Parks & Public Lands

Doñana National Park, Spain

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Semi-stabilised coastal dunes, Donana National Park. @ C.Michael Hogan

Doñana National Park is a World Heritage site in Spain located at 36°48'-37°08'N, and 6°16'-6°34'W. The Coto de Doñana in Andalucia is Europe's largest sanctuary for migrating birds. It is a vast coastal marshland, productive, well preserved and inaccessible where the River Guadalquivir meets the Atlantic Ocean, notable for the great diversity of its biotopes: beaches, swamps, lagoons, fixed and moving dunes, pine and cork oak woodland and heath. The marshes host four threatened bird species, one of the biggest heronries in the Mediterranean, more than 500,000 wintering waterfowl and millions of migrant birds. Threats to the site include drought, over-extraction and agricultural contamination of water, land reclamation and tourism.

Geographical Location

On the southern Atlantic coast of Spain, 50 kilometers (km) southwest of Seville, between the coastal towns of Huelva and Sanlucar de Barrameda and the right bank of the Guadalquivir River. It lies between 36°48'-37°08'N, and 6°16'-6°34'W.

Date and History of Establishment

caption Map of Spain. (Source: Cleveland State University)


  • 1963: WWF and the Council of Scientific Research bought land (6,794 hectares (ha)) and set up a research station;
  • 1965: Doñana received legal protection as a {C}Biological Reserve;
  • 1969: Gazetted as a National Park by Decree #2.412 (34,625 ha); Guadiamar Reserve created;
  • 1973: Declared a Zone of Complete Refuge by Decree #3.101;
  • 1978: The Park reclassified and increased in area by Law#91 (50,720 ha);
  • 1980: Recognized as a Biosphere Reserve (77,260 ha);
  • 1982: Declared an Internationally Important Wetland Site under the Ramsar Convention;
  • 1988: Designated as a Special Bird Protection Area by the EEC under Directive #79/409;
  • 1990: Entered onto Montreux Record of Ramsar sites under threat;
  • 1991: Management plan sanctioned by Royal Decree 1772.


Total area: 77,260 ha: {C}World Heritage and Special Bird Protection Areas: 50,720 ha. National Park and {C}Ramsar site; {C}buffer zone 26,540 ha.

Land Tenure

State: 27,937 ha (55.08%), including 3,214 ha owned by {C}WWF but ceded to the state; private, being compulsorily purchased by the state: 9,124 ha (18%); Municipal: 8,622 ha (17.0%); private, in process of purchase: 4,994 ha (9.8%); private 43 ha (0.08%). The buffer zone is all private property. Administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food through the Institute for the [[Conservation] of Nature (Instituto Nacionale Para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, ICONA).


{C}Sea level to 40 meters (m) ({C}dunes).

Physical Features

Coto Doñaña is a vast undeveloped coastal marshland, cut off from the Atlantic by extensive dunes and subject to seasonal variations in water level and salinity, the dry plain of summer becoming a wide shallow lake in winter. It overlies quaternary deposits mainly of sand sheets. It is composed of three main areas: marsh, dunes and heath. Almost half the reserve area is formed of marismas - freshwater marshes on accumulated clayey silt - where the Guadalquivir River delta has been deflected and ponded by a coastal sand spit (~27,000 ha). These have been reduced by more than 80% over the past century. More than half the water used to come from the Guadiamar river which runs through the center of the marshes, but rainfall is now the chief source. The water table perched near the surface creates the great {C}biological richness of the Park. Low-lying areas are filled with deep organic matter and the clay is rich in {C}calcium and magnesium. The marshes are fed by the Arroyo de la Madre de las Marismas del Rocio which flows parallel with the coastal dunes, and by the Guadiamar river. There are also flowing interfluves (caños) carved by natural drainage, {C}depressions which hold wet season lagoons (lucios) and hollows with upwelling groundwater (ojos), which form a mosaic of microhabitats: pools, streams, {C}mudflats, reedbeds, banks and islands.

The coastal dunes, each about two kilometers long by 200 meters across, and up to 40 m high, parallel the coast for 25 km in four rows 3-5 km wide. The seaward dunes are mobile, moving from 4-6 m a year before the southwesterly winds, burying pine woods as they go. Their area is about 7,000 ha. The inland dunes (cotos or matorral) are stabilised by scrub vegetation and in the hollows (corrales) between them are lagoons and marshy areas. The heathland (vera) which forms a narrow ecotone between the dunes and the marsh and also covers the land furthest from the Guadalquiver, is a series of low ridges and hollows. This is the most stable and biologically rich area of the Park. The National Park is adjoined by Natural Park (56,250 ha) and Natural Landscape (1,336 ha) areas on private or municipal land. These are located along the west coast, two in the north and two on the banks of the Guadalquivir.


