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UK gin supply 'under threat' from deadly plant disease

The Independent logo The Independent 24/09/2020 Sarah Young
a glass cup on a table © Provided by The Independent

An invasive plant disease is posing a threat to the UK's gin industry meaning we could soon be facing a national shortage.

According to experts at the Plant Health Centre – an organisation that raises awareness of plant health issues –  juniper, the key botanical used to give gin its distinctive flavour, is under attack from a pathogen that causes withering and often death of the shrub.

Experts say the disease, called phytophthora austrocedri, has been found to be spreading through juniper trees in Scotland, which produces 70 per cent of the spirit across the four nations.

Professor Fiona Burnett, from Scotland's Rural College, has also warned that other spirits, such as whisky, could also be affected by disease.

“Plant Health Week is a chance to flag that everyone can play their part in protecting Scotland's plant health assets,” Professor Burnett said.

”Whisky is equally at risk to gin through barley diseases which slash crop yields.

“But the principles of best plant health practice such as sourcing seed and plants with care and avoiding moving problems inadvertently in soil apply equally to field crops and the plants in our moorlands, gardens, forests and fields.”

Plant Health Centre states that the pathogen has entered Britain through the plant trade and may have got into juniper woodlands through well-intentioned planting schemes.

The disease lives in the soil and spreads in both soil and water, infecting juniper roots and killing large numbers of trees, especially on wet sites.

Although gin – an industry worth £3.2 billion to the UK economy – can be produced from spirits derived from a wider choice of grains or even potatoes, it relies on juniper berries for its traditional and distinctive flavour.

In a blog post for Plant Health Week, Professor Burnett, along with Sarah Green from Forest Research and Professor Sarah Gurr from the University of Exeter, highlighted the threats faced by the Scotch whisky industry from similar diseases, such as Ramularia, which can slash barley yields.

Researchers in Scotland have found some junipers are resistant to the disease and it is hoped natural regeneration will allow juniper populations to recover over time.

Science is also helping to identify sites that are less vulnerable to the pathogen and which can be targeted for conservation and protection.

Members of the public can also take simple steps to help protect the gin industry by cleaning soil from boots, bike tyres and dog paws before and after visiting forests, moors and woodlands to prevent disease spreading to new sites.

This is not the first time that juniper trees have come under attack.

In 2015, a study from plant conservation charity Plantlife said the juniper plant was in a “critical state” in Scotland, thanks to the spread of the deadly fungal disease.

The ‘State of Scotland’s Juniper in 2015’ report found 79 per cent of juniper recorded in 2014 was either mature, old or dead and 63 per cent of bushes were found to have brown patches – a sign of poor health or disease.

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