UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Rhön

Land of Open Distances

The Rhön is Germany's most famous UNESCO biosphere reserve. Many experts from all over the world visit the Rhön as an example of successful sustainable development. The Rhön is called the "land of open distances" because the peaks of its mountain plateaus offer a largely unwooded cultural landscape with a magnificent view across the country.

Shortly after German reunification in 1990, the Rhön, located at the intersection of the former FRG and GDR, in the three federal states of Bavaria, Hesse, and Thuringia, was awarded the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation. Its location at the former border, and a traditional link between the population and agriculture have given the Rhön a largely intact cultural landscape and rural settlement structures. In the world network of biosphere reserves, the Rhön represents individual forest-covered cone mountains around a central basalt plateau, species-rich montane mowing grassland, steep slopes with limestone grasslands, beech forests, and deciduous hardwood forests. These are good living conditions for endangered bird species like the black grouse, corncrake, black stork, and kingfisher. In each federal state, there is a separate management team for the biosphere reserve, with close interaction and a joint management plan. 

Contributions to sustainable development

The population's identification with the biosphere reserve is very high, as several representative citizen surveys have shown. The establishment of specific value chains between local companies contributes to image building and creates new jobs in the Rhön. As the University of Würzburg has proven, the Rhön's small and medium-sized companies are more closely connected to each other than in other German regions. The same scientists proved great income advantages through tourism.

An important instrument is the branding of regional products. The Rhön sheep was successfully reintroduced for landscape conservation and as a culinary highlight, similar to Rhön trout or Rhön apple. The biosphere reserve also promotes renewable energies and an internet-based car-sharing platform for its rural areas. As one of the few "dark sky parks" to date, the biosphere reserve ensures the night sky is as undisturbed as possible, which saves money for local authorities and reduces light interference for birds and insects.

Education for sustainable development is another focus of the work. In 2017, the German Commission for UNESCO has given an award to “Rhöniversum”, an affiliation of information centres and students’ hostels, for its exemplary whole-institution approach to ESD – in 2018 a similar ESD award was given to the small town of Oberelsbach in the Rhön.

International Partnerships

The Rhön is in close contact with three partner biosphere reserves: Kruger-to-Canyons (South Africa), Redberry Lake (Canada) and Salzburger Lungau/Kärntner Nockberge (Austria). The cooperation with Kruger-to-Canyons established in 2008 is a prime example of North-South cooperation in the global network. Not only do the management teams of the two biosphere reserves regularly exchange information: Also municipalities, schools and businesses cooperate North-South. Volunteers from the Rhön region regularly support the biosphere reserve in north-eastern South Africa.


  • Year of designation: 1991 (2014 on the Bavarian side extended by 22 communities)
  • Federal states: Bavaria, Hesse, Thuringia
  • Size: 2,433.2 km² (74.4 km² core area and 539 km² buffer zone)
  • Represented Landscape: Central German Highlands
  • Website: www.biosphaerenreservat-rhoen.de