The climate is Mediterranean moderated by the ocean, with warm dry summers and cool wet winters. The mean annual temperature is 17 degrees Celsius (°C): July and August average 23.5°, December and January average 9.3°. The mean annual precipitation is 525 millimeters (mm), concentrated in the winter, peaking between 90-110 mm in December.


There are four main types of vegetation: marshland/aquatic, salt-tolerant, open forest and heathland. The marsh vegetation depends on the degree of soil salinity and the duration of flooding. The higher zones support halophytes such as glasswort Salicornia ramossissima with seablite Suaeda sp. and Arthrocnemum perenne. The seasonally flooded hollows are covered with sea clubrush Scirpus maritimus, bulrush Schoenoplectus lacustris, rushes Juncus sp. and crowfoot Ranunculus baudotii. Freshwater communities are similar to Phragmitea, Littorelletea and Potametea of Atlantic-European type. Brackish water swamps have communities similar to Spartinetea, Artrocnemetea and Ruppietea of an arid North African type.

caption Sand dunes with Rhamno-Juniperetum. (Source: UNESCO)

Plant communities on the dunes also have Atlantic-North African affinities and a notable degree of endemism. The mobile outer dunes are sparsely vegetated with marram grass Ammophila arenaria, and camarina Corema album, with buckthorn-juniper Rhamno-Juniperetum macrocarpas communities The dry dunes inland have Rhamno-Juniperetum sophora communities. On humid pseudoglei sands the vegetation includes plantations of cork oak Quercus suber, which carry large heronries, with olive Olea europea, poplars Populus spp., fig with ash Ficario-Fraxinetum angustifoliae and vine with willow Viti-Salicetum atrocinerae communities.

The heathland (matorral) vegetation varies with the availability of water. In the damp hollows and interdunal valleys (Monte Negro) tree heather Erica scoparia and heath E. ciliaris grow, succeeding cork oak Quercus suber and strawberry trees Arbutus unedo. On the drier ridges (Monte Blanco), Halimium commutatum and H.halimifolium, rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis, lavender Lavandula stoechas, rockrose Cistus sp. and thymeThymus tomentosa grow with introduced stone pine Pinus pinea and Eucalyptus sp. Some 750 species of plants have been identified including two species new to science and at least 45 new to Europe. Four strictly protected species, all national endemics, occur: Linaria tursica (VU), Micropyropsis tuberosa (VU), Gaudinia hispanica (VU), and Vulpia fontquerana (EN).


The {C}fauna of Doñana is mostly Mediterranean with a few north African and northern European species. The marismas flood to 30 centimeters (cm) for six months creating the most important wintering area for waterfowl in the peninsula, and ideal conditions for large flocks of migrating birds; the dune scrub (matorralor cotos) edging the marshes is rich in mammals.

caption Phoenicopterus ruber. (Source: University of Colorado at Boulder)


Doñana has a very rich and diverse {C}avifauna, with a total of over 360 {C}species of resident and migratory {C}birds. The marsh lies on the main western Europe - west Africa migratory flyway and forms a bottleneck through which some six million birds pass each year. It is also essential winter habitat for up to 500,000 overwintering ducks and waterbirds such as teal Anas crecca (160,000), wigeon Anas Penelope (100,000), greylag goose Anser anser (100,000), most of Spain's herons, white stork Ciconia ciconia, stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus and slender-billed gull Larus genei. Important breeding wetland species include marbled teal Marmaronetta angustirostris (VU,35), white-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala (EN,400, which nest mainly in artificial ponds in surrounding areas), white-eyed pochard Aythya niroca (VU), purple gallinule Porphyrio porphyrio and crested coot Fulica cristata. It is also a spring nesting area for Mediterranean and African birds including spoonbill Platalea leucorodia (1100) and the shallow lagoons become a feeding place for up to 10,000 greater flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber which during wet spells also nest in the area.

