IT has been an integral part of gin production for more than 200 years and was exported from the north-east of Scotland to provide the key ingredient for the early Dutch genever pioneers.

But climate change, deadly disease and changes in grazing of livestock has threatened to wipe out Scotland’s juniper bushes and leave the country’s burgeoning craft gin in short supply.

Now, however, distillers have reacted to the lack of wild juniper supplies by starting to grow their own.

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Martin Murray, of Rock Rose distillery, in Dunnet, Caithness, has formed a partnership with local conservationists to grow juniper on site before it is replanted in the surrounding area.

A devastating fire on Dunnet Head wiped out much of the juniper bushes but it is now being replanted in its natural habitat after being grown from seeds inside the distillery.

Currently, Mr Murray imports berries from Bulgaria and Italy for his craft gins but is hopeful that, within a decade, he will be able to manufacture a 100 per cent Scottish product once the juniper has been replenished enough for a guaranteed local supply.

It is a joint project between the Caithness Biodiversity Group and Highland Council, with research being undertaken to record the location and health of junipers on Dunnet Head.

Project volunteers are being trained in taking juniper cuttings and caring for them at home, with plans to eventually establish a full-scale juniper nursery at the distillery.

Some plants have already been established at the best locations on Dunnet Head from the successful cuttings.

Mr Murray said: “Ever since I started out I wanted to use only Scottish juniper berries but it was not possible because there is a lack of supply.

“I experimented with several types of berries from various countries until I settled on the mix of Italian and Bulgarian berries to make the two varieties we currently sell.

“Even though they have been great in the gin and it is proving very popular, using Scottish berries remains my goal and that is why we have joined the restoration project.

“Burns talked of drinking gin tea and I want to bring back something of that era, but it will take a few years before the plants mature but I’m convinced it will be worth it.”

Juniper has been found in Scotland since the last ice age, with its purple berries used to give gin its aromatic flavour.

But amid dwindling stocks in Britain, much of the juniper used in big company gin production now comes from Eastern Europe.

Last year it was found 79 per cent of juniper was either dead or old, with many plants now more than a century old, which further limits their ability to seed.

Juniper has already been lost from a quarter of areas where it was previously found.

As well as being used in gin production, the plant has a strong cultural value and provides food for wildlife but is now in a critical state, according to a report by conservation charity Plantlife.

A fungal disease – phytophthora austrocedrae – is sweeping through populations and could soon kill off the flora entirely.

Juniper shrubs are either male or female, but it can be difficult for isolated plants to pollinate successfully.

There are fears the fungal disease could be the last straw for the juniper in Scotland if action is not taken.

A multi-agency taskforce has been set up to save the species and restore it so increased gin production can continue while the crop will also remain sustainable in the long term.

A Forestry Commission Scotland spokesman said: “Juniper is in decline, there is no question of this, and we all need to work together to reverse the trend.

“Scotland is a stronghold for the species, with about 80 per cent of UK population of juniper making its home in our country.

“There’s a great amount of effort going on with a range of organisations to help juniper recover.

“Juniper is a key woodland species and we certainly don’t want it to be last orders for this wonderful tree.”