Juniper, a rare conifer which is used to flavour gin, is making a comeback in southern England with the help of a conservation rescue mission, Plantlife has said.
The “gin plant”, whose berries give the alcoholic drink its distinctive fragrance, has been in decline in the last few decades and experts have warned it could go extinct across much of lowland England within 50 years.
However, a project started by nature charity Plantlife 10 years ago to create nursery sites across southern England where wild juniper seeds could germinate and young plants thrive is now bearing fruit.
Southern counties of England have seen losses in juniper of 60%-70% – largely through seedlings being grazed by livestock and smaller mammals such as rabbits, Plantlife said.
The species, which was one of the first trees to colonise Britain after the last Ice Age, has been completely lost in some counties.
It can be difficult to conserve as it needs sites with several years of very heavy grazing to create open ground for seeds to germinate, but then many years with little or no grazing to allow seedlings to grow to maturity.
To ensure the juniper’s survival in the nursery sites, seeds collected from the wild were thrown onto “scrapes” of bare ground where the top layers of turf and soil had been removed to create the right conditions for the plant.
At some trial sites, wire cages were also installed to protect young bushes from grazing by livestock and rabbits – and one such cage on Salisbury Plain covering just one square metre was found to have 17 young bushes inside.
Surveys carried out this summer in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire have revealed new junipers are thriving at 13 sites across the six counties.
Numerous healthy seedlings have grown into “teenagers”, which are 2ft-3ft high (60cm-90cm), and some are bursting with berries, the survey found.
Efforts to save the juniper can also benefit other wildlife, Plantlife said, with the scrapes providing a home for wildflowers including orchids, kidney vetch, horseshoe vetch, fairy flax, salad burnet, oxeye daisies and cowslips.
More than 50 insects have been recorded on juniper, including rare species such as the juniper shield bug and juniper moth which rely heavily on the plant as a food source.
Plantlife’s botanical expert Dr Trevor Dines said most juniper trees were ageing and in decline, with some more than 200 years old, but the “challenge” of germination meant young plants were not growing to replace them.
He added: “No wonder our English ‘gin plant’ is under threat – the battle really begins at birth; juniper seeds require two winters before they even germinate and seedlings then require very specific conditions to grow.
“If they survive childhood, it takes another 10 years or more before these ‘teenagers’ mature and begin producing those lovely gin-flavoured berries.”
He added: “Juniper is one of our most charismatic species, steeped in history, myth and folklore.
“We’re passionate about doing all we can to help reverse the fortunes of this much beloved species, so it’s really exciting to see so many seedlings growing well.”