Red List habitat classification > RLE - Grasslands > RLE1.1a Pannonian and Pontic sandy steppe

Pannonian and Pontic sandy steppe

Quick facts

Red List habitat type code RLE1.1a
Threat status
Europe Critically Endangered
EU Critically Endangered
Relation to
Source European Red List habitat factsheet
European Red List of habitats reports
European Red List of habitats (Excel table)


Sandy steppe grasslands of the Pannonian and Pontic regions, dominated by drought-tolerant, tussock-forming perennial grasses such as Festuca vaginata, Koeleria glauca and Stipa borysthenica, in eastern Europe also by Festuca beckeri. Besides these grasses, perennial herbs are common in these grasslands, many of them with a deep root system developed as an adaptation to periodical drought events occurring on sandy substrates. Short-lived vernal therophytes, bryophytes and lichens are also frequent. Vegetation is sparse, with a maximum cover of 75%. These grasslands of the order Festuco-Sedetalia acris grow on poorer developed soils than the oceanic and sub-oceanic grasslands of habitat E1.9a. This type is also more continentally distributed (drier climate) and associated with higher soil pH often well above 7, because under continental conditions the soils are much less leached than in more Atlantic climate. In most cases they also have a higher species richness. Frequent occurring continental species are Alyssum tortuosum, Astragalus arenarius, Dianthus arenarius, Dianthus serotinus, Erysimum canum, Euphorbia seguieriana, Gypsophila fastigiata, Helichrysum arenarium, Jurinea cyanoides and Secale sylvestre.

Sandy steppes occur on sandy plains and dunes with variable content of exchangeable cations, both of acidic and basic reaction. On acidic sand, transitions to sub-oceanic sandy grasslands (E1.9b) occur, especially in the western parts of this habitat’s range. Soils are poor in humus, belonging to the Arenosol type. Pannonian and Pontic sandy steppe occurs in lowlands with a pronounced continental climate characterized by warm and dry summer and cold winter, often with very shallow snow cover combined with long periods of frost. The surface layer of sand can warm up quickly during sunny days in summer, while the sandy substrate has a low water-holding capacity resulting in drought stress. Extreme drought events occurring in return intervals of several years can result in changes in species composition and relative cover of dominant species.

There are two main areas of distribution of these continental sandy steppes in Europe. One is the Pontic region including the steppe and forest-steppe zone of Ukraine and southern Russia (alliance Festucion beckeri), extending to the Danube valley in Romania and Bulgaria. The other is the Pannonian region including the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) and some adjacent lowland and hilly regions. Here the highest concentration of these grasslands is in central Hungary on the plains between the Danube and Tisza rivers (alliance Festucion vaginatae). Apart from these vicarious alliances dominated by perennial tussock grasses, there are two therophyte-dominated alliances of initial disturbed sites, namely the Sileno conicae-Cerastion semidecandri in the range of the Koelerion glaucae and the Bassio laniflorae-Bromion tectorum in the range of the Festucion vaginatae.

Stands of the alliance Koelerion glaucae can be found also on base rich sand in some areas in Poland, eastern Germany and the middle Rhine valley in western Germany, as well as in the Southern Baltic region (Öland, Finish south coast), but there is some discussion whether such stands should be included under E1.1a or E1.9a. In the Red List typology they have been included in habitat E1.9a, as it was indicated by most national experts from these region that it was not possible to distinguish these vegetation types as different habitats. The habitat type is absent from western Europe, high mountains and more northern regions.

Sandy steppes were used for extensive grazing by domestic livestock, especially sheep. This land-use resulted in extension of their area at the expense of forest, however, after cessation of traditional management many former sand-steppe areas are becoming overgrown by encroaching shrubs and trees such as Pinus sylvestris and Robinia pseudoacacia.

Indicators of good quality:

In Europe sandy steppes contain several species of continental distribution that occur at the western limit of their distribution range. Most valuable are extensive stands of sand steppe on inland dunes or plains with open vegetation without alien or nutrient-demanding species. Sand steppe can develop on abandoned fields adjacent to preserved remnants of natural vegetation, however, alien species may be common in these secondary grasslands. The main threats to this habitat are overgrowing by trees and shrubs after cessation of grazing, spread of alien species such as Robinia pseudoacacia or Asclepias syriaca, and increasing dominance of nutrient-demanding species due to atmospheric deposition.

