Gin lovers rejoice this Christmas! For Juniper, our native aromatic shrub renowned for giving gin its distinctive fragrance, is showing signs of returning to the English countryside, almost 10 years after urgent conservation work began to bring it back from the brink of disappearing..
Despite being one of the first trees to colonise Britain after the last Ice Age, Juniper has been steadily declining over the last few decades, and without emergency intervention, faces going extinct across much of lowland England within 50 years. Plantlife surveys reveal that Southern Counties –Juniper’s stronghold where it favours the chalk soil, have experienced losses of between 60 and 70 per cent, and this charismatic shrub has been completely lost in some counties.
Juniper has suffered as it is so slow growing and needs very specific conditions in order to germinate – the right balance of controlled grazing and scrub clearance is essential: little seedlings are very vulnerable to grazing animals and competition from thuggish, competitive vegetation.
Now early indications show that juniper might be making a come-back: Healthy bushes grown from seedlings, and some bursting with berries have been spotted at sites in England. Plantlife and partners have helped juniper at over 30 sites across the South; “Overbearing” vegetation was removed and bare patches or “scrapes” were created to provide the right conditions for juniper, and to benefit other threatened chalkland flowers and wildlife.
But there is still much work to do, as Plantlife’s Alastair Moralee explains, “Anyone who has ever worked with juniper will tell you it’s a charismatic yet mysterious species (we’re still learning what makes it tick) so it’s wonderful news to see how well these plants have responded at the 3 sites we’ve been back to - we were delighted to find dozens of healthy young plants at each of them. This bodes well for the other key sites in England, and the next step is for us to visit the remaining sites and work with our partners to help build a picture of exactly what works for juniper.”
Saving juniper is also very good news for other wildlife – a restored habitat can support carpets of wildflowers including orchids and rare butterflies, in just a small area. Over 50 insects have been recorded on juniper, some very rare who rely heavily on juniper as a food plant, So losing juniper means more than losing a single species. And where juniper grows, other species follow, wildflowers such as wild candytuft, musk orchid and pasqueflower will benefit from habitat management for juniper.
Moralee continues “Juniper is one of our most charismatic native shrubs, steeped in history, myth and folklore and giving gin its name. It’s been present since the ice age but has gradually declined. We’re passionate about doing all we can to help reverse the fortunes of this much beloved shrub and its habitat. We haven’t yet cracked the perfect formula but it is hoped that through continued monitoring with our partners we can learn even more about juniper and how it has responded to these early steps”.
Let’s raise a glass to the return of juniper this Christmas!
(Juniper is a species targeted by the Back from the Brink Limestone's Living Legacies project).
For more information, please contact: Katie Cameron, Senior Press Officer:
07770 998460 or email Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org
 Ward, L.K. and Shellswell, C.H. (2017) Looking after Juniper: Ecology, Conservation and Folklore. Plantlife, Salisbury