Juniper planting in the Chilterns
We often associate juniper berries with the production of gin, but juniper is a plant of national ecological importance which has been declining, especially in the Southern half of Britain. National Trust rangers are now working to reverse the decline and to ensure that juniper remains a permanent feature of our countryside.
Juniper is a key ingredient in one of our favourite tipples (gin is flavoured by the berries). But that’s not actually the reason the Chilterns Countryside team is nurturing juniper seedlings in its barns.
Juniper is a plant of national importance which has been declining, especially in the Southern half of Britain. This is mainly due to loss of habitat, through modern farming practices destroying sensitive chalk grassland sites, the application of artificial fertilisers and removal of the grazing pressures of domestic livestock from poor farmland grassland leading to scrub growth and woodland succession.
Juniper is almost a habitat in its own right; it is home to some species which could not survive without it, including certain fungi and insects such as the juniper shield bug and juniper carpet moth. It also supports birds and mammals throughout the winter with its berries.
However, juniper has been declining in the UK and a recent Plantlife report says it could face extinction within the next 50 years.
Juniper grows on sensitive chalk grassland sites which are themselves under threat from a reduction in animal grazing and the resulting scrub growth. Juniper plants tend to germinate close to the ‘mother’ tree, meaning they spread very slowly and each colony has its own genetic code. It grows slowly and is easily overwhelmed by faster growers such as dogwood and hawthorn.
‘Chilterns chalk grassland sites such as Coombe Hill and Pulpit Bank host reserves of old juniper which we actively protect. However it is important to maintain the genetic diversity and succession of our juniper to improve resilience,’ says ranger Nick Marsh. ‘We’ve collected seedlings from the site to protect them from browsing rabbits and deer and will plant them back when they are mature enough.’
The rangers have plotted the locations of juniper colonies throughout the Chilterns and are planting seeds and seedlings this winter to expand the population. Perhaps someone should treat those National Trust rangers to a gin and tonic!