Spirited defence of native junipers

Most gin consumed in Britain is made from Mediterranean juniper berries. Picture: contributed
Most gin consumed in Britain is made from Mediterranean juniper berries. Picture: contributed
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A GIN producer is backing an ambitious project to rescue 
native juniper trees from rapid decline.

Distillers William Grant & Sons is supporting a two-year trial by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and Scotland’s Rural College that aims to restock Ayrshire with the woodland plant whose berries are used to produce the spirit.

The coniferous (cone-bearing) small tree faces ­numerous threats. Nearly half of Scotland’s junipers are at risk, ­according to research by the Forestry Commission Scotland.

The plant, which alongside Scots pine and yew is one of just three conifers native to the UK, is a source of food for animals such as sheep and is susceptible to crowding out by gorse.

A deadly new fungal disease, Phytophthora austrocedrae, poses an additional threat.

William Grant chairman ­Peter Gordon, a keen horticulturist and environmentalist, approached SWT and agreed to fund a two-year scheme with the aim of establishing the most effective methods of propagating the tree and reintroducing it to areas where it once thrived.

The distiller, makers of Hendrick’s gin, has pledged £7,040 for the first year of the project and £5,800 for the second.

The Hendrick’s distillery is near the SWT’s Grey Hill grassland, a site of Special Scientific Interest near Girvan where ­juniper once thrived.

Lesley Gracie, master distiller at William Grant, said: “We’re looking to get juniper re-established in the areas it was traditionally located. It’s partly due to Peter Gordon, the location and just wanting to preserve the natural juniper.”

Project workers plan to take 1,500 cuttings from last year’s junipers in the first 12 months of the trial, planting just the right ratio of male and female plants in specially designed compost and pots at three nurseries – at SWT’s Grey Hill grasslands, William Grant’s site at Stair and the college’s land at Kirkoswald.

At the same time, it is hoped about 500 seeds can be collected and later germinated in order to maximise the genetic diversity of any successful specimens, which will then be planted out in areas where the species was once found.

“If you put them all on one site you’re putting all your eggs in one basket,” said Gracie. “But if we spread them about a bit the chances are that, if one site isn’t suitable, then another one will be.

“Junipers are very fickle little characters. They are very difficult to propagate so we are trying to spread the risk in where we’re putting them. We’re hoping we will get [enough] to restock Grey Hill.”

The berries used to make gin in Scotland are imported from Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Hungary and Macedonia since home-grown fruit is currently too scarce and poor-quality for commercial use.

Gracie said: “The juniper berries that we grow in Scotland are a world away from the ones that we would buy in for gin. The quality is not the same. We may well look at them to see what their oil content is like but it is not our intention to make a Scottish gin from them.”

Although a truly Scottish gin remains an unlikely prospect, Gracie added: “We may do a distillation just to see what it’s like. But it will only be small-scale and it won’t go into Hendrick’s.”

Much of Scotland’s surviving plants are also suffering from old age, with many at least 100 years old, and without healthy young specimens and groups of around 50 growing nearby they will gradually die out.

SWT’s Gill Smart said: “The age of the trees is important, plus whether they are male or female. They will also need protected as they tend to like growing in the places sheep graze.”

Juniper is a slow-growing plant so although the project is initially being funded for just two years it could be up to five years before there are any viable trees ready to plant out across Ayrshire.

However, Smart is hopeful it will be an ongoing project and that other organisations may want to join in the future, perhaps creating a network of juniper conservation projects around Scotland.

A spokesman for the agricultural college’s Ayr campus said: “We like to give our students real-life experiences, and getting involved in a project like this is more than just an exercise and gets them really connected. It’s a new relationship for us but one that we hope will develop.”

Richard Lochhead, minister for rural affairs and the environment, is expected to launch the project on 29 July.