From military training ground to nature preserve

Written by: Dávid Palotás

February 21, 2021 at 9:00 AM

Not far from Megyeri Bridge, an environment filled with rare plants has survived, with biodiversity that would be sensational anywhere in the country. Yet a few decades ago, the Újpest Homoktövis Nature Reserve, one of the last remnants of the Rákos Fields, was still a military training ground. Join Pestbuda on the newest instalment in a series that explores the national wonders of Budapest.

Sadly, few territories in Hungary can claim to be nature reserves since 1974, but the Újpest Homoktövis area is one of these. The area is mainly notable for its flora, as it is the only indigenous population of sea buckthorn in the country. The earliest reports of sea buckthorn being found in the area are from 1850. But where exactly is this small nature reserve, and what is its story?

Today's small area remains of the steppe plains known as the "Rákosok" that once sprawled around the city but have now been reduced to this small lane of land. It was once the northernmost point of a grassy plain that spread as far as the Merzse Swamp. IT even served as a military training ground in the 20th century. The mounds and trenches dug around the territory are mementoes of its previous role. An if that were not enough, a high-voltage power line also cuts across the area.

Sadly, the area is slightly difficult to access as well. Visitors can take a bus to the Budapest, Vízművek stop and then walk down the road towards Dunakeszi. A closed forest road marks the beginning of the educational trail. The Hungarian Ornithological Society created an educational trail in the area in 2011. Sadly the protected area is limited to a few hectares enclosed by the M0 motorway, the no. 2 national road and other roads leading to the motorway. For some time, the wildlife fences have not been maintained properly either. Unsurprisingly, the roads completely close the area off from any surrounding forests or fields.   

The largest population of sea buckthorn marked in red (Source: Google Maps)

Sea buckthorn is a shrub that grows to about two metres tall and has a well-known yellowish berry. It contains several times more vitamin C per weight unit than a lemon and is also a great source of vitamins B1, B2, B8, E and K. It also contains essential fatty acids and antioxidants. Thus, it is another useful berry fruit. It is especially popular as a jam. Thus artificially planted specimens are generally rather common. However, it has only survived in the wild in Hungary in this small area. Today, about a thousand specimens make up the population in the reserve. It has previously occurred in Szigetköz and the sandy floodplains of the Danube.

Sea buckthorn (Photo: Dávid Palotás/pestbuda.hu)

Other interesting plants can be found in the area, and those interested should visit in the spring to make the most of their time in the area. However, the area can only be entered with a permit. This requires a valid permit issued by a nature conservation authority. Such a permit can be requested from the regionally competent authorities. To simplify matters, the Hungarian Ornithological Society (MME) organizes habitat management campaigns twice a year, and volunteers do not need individual permits.

Let us dive into the botanical rarities: A few dozen samples of the purple-blue Colchicum arenarium can be found in the reserve. As can the white helleborine, shiny bugseed and rough horsetail. These are the rarest treasures, but the dyer's alkanet and the yellowish sedum urvillei also represent meaningful botanical value.

It is worth highlighting these herbaceous plants because they are rare and valuable within Hungary, and they can be admired together here in a relatively small area. The boards of the educational trail help visitors identify the species mentioned here with pictures and images. In the absence of large-bodied animals, the ladybird spider, cone-headed grasshopper, and the green tiger beetle are noteworthy, as are the deceptively blue butterflies.

Rosehips also occur in the protected area (Photo: Dávid Palotás/pestbuda.hu)

For those who are not only interested in botanical curiosities, a visit to Megyeri Bridge is easy alongside a trip to the preserve. Farkas Forest and the Szilas Stream are also worth our time, once in the area.

Sea buckthorn, and the eastern pylon of Megyeri Bridge in the background (Photo: Dávid Palotás/pestbuda.hu)

Cover photo: A habitat for Sea buckthorn (Photo: Dávid Palotás / pestbuda.hu)


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