Occasionally seen are glossy ibis Plegadis falcinellis, rednecked nightjar Caprimulgus ruficollis, little buttontail Turnix sylvatica, and azure-winged magpie Cyanopico cyanus. Raptors amongst the stabilised sands include 15 breeding pairs (about a tenth of the world's population) of the Spanish imperial eagle Aquila heliaca adalberti (VU), black vulture Aegypius monachus, short-toed eagle Circaetus gallicus, booted eagle Hieraaetus pennatus, buzzard Buteo buteo, black kite Milvus migrans, black-shouldered kite Elanus caeruleus, red kite M. milvus, and hobby Falco subbuteo.

The scrubland (cotos) and {C}heathland ecotone (vera) are the richest habitats for most {C}animals apart from waterbirds. Identified {C}vertebrates include 30 mammals, 12 amphibians, 19 reptiles and 20 {C}fishes, four of them introduced. The main mammals are Mediterranean horseshoe bat Rhinolophis euryale (VU), lesser horseshoe bat Rhinolophis hipposideros (VU), hare Lepus capensis, rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus, red fox Vulpes vulpes, polecat Putorius putorius, weasel Mustela nivalis, badger Meles meles, otter Lutra lutra (VU), small-spotted genet Genetta genetta, Egyptian mongoose Herpestes ichneumon, wild cat Felis silvestris, wild boar Sus scrofa, fallow deer Dama dama and red deer Cervus elaphus. The park contains a fast diminishing population of about 30 of the {C}threatened Spanish lynx Lynx pardina (CR), but measures have been taken to {C}preserve them. Reptiles, which are found especially in the dunes, include spur-thighed tortoise Testudo graeca (VU), Lataste's viper Vipera lastasti gaditana and spiny-footed lizard Acanthodactylus erythrurus. Common fish are carp Cyprinus carpio and eel Anguilla anguilla; a threatened species is the Spanish killifish Aphanius iberus.

Cultural Heritage

Since 1262 Doñana has been the favorite hunting reserve of Spanish kings - Alfonso X, Ferdinand II, Charles V, Philip II, Philip IV, Philip V and Alfonso XIII. It was granted to the Dukes of Medina Sidonia in 1300 who preserved it as a hunting park for 500 years. One duchess, Doña Ana, who lived there, is supposed to have given the area her name. El Palacio de Doñana was once owned by the Duchess of Alba where she was painted by Goya. From 1737, stone pines were planted widely, but the clearance of coastal junipers later in the century destabilized the sand dunes which became mobile.

Local Human Population

Wood gathering, charcoal production, cattle-grazing, beekeeping and fish farming occur within the Park and twenty-five families, mostly park staff, live inside it. Irrigated rice farming and market gardening in the surrounding area are a constant problem, as are adjacent tourist developments at Matalascañas which was founded in 1967, and now attracts 30-40,000 visitors each summer. There is also a religious festival at El Rocio, increasingly under the control of the Park administration to safeguard conservation, which brings large crowds of pilgrims every spring.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

Entrance is free, but requires a permit and a professional guide. There are two well equipped visitors' centers at El Rocio and El Acebuche which receive 250,000 visitors a year and an {C}{C}{C}ethnological museum in the Palacio Acebron. There are two other visitors' centers: on the north edge (Valverde) and in Sanlucar (Ice Factory). There is a well-developed system of guided tours, observation points, bird hides and marked trails. Services are provided by a local cooperative. Education materials include student and teachers' guides, displays, and trained teachers for visiting school parties. Two excursions in 4WD vehicles, with a maximum of 125 people per trip, are allowed each day.

Scientific Research and Research Facilities

Research in the Park is of international scientific importance. {C}Ornithological research has been done since the 1950s and studies have since been carried out on {C}vertebrate {C}zoology, {C}botany, ecology, {C}plant ecology, {C}entomology, {C}limnology, geography, {C}ethology, pesticides and {C}diseases. Current research is concerned with certain endangered species, ecological interactions and population dynamics, on contamination of the {C}water draining into the park, studies of the regeneration of the park's water system and continual monitoring of animals and conditions. The scientific research is coordinated by the director of the Doñana Biological Station, where there is accommodation for 12 scientists and many facilities. The station is dependent on the Council of Scientific Research (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, CSIC) headquartered in Seville. A complete list is available of the wide range of researches carried out and proposals presented from 1988 on is given in the annual reports of the CSIC.

