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, and, 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 >>