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Our work: saving wild juniper at Compton Down

Wild juniper, a spiky green bush, growing on a grassy hillside at Fontmell and Melbury Downs, Dorset
Wild juniper growing at Fontmell and Melbury Downs, Dorset | © National Trust Images/Clive Whitbourn

Common juniper is one of only three conifers occurring 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 decline for decades and is now also under acute threat from a root disease caused by fungal pathogen Phytophthora austrocedri. Find out how we’re saving the shrub at Compton Down.

Juniper: scarce in the South West

Compton Down, a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is owned and managed by the National Trust.

It’s one of the two last refuges of juniper in Dorset and was believed to be home to the last male juniper plant in the county.

Action needed

Without action to boost the 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 and Plant Health Agency (Defra) and Natural England to protect and regenerate the sites at Compton Down (part of Fontmell and Melbury Downs).

A team effort

Clive says: ‘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 postmistress, 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.

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

A juniper plant protrudes from a black membrane where it has been planted at Compton Down at Fontmell and Melbury Downs, Dorset
A planted juniper at Compton Down at Fontmell and Melbury Downs, Dorset | © National Trust Images/Clive Whitbourn

Reintroducing juniper 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 known for generations, but to also know that they come with a firm bill of health.

‘I've seen the devastation wrought by Phytophthora austrocedri on wild juniper, with whole bushes turning brown and dying. It's a nasty little thing, originally introduced through the nursery trade, so we can be confident our nice clean plants have the best of starts.'

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.'

A man positions a woven wooden barrier against a newly planted woven juniper bush to protect it, at Compton Down at Fontmell and Melbury Downs, Dorset
Maintaining the woven juniper guards at Compton Down at Fontmell and Melbury Downs, Dorset | © National Trust Images/Clive Whitbourn

The Plant Conservation Centre (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 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, and will be a relief for gin drinkers everywhere.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

A flock of sheep is grazing as mist hangs over the hills in winter at Fontmell and Melbury Downs, Dorset.


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Our partners


Plantlife is a British conservation charity working nationally and internationally to save threatened wild flowers, plants and fungi.

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Natural England

Natural England is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England. They help to protect and restore our natural world.

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