An invasive plant disease is posing a threat to one of the UK’s favourite tipples, experts at Scotland's Plant Health Centre have warned.

The Phytophthora austrocedri pathogen is spreading through juniper trees in Scotland, which produces 70 per cent the UK’s gin.

The warning comes from experts at the Plant Health Centre, including Professor Fiona Burnett from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

In a blog for Plant Health Week (2–27 September), Prof Burnett, along with Sarah Green from Forest Research and Prof Sarah Gurr from the University of Exeter, also highlights the threats faced by the Scotch whisky industry from diseases such as Ramularia, which can slash barley yields.

The Phytophthora austrocedri pathogen has entered Britain through the plant trade and may have got into juniper woodlands through well-intentioned planting schemes, the blog says.

It lives in the soil and spreads in both soil and water, infecting juniper roots and killing large numbers of juniper 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.

However, researchers in Scotland have found that some junipers are resistant to P. austrocedri and it is hoped that natural regeneration will allow juniper populations to recover over time. Science is also helping to identify juniper sites that are less vulnerable to the pathogen and which can be targeted for conservation and protection.

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

Prof Gurr said: “At a time of heightened awareness of the impact of epidemics on human health, we must also remember that disease has a huge impact upon plant health.

“Food security and crop protection rely heavily on breeding for disease resistance and upon the widespread spraying of fungicides and insecticides.

“However, despite such disease protection strategies, we still lose around 20 per cent of our crops to disease.

“We hope Plant Health Week will raise awareness that disease devastates not only human life but also crops and the very calories we need to sustain us.”

Scotland’s Plant Health Centre was launched in 2018 and is funded by the Scottish Government through its Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division.

It brings the plant sectors for forestry, horticulture, environment and agriculture together to co-ordinate plant health knowledge, skills, needs and activities across Scotland.

The Centre Directorate is headed up by the James Hutton Institute, and has sector leads from Scotland’s Rural College (agriculture), Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (horticulture and environment) and Forest Research (forestry).

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