Sand dune - Country Report, Spain

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This article on the sand dunes of Spain, is a revised country report from the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' (Doody ed. 1991) [1]. The 1991 inventory was prepared under the umbrella of the European Union for Dune Conservation [EUDC]. The original inventory was presented to the European Coastal Conservation Conference, held in the Netherlands in November 1991. It attempted to provide a description of the sand dune vegetation, sites and conservation issues throughout Europe including Scandinavia, the Atlantic coast and in the Mediterranean.

An overview article on the distribution of European sand dunes provides links to the other European country reports. These represent chapters from updated individual country reports included in the revised, 2nd Edition of the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' prepared for the International Sand Dune Conference “Changing Perspectives in Coastal Dune Management”, held from the 31st March - 3rd April 2008, in Liverpool, UK (Doody ed. 2008)[2].

Status: Original authors Barbara van Agt & Robert Tekke, original text; revised 2008, Juan Diego López Giraldo; additional information Bird (The World’s coast: Online)


The Spanish coastline, the Balearic and Canary islands included, is about 6,145km. The Peninsula coast has three major regions:

1. The northern Atlantic coast (2,012km) which consists mainly of cliffs and river mouths with bays and some small sand dune sites;

2. The southern Atlantic coast (949km) is composed predominantly of sandy shores and dunes;

3. The Mediterranean coast (1,063km) has rocky shores and coastal plains with sandy and pebble beaches and a small number of dune systems. The Balearic Islands’ coasts (1,186km coast) mainly consist of cliffs, bays and sandy beaches with some Holocene and Pleistocene dunes.

The Canary Islands (1,477km coast) are of volcanic origin, but include a number of dune systems.

Distribution and type of dune

Northern Atlantic coast (N and NW Spain). On the north coast of Spain, there are only minor dune areas behind beaches. From La Coruna to the Portuguese border is the region of Galicia, characterised by deep marine inlets (rias) between intricate peninsulas. Dunes occur locally behind sandy beaches in several bays. West of Caión the beach becomes a sandy barrier, the Playa de Baldaio, surmounted by low dunes, and Porrilado has a long beach with dune sectors. At Cabazo, sparse grassy dunes back a sandy cove. In the Ria de Corme y Laxe the village of Corme stands behind a small sandy beach backed by a grassy dune, and towards the head of the ria a sandy cove, Praia di Balarés has a wide sandy barrier spit with dunes blown up the adjacent hillside. At Laxe (Lage), a curving beach of pale grey quartz sand is backed by uncliffed hummocks of grassy dunes with scattered Marram clumps and an open Agropyron sward. This is one of several sectors where sand drifts into the area from the sea floor. Southwest from Punta Insúa the steep coast is broken by a wide bay containing the Playa de Traba, where Atlantic swell has shaped a gently curving sandy beach back by grassy dunes. Near Muxia is a curving sandy beach, Piagge de Lourido, from which dunes have moved up the hillside, and at Finisterre a sandy isthmus has curving sandy beaches backed by dunes, as at Sardiñeiro de Abaixo. There is a beach and dune at Ezaro and a beach of inwashed white sand and low grassy dunes at the ria head near Brens. The Playa de Carnota occupies a large west-facing bay, and is a sandy barrier beach capped by sparsely grassed dunes, and there are minor dunes near Muros. To the south long sandy surf-beaches such as Playa Rio Sieira are backed by sparsely grass-covered dunes.

SW Spain. A coastal sand barrier and dune fringe extends from the mouth of the Guadiana River past the Tinto - Odiel estuary and round the Playa de Castilla to the Guadalquivir River. There are many beach and dune ridges, the dunes becoming larger to the southeast, where they are drifting in over vegetated swales. There are only minor dunes behind bay beaches on the coast eastward to Gibraltar.

The most extensive dune systems, barrier islands and spits are in western Andalucía on the southern Atlantic coast. Several river deltas, which have brought sediment to the sea have helped to create one the most important dune systems in Europe. This lies within the Coto Doñana National Park. The park consists of beaches, foredunes, high mobile dunes (up to 30m) and stabilised dunes, which enclose a major wetland.

