Islay Juniper


For more than a decade now, we’ve been concerned with the conservation of our local variety of juniper. Juniperus communis ssp.nana, once abundant, is now rare on Islay.  This local variant is a low, prostrate variety that clings low to the ground mostly in exposed coastal areas, cliffs and rocky ledges.  Only a symbolic amount is added to The Botanist.

Juniper is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species and there are concerted efforts underway, managed by The Forestry Commission and the national wild plant conservation charity Plantlife, to conserve and rejuvenate existing populations throughout Scotland.  The professional foragers who gather the Islay botanicals used in The Botanist Islay dry gin are actively involved in these repopulation programmes.

The reasons for the decline in wild juniper populations on Islay are complex, but are almost certainly due to man’s activities and changing land use patterns.  It is probable that at least part of the blame can be laid at the door of the illicit distillers of ‘uisge beatha’, the forerunner of modern single malt whisky.

In the 18th century, badly thought out taxation policies led to Islay becoming  a major centre of illegal distillation and smuggling, and although the uisge beatha produced on the island was considered to be of superior quality to the legally produced alternative, this was a white spirit consumed young, and it was likely that it was flavoured with locally available herbs such as juniper.  This has led some to argue, with some conviction, that ‘uisge beatha’ was probably closer to what we would recognise as gin than it was to cask-aged single malt whisky.

Juniperus communis ssp.nana

Of more importance to the decline of juniper however was probably its use as a fuel by the illegal distillers

Of more importance to the decline of juniper however was probably its use as a fuel by the illegal distillers, who tended to hide their operations away up in the hills to escape the long arm of the law.  Juniper wood burns with very little smoke and is therefore perfect for evading detection.  It is likely that huge amounts of juniper would have been consumed in this way.

All that changed however with the excise act of 1823 which changed the way whisky was taxed and rendered illicit operations pointless.  Abundant, smoky peat was much more readily available as fuel than juniper.  It is to 1823 that the ‘modern’ distilleries on Islay can be traced, prior to that they were all small farm operations.  They grew rapidly, and provided one of the drivers which saw people abandon their lives of subsistence farming scattered across the landscape and take up waged labour in the villages that grew up around the new distilleries.

Another driver was sheep.  The end of illegal distilling and people moving off the land might have provided an opportunity for juniper to regenerate but landlords across Scotland saw the prospects of higher profits from having the “woolly maggots” on the land than people, and began to actively encourage their tenants to move out and the flocks to move in.  Many families were evicted, sometimes forcibly.  The sheep changed the landscape dramatically, and they are overgrazing the hills to this day, preventing the regeneration of delicate plants such as juniper.  This has in turn resulted in soil degeneration, acidification and erosion.

The situation was made worse by the late 19th century fashion for Scottish shooting estates, which required heather burning to benefit grouse with high populations of voracious red deer. The introduction of feral goats did not help either.
Poor juniper has not had an easy time of it.  To be viable, local populations need at least fifty plants in them – and juniper has separate male and female bushes.

Happily, all is not lost. Something can be done.  Something is being done. National-scope research is underway at a PHD level, supported by The Botanist Foundation.  And James Donaldson, our forager, continues to monitor known healthy populations on the island, propagating, potting on, planting out, revisiting…  It’s a long game, for this slow-growing, threatened and iconic plant; a game in which, with your support, The Botanist is determined to play its part.


Update to how our juniper reintroduction programme is  doing in 2020 James’ Winter Work >>

Introducing The Botanist Foundation >> 

Watch our forager in a conservation conversation about genetic diversity in juniper with PhD student Eleanor IGTV >>


This article from our much missed colleague Carl was first published in 2014; revised January 2021.

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