We catch up with our in-house forager James about the plight of Islay Juniper, and the conservation efforts that he has been leading on top of his “day job” of gathering the botanicals used in making our gin.
What are the causes of juniper depletion on Islay?
James [JD]: Juniper comes with its own issues, it is very slow growing, requires male and female plants to fruit (most can self-fertilise), the fruit takes two or three years to ripen – during which time everything loves to eat it, and even then the rates of germination can be very poor.
The biggest issues on Islay are with grazing. As a slow growing and low lying bush (all the juniper on Islay is prostrate, it hugs the ground), it is very susceptible to being eaten by sheep, deer, goats, rabbits, even voles!
It’s pretty fussy about its growing condition, too exposed and it is likely to get eaten, too little grazing and it is likely to get overgrown and shaded out by faster growing plants. That’s why it hangs off cliffs, and gets itself into fairly extreme positions, like in the picture above from Islay’s West coast.
Why is it important in Islay’s ecosystem?
JD: Juniper is one of only three native conifers in Scotland (Scot’s pine and yew are the others). It was one of the earliest trees to colonise after the last ice age so it had time to evolve lots of relationships with other species – it is a keystone species for biodiversity – meaning that many other species rely on it for food or habitat.
Although there’s been no sign of it on Islay yet, there are serious issues with disease spreading through the UK’s juniper populations, many populations in the north of England have been decimated. It’s under serious threat nationally so any disease free reserves (like Islay), may be very important to its survival.
What can we do about it?
JD: There is work going on across the UK to try and propagate juniper in an effort to expand the existing populations, particularly through the charity Plantlife, and they’ve had some great success in Southern England.
In our small way we are doing what we can with an ongoing program taking cuttings each winter to grow on and replant into the wild. Much of the juniper on Islay is so old that it isn’t fruiting much, so cuttings are our best option.
In the longer term, through The Botanist Foundation, we are partially funding a PhD study into the genetics of juniper and hoping to identify any disease resistance that may exist. Our chances of seeing a major revival of it in Islay are very slim – unless land use radically changes – but ultimately this sort of work may be our best hope to save the species.
More about our sustainability agenda here >
Downloadable detail in Plantlife’s Juniper Dossier here >
Blog about roaming round Islay for James’ Conservation work with Juniper >
Watch James in his regular work here:
The Botanist Gin: Foraged from The Botanist Gin on Vimeo.