Steppe grasslands are distributed over vast areas in arid and semiarid regions of Eurasia. However, steppe grasslands face desertification or degradation caused by human over-activity. In the last decades, steppe regions have seen increased areas of crop cultivation and subsequent abandonment due to inappropriate agricultural management. Land degradation of abandoned croplands has become a common problem in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China. A field survey was conducted in the Xilingol steppe, and vegetation was classified into three groups. Based on comparisons of species composition and soil characters, group 1 represents steppe grassland, group 2 represents abandoned croplands and group 3 represents yardangs. The typical indicator species of steppe, abandoned croplands and yardangs are Leymus chinensis, Cleistogenes squarrosa and Elymus dahuricus, respectively. Abandoned croplands are exposed to wind and rain, resulting in soil erosion, which not only increases coarse sand content but also decreases total carbon and total nitrogen in the soil. We found that soil condition is an important factor affecting the early stages of secondary succession in abandoned croplands and that farming in typical steppes might contribute to land degradation. We concluded that abandoned croplands can be converted to yardangs by erosion. The extension of yardangs might then lead to desertification in steppe regions. Land managers should be aware that farming in typical steppes is associated with a risk of desertification. The degree of degradation of steppe can be measured by monitoring these indicator species.
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