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Saving the gin berry from extinction in England

Plantlife raises a toast as juniper regenerates for first time

November 18 2011

Juniper berries © Andrew Gagg / Plantlife

Juniper berries © Andrew Gagg / Plantlife

Conservation charity Plantlife is toasting the success to date of its project to save juniper – the gin berry bush - from extinction in lowland England. 300 juniper seedlings are now growing at nine sites where existing juniper bushes were old and incapable of reproducing, a conservation success that has never before been achieved on this scale.

Plantlife’s juniper conservation project has involved trialling new techniques to build up the most important populations across the chalk and limestone country of lowland southern England. Tim Wilkins, Plantlife’s Species Recovery Coordinator who has led the project, says: 'More than 30 project sites were chosen for a range of conservation measures, including large-scale habitat management, experimental seedling shelters and - where colonies had all but died out – the propagation of cuttings for later replanting.'

'Plantlife’s Great Juniper Hunt survey in 2010-11 showed that many populations of juniper were shrinking as bushes died of old age, with nearly a quarter of sites supporting just one bush. 85% of sites surveyed contained no seedlings up to five years old. To get the next generation of juniper, you need good numbers of both male and female juniper bushes at each site, plenty of viable seed and the right conditions for germination and growth of seedlings, free of hungry rabbits and grazing stock.'

"The loss of juniper would have represented more than the loss of a single species: it supports more than 40 species of insect and fungus that cannot survive without it."

Tim Wilkins, Plantlife Species Recovery Coordinator

Juniper is an important part of our ancient landscape and culture – one of the first trees to colonise Britain after the last Ice Age and with aromatic berries without which gin, one of our favourite drinks, would never have been invented. Juniper populations have fluctuated but on the whole declined over a long period, with many southern English counties having lost 60-70 per cent of their populations.

Without action, juniper was facing extinction here in the next 50 years, so in early 2010, Plantlife launched a conservation project and survey to help save the species in the lowlands of England.

'There is no single cause for juniper decline' says Tim Wilkins 'but loss of seedling habitat through under-grazing and the development of dense grassland and scrub, seems to be the most widespread. Some colonies were also affected by a shortage of viable seed, or were overrun with rabbits eating any emerging seedlings.'

One of the new juniper seedlings © Ellie Phillips - FWAG

One of the new juniper seedlings © Ellie Phillips - FWAG

'As a result we had to give juniper quite a lot of help to get it to regenerate, including the harvesting of berries and sowing of seed – aiming to pep up the male/female ratios and help juniper regenerate naturally in future. Plantlife and our conservation partners are delighted that so many seedlings have now appeared. It’s still early days though, and we don’t know what the long term success will be, but these results are giving us hope!'

'The loss of juniper would have represented more than the loss of a single species: it supports more than 40 species of insect and fungus that cannot survive without it. The special conditions thought to be necessary for juniper seeds to germinate are also beneficial to a host of other wild plants, many of which are also under threat. By focusing on the habitat, our project aspires to help many of these species too.'

The techniques used throughout the project are detailed in a new Plantlife guide - Breaking new ground for juniper – a lowland management handbook - (available to download for free here or in hardcopy by request from Plantlife head office.

The word ‘gin’ derives from either genièvre or jenever - the French and Dutch words for ‘juniper’. The berries are also used in cooking, particularly to flavour game dishes. In the 19th century, when a law was introduced outlawing unlicensed whisky stills, juniper was harvested for fuel for this illicit trade as it burns with an almost invisible smoke. Juniper has also long been used for its medicinal qualities. During the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, hospitals experimented with spraying vapourised oils into the atmosphere of flu wards in an attempt to prevent air-borne infection spreading and juniper was one of those found to be particularly effective.

The Lowland England Juniper Project was funded by Natural England, Biffaward and Buckinghamshire County Council, with additional funding from the HDH Wills Charitable Trust.