Caithness Juniper Restoration Project

In Caithness, not only do we have the most northerly populations of juniper in mainland Scotland, but we also have the most northerly gin distillery, Rock Rose Distillery in Dunnet.

Juniper is a compact mat-forming evergreen conifer with dense, prickly, grey-green, awl-shaped leaves. In Caithness, juniper forms populations on Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the Scottish mainland.

Here exposure to extreme weather and a high latitude produces an almost tundra like landscape of low growing shrubs including dwarf willow, bearberry, stunted heather’s, and juniper. The juniper sub-species on Dunnet Head is mostly Juniperus nana which grows close to the ground keeping its head out of the gales.

In 2007 the Caithness Field Club were sponsored by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to survey the headland for juniper. They discovered hot spots of high density, where plants appeared to be healthy, as well as areas where the habitat appeared to be suitable for juniper, but where only isolated shrubs were found.

It is thought that fire damage may have resulted in the destruction of juniper at these locations as there is a history of uncontrolled muirburn on the headland. The last fire happened in 2008 and burnt a large section of the western side of Dunnet Head.

The Caithness Biodiversity Group had been considering the idea of a juniper project, so it was a well timed conversation with Claire and Martin Murray from the newly established distillery that led to the setting up of a joint initiative, with Rock Rose Gin providing funding for the initial pilot project and Highland Council Discretionary Fund assisting with the costs of cold frames, pots and compost.

So far we have;

  • Resurveyed some of the hot spots and new areas not covered by the Field Club in 2007.
  • Taken juniper cuttings, ourselves and sent some off to experienced nurseries for care thereby developing the horticultural skills of the project volunteers in propagating juniper cuttings and caring for them locally.
  • Begun to establish a juniper nursery at Rock Rose Distillery, where its role both as a native Caithness shrub and the history of juniper use in illicit distilling can be interpreted.
  • Raised awareness of Caithness juniper populations and the detrimental effect of wildfires on fragile vegetation, focusing initially on Dunnet Head. This will be continued through guided walks, press releases, and social media.

We see this as a long term project. Our hope is to plant out successful cuttings into locations where fire has damaged former populations. We also hope that the skills developed can be applied to enhance other areas of isolated and struggling juniper populations in Caithness and Sutherland.