does not change significantly the vegetation – this means that where there was grass, there will be grass in the future as well. The greatest change that may occur is that there will be such grass species, which will endure chewing and treading better. If using the land is given up, the landscape easily regenerates itself.
Grazing was never an activity suitable for supplying throughout the year lots of people living here. For this reason Hortobágy was always a sparsely populated area in spite of the fact that the settlements in the neighbourhood—as e.g. Debrecen—actually became rich based on farming in the Puszta.
Due to its sustained ancient natural environment and its relative disturbance free existence Hortobágy became a sanctuary for nature by our days. The vicinity of River Tisza also supports this. The associated surface waters had a significant impact on the development of the natural values and they contributed to the area remaining an ideal stop for the migrating waterfowls.
Farming evolved completely differently in other parts of Europe due to the weather and soil conditions. Therefore west of our country there are no similar deserts, especially of this scale. Hortobágy brings the atmosphere of the deserts of East Europe and Central Asia into the heart of our continent.
The ethnographic research people drew first the attention to the tourist attraction opportunities of Hortobágy. They recognised that the clothing and animal keeping methods of the local herdsmen have lots of similarities with the ancient east historic and ethnographic customs. The animals living here may be characteristically tied to Hortobágy; they accustomed themselves to the Hortobágy soil. The outstanding local species include the local long-wooled sheep, the so-called ‘rackajuh’, the historically most important export item of Hungary, the ‘grey cattle’ that was preserved here for the longest, as well as the Nonius horse. The original and impressive practical ‘tools’ of herding have been used here for the longest. The locals—in spite of the fact that they are already obsolete—are proud the preserve the customs of preparing and using them, independently of tourism. There is a long list of these items including the buildings of the Puszta, the sweep-pole well, the reed-huts, the animal yards, the blue dresses, the round metal button waistcoats, the plank beds, the traditional meal of shepherds the so-called ‘slambuc’, the clear soup, the bullwhip, etc.
The first people, who recognised the natural value of the Puszta were the ornithologists. The first scientific articles were published in this regard at the end of the 19th century, and Hortobágy has been ever since the target of the visits of ornithologists. From the 405 bird species that have been observed in Hungary about 300 had been seen at the Great Fishponds of Hortobágy. This means that this limited 2000 hectare area may be considered to be the best ornithologist site of the Carpathian Basin. Most of the bird species found here are migrating species that are tied to water (as regards their numbers the most frequent species are the cranes and the wild-geese, however the rarer species also belong under this category). The data of the bird species of the Puszta are also impressive, as e.g. of the bustard and the stone-curlew.
The Hortobágy National Park was established upon an international initiative in year 1973 based on realising its ornithological values, as the first national park in Hungary. It includes the middle 82 thousand hectare area of Hortobágy. In 1999 due to its natural values and cultural history aspects UNESCO declared it a part of he World Heritage in the cultural landscape category.
As an untouched area, Hortobágy won the active attention of hunters as well since the earliest of times. All people interested in hunting have heard about the Hortobágy geese hunting, the duck preys, but the deer trophies also deserve attention, and recently wild-boars have also gained importance.