Mediterranean coast. By comparison, the systems on the Mediterranean coast are smaller and more scattered than in the south, which are often relatively low (not more than 20m). On the northern Atlantic coast, dune areas are scarce because of the lack of sediment in the nearshore zone and the absence of major fluvial sources. Apart from Corrubedo in Galicia, only a few small dunes exist near river mouths. Finally, there are climbing dunes on the slopes of some cliffs. In Spain, these only occur along the Cantabrian coast, although fossil climbing dunes appear in Serra Gelede near Alicante.

There are small dune sectors, notably near Almeria, on the barriers at Mar menor and south of Alicante and some scattered zones in Murcia and Almeria Coasts. Cap Cullera marks the beginning of a sandy barrier coast with dunes fronting swamps and the large Albufera lagoon. On the flanks of the Ebro delta, there are low dunes on the southern (El Trabucador) spit and north of the river mouth an outer barrier with low dunes carrying tamarisk, Eryngium maritima and bare sand patches curves round to the seaside town of Riomar. Here the coast has prograded, and there are recently formed dunes. Fences to form dunes that are stabilised with Marram grass and shrubs are intercepting wind-drifted sand. Near Barcelona, the sandy shore of the Llobregat delta has a wide beach backed by pinewoods and suburbs on low dunes, extending to the Barcelona waterfront.

The coasts of the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands are mainly rocky but sandy beaches and dunes dominate some parts. Extensive mobile dunes occur on the north coast of Fuerteventura at Carralejo.


Because of the subtropical climate and its situation west of the African continent and close to the tropic of Cancer, the coastal vegetation of the Canary islands is completely different from the vegetation of the rest of Spain and has a large number of endemic species. A description of the vegetation of the Canary Islands is therefore not included in the following summary.


The strandline is predominantly bare, but in the Mediterranean zone Cakile maritima ssp. aegyptiacaea, Salsola kali and Polygonum maritimum occur.


Embryonic dunes are covered with communities characterised by Elytrigia juncea, sometimes accompanied by Eryngium maritimum, Calystegia soldanella and Sporobolus pungens.

Yellow dune

The main species on the transverse dune ridges are Ammophila arenaria ssp. arundinacea, Otanthus maritimus, Medicago marina, Lotus creticus and Echinophora spinosa.

Dune grassland

These dunes (including grey and green dunes) are characterised by communities with Helichrysum stoechas, Crucianella maritima, Ononis natrix subsp. ramosissima, Teucrium polium, Malcolmia littorea and Thymus carnosus. On the northern Atlantic coast, the vegetation is characterised by species such as Helichrysum stoechas and Ephedra distachya.


Tall scrub mainly consists of Juniperus macrocarpa and J. phoenicea although in mobile dunes J. oxycedrusis is more abundant. Woodlands mainly consist of Phillyrea angustifolia, Rhamnus oleoides, Pistacia lentiscus, Corema album, Tamarix africana, T. gallica, Olea europaea var. sylvestris, different pine species (e.g. Pinus pinea) and oak species such as Quercus coccifera.

Important sites

Figure: Map of sand dune distribution and important sites in Spain. Copyright: J Pat Doody
Figure: List of important sand dunes sites in mainland Spain.

The list of important sites given opposite includes areas with more than 50ha of coastal dunes. Size includes other habitats. This list includes revised information on protected status and where available web site addresses.

KEY: NP = Natural Park; NL, Natural Landscape; NR= Natural Reserve; LIC= Lugar de Interes Comunitario (EU Natura 2000 Network Site); ZEPA= Zona de Espacial Protection para las aves (Bird Special Protection Area). Thanks to for identifying the web sites for the above areas and commenting on the text. An inventory of the sand dunes of the Valencian coast, sites 20-23, is included in a paper by Sanjaume & Pardo (1992)[3]. A further report provides detailed information on the Nueva Umbria Spit that lies within Site 09, Marismas del rio piedras y Flecha del Rompido (Gallego-Fernández et al. 2006)[4].

Two additional important sites identified during this revision are:

1. Ortigueira e ladrido, 2987ha; Lagoon; ZEPA, Ramsar, ENRPX, IBA;

2. Caldebarcos-Carnota, 4628ha; Saltmarshes/Upland; (LIC) Natura 2000; ZEPA;

Figure: List of important sand dunes sites in the Balearic Islands.
Figure: List of important sand dunes sites in the Canary Islands.

