Hungary's first national park, Hortobágy National Park, encompasses roughly 72 square miles (115 km2) of almost completely flat saliferous, semi-arid grasslands, pockmarked with rivers, lakes and wetlands containing remarkable biological diversity of plant and animal species and habitats. A famous wind-swept region, the Hortobágy ranges from the River Tisza to the edge of the Hajdúság region, where via the smaller Hajdúhát region it borders Debrecen. This landscape has been primarily shaped by water, mainly by the huge floods of the River Tisza which once seasonally covered this part of Hungary rejuvinating the region. Today, remnants of these ancient floods are preserved in grassland sediments and in the vast wetlands which are revitalized now through artificial water supplies (canals) beginning with regulation of the river in 1846. The sediments of the River Tisza, rich in salt, formed the solonetz soils which today are covered by the short grass pasture lands called puszta growing in a mosaic pattern around infertile alkali flats. These puszta, once regularly inundated by the River Tisza, are fertile pastures for horses, cattle and flocks of sheep which graze the area today carrying on a tradition which goes way back in human history. The human influence in the area is exhibited in the various forms of sheep and cattle as well as the numerous water management systems found throughout the puszta.
The Hortobágy region was settled by the early Neolithic times and has been used ever since in various ways, but most consistently for grazing livestock. Towards the end of the 1st century the Jazig people of Iranian origin settled on the steppe-like territories east of the River Tisza and turned to agriculture. From that time to the present, the life on the plains have been intertwined with extensive livestock grazing and pastoral life. The settlements founded by the conquering Hungarians in the 10th-13th centuries were demolished and abandoned during later Tartar and Turkish rule. By 1460 the area was already described as a "puszta", which denoted an uninhibited place. The inhabitants never resettled the area, but have utilized them for extensive livestock keeping ever since. This is why the sight of ancient Hungarian domestic animals such as the Hungarian grey longhorn cattle, spiral-horned "Racka" sheep, Nonius horses, herdsmen, shepherds and horse-herds are indispensable parts of the landscape. Today living history demonstrations help revive the traditions of older times and provide a distictive flavor throughout the region.
In order to protect its various natural resources and tradition, Hortobágy National Park was created on January 1st, 1973 as the first national park in Hungary. Then in 1979 Hortobágy National Park was established as a biosphere-reserve by the UN. Establishment as a national park made it possible to preserve the valuable and varied elements of this area before they were lost through human impacts. Today protected habitats include the riparian forests along the River Tisza, back-water wetlands, oak forest of Óhat and Újszentmargita on the rim of the Puszta, vast treeless grasslands, and alkali pastures. Some of the most unique curiosities and treasures of the Hortobágy National Park are the birds. Flocks of migrating birds such as geese, cranes, shore birds, scores of important nesting birds, bustards, sakers, short-toed larks and pratincoles can be seen throughout the park. The ability to view over 330 bird species makes this bird-life opportunity unique in Europe.