A conservation project to save the juniper bush in lowland England appears to be working, according to the charity Plantlife.
Three hundred juniper seedlings are now growing at nine sites, where existing juniper bushes were old and incapable of reproducing.
The project has involved trialling new techniques on the chalk and limestone of lowland southern England.
The loss of juniper would have represented more than the loss of a single species: it supports more than 40 species of insect and fungus that cannot survive without it
Tim Wilkins, Plantlife
The aromatic berries are used in the production of gin.
Tim Wilkins, Plantlife’s Species Recovery Coordinator who led the project, said: "Plantlife’s Great Juniper Hunt survey in 2010-11 showed that many populations of juniper were shrinking as bushes died of old age, with nearly a quarter of sites supporting just one bush.
"85% of sites surveyed contained no seedlings up to five years old.
"To get the next generation of juniper, you need good numbers of both male and female juniper bushes at each site, plenty of viable seed and the right conditions for germination and growth of seedlings, free of hungry rabbits and grazing stock.'
"The loss of juniper would have represented more than the loss of a single species: it supports more than 40 species of insect and fungus that cannot survive without it."
Period of decline
Juniper is an important part of our ancient landscape and culture and, according to Plantlife, one of the first trees to colonise Britain after the last Ice Age.
Juniper populations have fluctuated but on the whole declined over a long period, with many southern English counties having lost 60-70% of their populations.
Without action, juniper was facing extinction here in the next 50 years, so in early 2010,
"There is no single cause for juniper decline" added Mr Wilkins, "but loss of seedling habitat through under-grazing and the development of dense grassland and scrub, seems to be the most widespread."
The word ‘gin’ derives from either genièvre or jenever - the French and Dutch words for ‘juniper’.
The berries are also used in cooking, particularly to flavour game dishes. In the 19th century, when a law was introduced outlawing unlicensed whisky stills, juniper was harvested for fuel for this illicit trade as it burns with an almost invisible smoke.
Juniper has also long been used for its medicinal qualities.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, hospitals experimented with spraying vapourised oils into the atmosphere of flu wards in an attempt to prevent air-borne infection spreading and juniper was one of those found to be particularly effective.
Breaking new ground for juniper
The techniques used throughout the project are detailed in a new Plantlife guide - Breaking new ground for juniper – a lowland management handbook.
The Lowland England Juniper Project was funded by Natural England, Biffaward and Buckinghamshire County Council, with additional funding from the HDH Wills Charitable Trust.