A national inventory of sand dune sites is currently under development. For information, see, in Spanish.


The destruction of many dune areas in Spain occurred in the last few decades, especially in the Mediterranean and on the southern Atlantic coasts. The main cause has been the increase in tourism, which resulted in the extraction of sand for construction activities and building hotels, houses and boulevards.

Afforestation with Pinus spp. or Eucalyptus spp. has also destroyed most of the natural vegetation on many other sites. Urban developments and golf course construction destroy conservation values. Construction works, such as the building of harbours and the canalization of rivers, has restricted the sand supply to the beaches and consequently the dune areas have decreased through erosion of both beaches and dunes.

Since 1988, the Spanish Shores Act (Ley de Costas) has come into force. This law emphasizes provision for public access and promotes the protection of the coastal zone (up to a maximum of 500m, landward) against further destruction by building activities.

Original Contact: Prof. dr. M. Costa.

2008 Revision: Juan Diego López Giraldo,;

Dr. Juan B. Gallego-Fernández, Departamento de Biología Vegetal y Ecología. Universidad de Sevilla, Ap.1095 - 41080 Sevilla, España - Spain. Email:

Additional information

Corines Biotopes Project, 1991. European Communities. Brussels.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1988. Medio Ambiente en España. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1986. Ecosistemas vegetales del litoral mediterráneo espagñol. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Agricultura Pesca Y Alimentacion, Instituto Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza. 1990. Guia natural de las costas Españolas. Madrid.


  1. Doody, J.P., ed., 1991. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee/European Union for Coastal Conservation.
  2. Doody, J.P., ed. 2008. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe, 2nd Edition. National Coastal Consultants and EUCC - The Coastal Union, in association with the IGU Coastal Commission.
  3. Sanjaume, E. & Pardo, J., 1992. The dunes of the Valencian coast (Spain): past and present. Lewis, D., 1992. The sands of time: Cornwall's Hayle to Gwithian Towans. In: Coastal Dunes: Geomorphology, Ecology and Management, eds., R.W.G. Carter, T.G.F. Curtis & M.J. Sheehy-Skeffington, Proceedings of the Third European Dune Congress, Galway, Ireland, 17-21 June 1992, A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, 475-486.
  4. Gallego-Fernández, J.B., Muñoz Vallés, S., Dellafiore, C. 2006. Flora and vegetation on Nueva Umbría Spit, Lepe-Huelva. Lepe Council Ed., Lepe, 134 pp.

Other sources of published information:

Balada, R., 1985. Guide to the Ebro Delta. Parc Natural del delta de l’Ebre. Barcelona.

Carasco, C., 1984. El Parque Nacional de Doñana. Madrid.

Corines Biotopes Project, 1991. European Communities. Brussels.

Costa, M., 1986. La vegetacíon en el País Valenciano. Universitat de Valencía.

Escarra Esteve, A. et al., 1984. El medio y la biocenosis de los arenales costeros de la provincia de Alicante. Departamento de Ciencias Empresarialies y Recursos Naturales. Facultad de Ciencias de Alicante.

Géhu, J.M., 1985. European dune and shoreline vegetation. Council of Europe, nature and environment series no. 32. Strasbourg.

Klijn, J.A., 1990. Dune forming factors in a geographical context, in Th. W. Bakker et al. Dunes of the European coasts. Catena supplement, 18, Cremlingen-Destedt.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1988. Medio Ambiente en España. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1986. Ecosistemas vegetales del litoral mediterráneo espagñol. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Agricultura Pesca Y Alimentacion, Instituto Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza. 1990. Guia natural de las costas Españolas. Madrid. Rivas Martinez, S. et al., 1980. Vegetación de Doñana. Facultad de Farmacia Universidad Complutense. Madrid.

Sanjaume, E., 1985. Las costas Valencianes, sedimentologia y morfologia. Universitat de Valencia.

See also

The main author of this article is Doody, Pat
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Doody, Pat (2010): Sand dune - Country Report, Spain. Available from,_Spain [accessed on 18-01-2017]