World heritage wetland site threatened by strawberry farming

Sunset at Laguna Dulce by Jorge Monje

Strawberry lovers might want to check the provenance of their fruit this summer following controversy about a new farming bill which could cause the devastation of an iconic Spanish wetland.

Scientists from the University of Leeds and the Spanish National Research Council say urgent protection is needed for the fragile Doñana wetlands in Andalusia as the result of the bill which sanctions illegal strawberry production in its immediate vicinity.

The bill, which was approved by the regional government without any parliamentary debate, allows intensive irrigated strawberry farming on land originally devoted to forestry or rain-fed agriculture.

80% of the strawberries grown in the region are exported, with the UK and Germany receiving half of these exports. 

Professors Luis Santamaría from the Doñana Biological Station in Spain, and Julia Martin-Ortega from the University of Leeds’ Sustainability Research Institute, have raised their concerns in a paper published today in the Nature Water journal

“Scientific evidence is unequivocal: Doñana’s ecosystem is in danger,” says Professor Julia Martin-Ortega, Leeds’ Sustainability Research Institute.

Doñana is one of the largest wetlands in Europe and hosts up to half a million migratory birds as well as being home to 50 species of waterbirds and the highly endangered Iberian lynx.

Extensive research shows the vegetation and soils are severely degraded, the number of temporary ponds have been reduced by over half, and the waterbirds are decreasing in numbers. 

Luis Santamaría said: “Although Doñana still has outstanding biodiversity that justifies its conservation, it has been subject to relentless degradation over decades, which is reaching a point of-no-return. 

“Instead of taking the decisive actions required to save it, the current Bill marks the return of outdated, unsustainable policies that will accelerate its end.”

Spain was recently threatened with sanctions as a result of the Bill, in what was an unprecedented confrontation of the regional Andalusian government with the European Commission.  

The Bill also poses a reputational and economic risk, with major European retailers having already voiced concerns about the environmental impact of their Spanish imports. A campaign is already underway by the German pressure group Campact, calling on retailers to stop selling so called “dry strawberries”. 

Scientific evidence

Donana – Photographer Jorge Monje, from Estación Biológica

Professor Julia Martin-Ortega said: “This Bill may compromise the past endeavours by legal strawberry producers who have made an effort to reduce water consumption and agro-chemical use in the area.

“We can only hope that reactions against this Bill will trigger new conservation policy. It is extremely important that any decision moving forward is taken on the basis of scientific evidence, which in this case is unequivocal: Doñana’s ecosystem is in danger.”

Doñana is one of the ‘Knowledge Sites’ within the ambitious EU-funded project WaterLANDS which aims to restore wetland sites throughout Europe and lay the foundations for protection across wider areas.

Dr Shane Mc Guinness, of University College Dublin and Project Co-Coordinator of WaterLANDS, said: “Because of their support for biodiversity, water, carbon and culture, wetlands are extremely important to humans and nature alike. 

“Properly valuing these areas is therefore more important than ever and their long-term protection should always be prioritised over short-term economic gain.”

More details about the crisis facing Doñana are available in the Nature Water Journal 

For media enquiries and interview requests, contact Kersti Mitchell via

Doñana is one of 15 Knowledge sites across Europe which will be used to inform future wetland restoration as part of the WaterLANDS project. iCASP, The University of Leeds and Doñana Biological Stations are key partners in WaterLANDS.

Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)
The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) is Spain’s largest public research institution and ranks third among Europe’s largest research organizations, with more than 10,000 employees including nearly 4,000 tenured researchers, working in 120 centers spread across Spain. Attached to the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, it plays a key role in scientific and technological policy in Spain and worldwide.

Doñana Biological Station (CSIC-EBD) carries out interdisciplinary research aimed at understanding how biodiversity is generated and maintained, how it deteriorates, and how it can be preserved and restored. EBD is the main contributor to research at Doñana
National Park, and it owns and manages two Biological Reserves (RBD and RBG) within it.

The WaterLANDS project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No. 101036484. This output reflects only the author’s view and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.