Mystery of Britain's vanishing junipers

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The Independent Online

The revelation will send horrified shivers through the Home Counties and have conservationists, traditionalists and alcoholics banding together in solidarity. The great British gin and tonic is under threat.

In fairness, there is little need to rush to a nearby hostelry in search of a last gulp of mother's ruin. But there has been a mysterious decline in the juniper tree that bears the berries which give gin its distinctive flavour.

One of just three native conifers, the hardy Juniperus communis is not choosy about what soil or location it grows in, and the trees can last hundreds of years. But, in a phenomenon which has left forestry experts baffled, the population is becoming increasingly geriatric and, in some spots, declining to near-extinction.

One such area is the south-east side of the North York moors where just five bushes, aged up to 400 years old, are all that remains of a once widespread forestation.

"Two are female, three are male but they are not near to each other and they are geriatric so not too good at producing pollen and flowers," Brian Walker, a Forestry Commission biodiversity officer, said.

A recent Northumbrian study showed that in 20 years the number of junipers had declined by 30 per cent. Even in parts of the country where the shrub-like trees or bushes are common, Mr Walker said, very few are young plants.

"This is not a 20th-century problem, it goes back to the 1800s," he added. "Not only is the population declining but you never find seedlings. We don't know why; it may be a change in agricultural practices."

Across the country, biodiversity action projects have been set up to ensure the ultimate survival of the species. Yesterday the Forestry Commission announced that it had begun working in conjunction with a local nursery to produce saplings for replanting in areas where the tree historically grew on the south-east side of the North York moors. But one retired businessman, the appropriately named Peter Woods, has been collecting seeds from the few trees on the north-west side for cultivation. The saplings are then replanted in the area with the help of schoolchildren, to enhance their knowledge of nature.

"Juniper has no commercial value except for the flavour its berries give to gin," he said. "But as one of just three conifers native to England, it provides a natural link to the planted forests and broadens wildlife habitats.

"This project with Helmsley Walled Garden is the only viable option to maintaining juniper in one of its traditional locations. And there'll be no shortage of people wanting to see it succeed. Juniper has a truly amazing following with the public."

The project organisers are hoping to grow up to 600 saplings to replant in the moors, and one in 10 plants will be sold to help fund the project.

Paul Radcliffe, the Helmsley head gardener, said: "The cuttings are doing well on their heated trays and laying down roots. The failure rate has been low but it's still a tricky job, and it requires a lot of patience."

Thirteen years ago, the Forestry Commission planted a small number of juniper cultivated from cuttings to discover why the species had fared so badly. Most of these grew remarkably well, further deepening the mystery about why the wild ones are faring so badly.

Richard Darn, a Forestry Commission spokesman, added: "It's a decline which has baffled experts, making the juniper the rarest tree in 56,000 acres of woods managed locally. Talk to any conservationists and they will say there has been a dramatic decline in juniper across the nation.

"People think they are such a lovely tree and there is the gin connection but they don't realise it is vanishing beneath them and nobody quite knows why."

Yesterday a spokeswoman for Gordon's gin seemed unperturbed by the news. She said: "Juniper berries for Gordon's are selected from several destinations around the world, but not within Great Britain."

HOW GIN IS DISTILLED

Gin is made by adding the flavour of various herbs and spices to a neutral spirit. The first step is to distill the white spirit or, in the case of most gin producers, purchase it from a specialist plant.

The second step is made by redistilling the spirit with the botanicals, either with these ingredients in the still, or by passing the vapour through the agents during distillation.

Most dry gin is produced in column stills. Finally, pure water is added to bring the strength down to the European legal requirement, a minimum of 37.5 per cent alcohol.

Gin derives its characteristic flavour from juniper berries. In addition, other herbs and spices may be used, including angelica root, anise, coriander, caraway seeds, lime, lemon and orange peel, liquorice, calmus, cardamom, cassia bark, orris root, and bitter almonds. The character and quality of the gin will depend on the recipe used.

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