Saving the common juniper at Compton Down, Fontmell and Melbury Downs

Common juniper is one of only three conifers that occur naturally in the UK. It’s also a characteristic shrub of uplands, especially in limestone areas, and is particularly valued for its berries used to flavour gin. However, wild juniper has been in steady decline for decades and is now also under acute threat from a root disease caused by the fungal pathogen phytophthora austrocedri.

Scarce in the South West

Compton Down, a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, owned and managed by the National Trust, is one of the two last refuges of juniper in Dorset and was believed to be the home to the last male juniper plant in the county.

Action needed

Without action to boost numbers of plants, the species is likely to disappear from this and other sites. To help the junipers along, Area Ranger for North Dorset Clive Whitbourn has been working with partners including Plantlife, Animal Plant and Health (Defra) and Natural England to protect and regenerate the sites at Compton Down (part of Fontmell and Melbury Downs).

A team effort

‘Back in August 2010, after discussing the project with the charity Plantlife, I took some cuttings from the last male plant, packaged them up carefully following the very precise instructions and, with a funny look and inquisitive comment from the local post mistress I sent them down to Devon. There, Nursery Manager Chris Trimmer took care of the cuttings and raised them at our state-of-the-art Plant Conservation Centre (PCC). This was part of a joint project with Plantlife and their juniper project,’ explains Clive.

‘Because of the restrictions on planting out wild juniper, the project has been delayed until recently when I was able to gain permissions from the Animal Plant Health Authority (APHA of Defra) and Natural England respectively.’

Reintroducing to the wild

Another 150 Juniper cuttings were also taken from a nearby location in Wiltshire and sent to the PCC for propagation by Plantlife and it’s this partnership which has enabled the genetic mix to take place with 20 plants (male and female) grown to go back out into the wild.

Dr Trevor Dines, Botanical Specialist at Plantlife said 'It's fantastic not just to see these junipers returning to Dorset, where they've been know for generations, but to also know that they come with a firm bill of health. I've seen the devestation wrought by phytophthora austrocedri on wild juniper, with whole bushes turning brown and dying. It's a nasty little thing, originally introducted through the nursery trade, so we can be confident our nice clean plants have the best of starts'.

The first plantings took place on 29 January with our newly-formed North Dorset Volunteer Ranger group (fancy joining the team? Here's the Volunteer Ranger role profile) just in time for the last male juniper in Dorset to enjoy St Valentine’s Day. The final five junipers were planted on 26 February. For the volunteers this may be a once in a lifetime experience as reintroductions of wild plants into Special Areas of Conservation are a rare last resort.

Enhancing biodiversity

Simon Curson, one of Natural England's Lead Ecologists for the Dorset and Hampshire area said 'This is a brilliant example of how the National Trust is working to enhance the biodiversity of Dorset. Some invertebrates, such as juniper carpet moth and juniper pug moth, will only use juniper to live on. So, as well as adding to the diversity of plant species at Compton Down, it is hoped that increasing the population of junipers there will give a boost to the overall biodiversity of the site. It is wonderful to see work like this taking place and Natural England are thrilled at the prospect of juniper stands becoming established at Compton Down once more,'

The PCC

The PCC is where rare and valuable plants from National Trust sites all over the country are conserved through propagation and distribution. Skilled propagation and meticulous standards of biosecurity and hygiene have helped ensure that the young junipers have remained disease-free and they are now ready to be planted back into the wild over the winter. This will help ensure that juniper remains a feature of this landscape – relief for gin drinkers everywhere.