In recent years, steppe degradation in North China has become a serious environmental problem. Most research on steppe degradation is conducted at the level of communities or at the scale of small regions. To better understand the spatio-temporal variation and driving factors of grassland degradation, monitoring and analysis at broad regional scales are needed. This paper systematically describes the state and characteristics of steppe degradation at the Xilinhot plateau, makes an in-depth empirical analysis of the natural and man-made causes leading to degradation, and analyzes what driving factors have influenced degradation in this typical steppe region over the last 20 years. Ten biophysical and socio-economic variables, including altitude, slope, precipitation, temperature, soil conditions, distance to river, distance to highway, population density, sheep unit density, and fencing policy, were evaluated on their impact on observed patterns of degradation. The results indicate that all of these factors had a significant influence on the process of steppe degradation. During the first 10 years, from 1991 to 2000, steppe degradation increased, but after 2000, the degradation trend has, to some extent, reversed. The analysis indicates that the measures taken by the government, such as fencing vulnerable areas, played an important role in this change. The results advance the understanding of grassland degradation and contribute to constructing an empirical and theoretical base for grassland management and planning. © 2011 Springer-Verlag.