Conservation Value

The site is the most important wetland in Spain and one of the largest and best-known wetlands in Europe, because of its wide range of habitats which are productive, inaccessible and well preserved. It is particularly remarkable for its large breeding colonies, the millions of wintering waterbirds, and for harboring threatened species such as imperial eagle and purple gallinule. It is the last tract of relatively undisturbed marsh in the Guadalquivir delta, includes a long stretch of undeveloped coastline, and protects one of the few mobile dune systems found on the Iberian peninsula.

Conservation Management

The National Park is managed with the assistance of a committee of 32 stakeholders (Patronato) which includes local landowners, farmers and conservationists. It is also subject to a wide range of organizations and interest groups. It is protected by law from hunting, drainage, forestry plantation and excessive tourist exploitation. Zoning was laid down in the 1991 management plan. This includes Special Use zones with buildings, park facilities, hamlets etc (173 ha); Recreation and Interpretative zone with visitors centers and traditional trails (382 ha); Intermediate Restricted zone surrounding visitors’ centers where tourists may move around freely (100 ha); Managed Nature Reserves and closed Scientific Zone, with access restricted to park managers and staff, researchers, private owners, their staff, and authorized people (50,065 ha).

Management plans exist for the declining populations of the Spanish lynx and the imperial eagle. Dispersing young male lynx are vulnerable to road kills: four lynx were killed in March 2002 alone. WWF Spain/ADENA has urged closure of new roads, the restoration of rabbit populations and potential habitats, lynx-friendly management on local estates, monitoring and captive breeding. In March 2002 the state launched an E8 million initiative to save the Iberian lynx. Plantations of exotic species are gradually being converted to indigenous habitats. A water management plan was approved in 1994. In 1998 the E83.5 million landscape regeneration project Doñana 2005 was launched to restore the marshland channels, recover filled marshlands, treat the wastewater of El Rocio, restore the permeability of the marsh with the Guadalquivir estuary and (the Green Corridor program) create a green corridor between Donana and the Sierra Morena, from which the Guadiamar river flows. This is a basin-wide plan unlike previous more limited schemes and was already half completed in 2002 but is progressing slowly.

Management Constraints

The seasonal wet and dry cycle is vulnerable to the failure of winter rains which severely affects the ecosystem. There were bad droughts in 1980-1 and at the beginning of the 1990s. However, such dry periods are natural and have occurred many times during the last two centuries. More serious is contamination by agricultural runoff upstream caused by cattle, nitrogenous fertilizers and the uncontrolled use of pesticides used to rid ricefields of the introduced American crayfish Procamburus clarkii though a die-off of some 30,000 birds in 1986 may have been due to botulism caused by stagnant water. More seriously, continued land reclamation for ricefields, orchards, salt works and fish farms, water extraction for agricultural development and irrigation schemes north of the park borders have modified the hydraulic regime of the marshes. This has diverted natural canals that used to bring water to the Doñana marshes which may eventually dry up, and will create a build-up of salt in the soil unless the over-exploited aquifers are replenished. A project to build a canal which would partially restore the former hydrological system has been considered. Illegal water extraction and pollution from a proposed expansion of the port of Seville may also effect conservation in the area.

Increased tourist development near the park, poaching, illegal fishing, particularly for crayfish and crabs, which disturbs the birds in the breeding season, and over-grazing by domestic livestock are also management problems. Concerns such as these led to the inclusion in 1990 of the Doñana National Park in the Montreux Record of Ramsar sites requiring priority attention because of the potential for change in their ecological character. In the same year the Ramsar Convention Conference recommended (C.4.9.1) actions that the Spanish Government and regional authorities could take. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the park was to be the setting for a proposed 32,000-bed holiday resort, Costa Doñana, on its borders north of Matalascañas. The development was successfully contested and stopped by environmentalists, but this deeply antagonized some local people because of the loss of tourist revenue.

In April 1998 the park was drastically threatened by 6 million tonnes of heavy metal contaminated muds from an impoundment at Aznalcollar iron pyrites mine, 40 km north of the park, which broke through the dam and entered the Guadiamar River. Urgent measures diverted the flow from the park, but the Guadiamar valley farmland and some coastal shrimp and fish farms were poisoned and restoration is slow. The valley is recovering but acid water still escapes and the river's fish have not yet reappeared. The Park is managed by ICONA and CSIC, but with too few staff to prevent extensive poaching. The surrounding areas are managed by the Instituto Andaluz de Reforma Agraria and the Agencia del Medio Ambiente de la Junta de Andalucía. There is little cooperation between these bodies (ADENA/ WWF,n.d.). A need to integrate land use planning for the {C}irrigation and construction projects of the surrounding area in order to minimize their impacts on the {C}protected area was recorded in the {C}UNESCO, 2002 WHC Report.