The following characteristics can be considered as indicators of good quality:

·      Occurrence of rare species, especially those of continental distribution.

·      Absence of nutrient-demanding and mesophilous species.

·      Open character of vegetation.

·      Absence of alien species.

·      Absence of trees and shrubs.

·      Large spatial extent of grassland stands.

·      Continuation of traditional low-intensity grazing management.

Characteristic species
For full habitat description, please download the habitat factsheet.

Threat status

Synthesis of Red List assessment

Based on a long-term reduction in quantity of 97%, this habitat type is assessed Critically Endangered (CR) both in EU28 and EU28+. Furthermore, the reduction in quantity during the last 50 years qualifies as endangered (EN), while the reduction in biotic and abiotic quality was not high enough to result in a Red List category.
Red List Category Red List Criteria
Critically Endangered A3
Red List Category Red List Criteria
Critically Endangered A3

Confidence in the assessment

Red List of habitat categories and criteria descriptions

Pressures and threats

  • Agriculture
    • Abandonment of pastoral systems, lack of grazing
  • Pollution
    • Nitrogen-input
  • Invasive, other problematic species and genes
    • Invasive non-native species
    • Problematic native species
  • Natural biotic and abiotic processes (without catastrophes)
    • Biocenotic evolution, succession

Habitat restoration potential

If the habitat is distroyed/deteriorated, it normally can only recover through intervention (removing woody or invasive species, re-establishment of low-intensity grazing). The only exception is the damage via sand extraction, where the habitat can easily recover when the extraction is stopped, provided no eutrophicatio took place meanwhile.

Trends in extent

Average current trend in quantity

Decreasing Decreasing
EU28 EU28+

Trends in quality

Average current trend in quality

Decreasing Decreasing
EU28 EU28+

Conservation and management needs

Since the areas of this habitat type are often small to tiny, they should be protected legally as far as possible. The most important management activity is the maintenance or re-establishment of low-intensity grazing, typically by sheep. However, if the sites are still large and not eutrophicated at all, they can remain +/- stable for rather long periods even without grazing. If the habitat has been encroached by or planted with woody species or is affected by invasive species, their removal can be a promising measure, provided that eutrophication has not taken place in parallel. When site are eutrophicated they hardly can be restored, except by putting nutrient-poor sand from the deeper horizons to the top. The latter approach has been impressively successful in pilot studies, but normally the high costs exclude the application at a larger extent.

List of conservation and management needs

  • No measures
    • No measures needed for the conservation of the habitat/species
  • Measures related to agriculture and open habitats
    • Maintaining grasslands and other open habitats
  • Measures related to spatial planning
    • Establish protected areas/sites
  • Measures related to hunting, taking and fishing and species management
    • Specific single species or species group management measures


For each habitat a distribution map was produced from a wide variety of sources indicating known and potential occurrences of the habitat in 10x10 km grids within Europe. Occurrences in grid cells were given in two classes: actual distribution from relatively reliable sources (surveys, expert knowledge), and potential distribution based on models or less reliable indicators. Please download the fact sheet to see the map.

Geographic occurrence and trends

EU28 Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
Austria Present 2.9 Decreasing Decreasing
Bulgaria Present 0.63 Decreasing Decreasing
Czech Republic Present 1 Decreasing Decreasing
Greece (mainland and other islands) Present Unknown Unknown Unknown
Hungary Present 400 Decreasing Decreasing
Romania Present 10 Decreasing Stable
Slovakia Present 1 Decreasing Decreasing
Croatia Present 0.14 Decreasing Decreasing
EU28 + Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
Albania Uncertain - -
Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) Uncertain - -
Serbia Present Unknown Unknown Unknown

Extent of Occurrence, Area of Occupancy and habitat area

Extent of Occurrence (EOO) (Km2) Area of Occupancy (AOO) Current estimated Total Area Comment
EU28 250050 423 550
EU28+ 428 600
AOO = the area occupied by a habitat measured in number of 10x10 km grid cells.
EOO = the area (km2) of the envelope around all occurrences of a habitat (calculated by a minimum convex polygon).

Characteristic species

Not available

Vegetation types

Relation to vegetation types (syntaxa)

Not available

Other classifications

Not available
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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