In 1995 there was a total of 178 staff, managed by a Director-Conservador. Of these, 79 were permanent employees and the rest seasonal workers. In 1995 staff were deployed in five departments: {C}conservation (11), works (42), public services (33), guards (77), and administration. In addition, there is a {C}EU advisor.


The average annual budget for the period 1990-1995 was 1,400 million pesetas (US$ 11,000,000). However, between 1998 and 2005, € 83.5 million is being spent on the Doñana 2005 redevelopment projects.

IUCN Management Category

  • II {C}National Park.
  • Biosphere Reserve.
  • {C}Ramsar site.
  • Natural {C}World Heritage Site, inscribed 1984 . Natural Criteria ii, iii, iv

Further Reading

  • ADENA/WWF Spain (n.d.). Save Doñana. ADENA, Madrid.
  • Anon. (1993). Informe Sobre el Estado de la Reserva de la Biosfera de Doñana. Unpublished report to the Spanish Committee of the Man and the Biosphere Programme. 73 pp.
  • Egger, J-P. (1991). Can the law save Doñana? WWF Features, August 1991. 2pp.
  • Garcia, L.,Ibanez, F., Garrido, H., Arroyo, J., Manez, M. & Calderon,J. (2000). Anuario Ornitologico de Doñana, No.0, Dicembre 2000. Prontuario de las Aves de Donana. Estacion Biologica de Donana y Ayuntamiento de Almonte, Almonte, Huelva, Spain. 113pp.
  • Gil, D.H. (1993). Proposition d'Inscription du Parc National de Doñana dans la Liste du Patrimoine Mondial Naturel.
  • Grimmett, R. & Jones, T. (1989). Important Bird Areas in Europe. ICBP, Cambridge, UK. 888 pp. ISBN: 0946888175.
  • Groombridge, B. (Ed.) (1993). 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, UK. liv + 268 pp. ISBN: 2831701945.
  • Grunfeld, F. (1988). Wild Spain. Ebury Press, London. 222pp. ISBN: 1566563224.
  • Heath, M. & Evans, M. (eds) (2000). Important Bird Areas in Europe. Priority Sites for Conservation. Vol.2. BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K. ISBN: 094688837X.
  • Hollis, T., Heurteaux, P. & Mercer, J. (1988). The Implications of Groundwater Extraction for the Long-term Future of Coto Doñana National Park. Unpublished WWF/IUCN/ADENA Mission Report.
  • Hollis, G. & Varley, A. (eds). (1992). Strategies for Sustainable Socio-economic Development of the Doñana Region (English translation). Report produced by International Commission of Experts nominated by the President of Andalucia. 93 pp.
  • Jardin,B.,Grande,J.,de Larramendi,R. & Alonso, C. (2001) Doñana 2005. A Project for the Regeneration of Doñana. Environmental Ministry, Madrid. 52pp.
  • Llamas, R. (1988). Conflicts between wetland conservation and groundwater exploitation: two case histories in Spain. Environ. Geol. Water Sci. Vol. 11, No. 3, 241-251.
  • Luke, A. (1992). Officials hold back report on endangered reserve. New Scientist, 11 January.
  • Mabberley, D. (1987). The Plant Book. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 706 pp. ISBN: 0521820715.
  • Moore, P. Garcia Novo, F. & Stevenson, A. (1982). Coto de Doñana. New Scientist, 11 November.
  • Mountfort, G. 1958. Portrait of a Wilderness. Hutchinson, London. ISBN: 0715342843.
  • Mountfort, G. & Mountfort,C.(1969). Portrait of a Wilderness.The Story of the Coto Doñana Expeditions. David & Charles. Newton Abbot, Devon.
  • Palomares, F., Rodriguez, A., Laffitte, R. & Delibes, M. (1991). The status and distribution of the Iberian Lynx Felis pardina (Temminck) in Coto Doñana area, Spain. Biol. Conserv. 57, 159-169.
  • Rodriguez, F. (1990). Guía del Parque Nacional de Doñana. Rodilla, Madrid, 170pp. ISBN: 8450011477.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Committee (2002). Report on the 26th Session of the World Heritage Committee, Paris.



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.








M, U. (2012). Doñana National Park, Spain. Retrieved from


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