THEY’RE the toast of Scotland – spirits with a national presence and a global appeal.

But now the country’s big-money gin and whisky industries are at threat from plant diseases which can destroy the crops they’re made from, scientists say.

Gin is said to be particularly at risk due to an invasive pathogen brought in through the plant trade that can kill juniper trees by infecting their roots.

Thought to have entered the environment through “well-intentioned” planting schemes, the Phytophthora austrocedri pathogen lives in the soil and is particularly problematic on wet sites.

The berries are essential to the gin trade, which uses them to create the spirit’s distinctive taste.

With around 100 different distilleries, Scotland makes 70% of all gin produced in the UK – something worth £3.2 billion to the British economy every year.

While some junipers are resistant to the pathogen, others are not and experts are working on conservation measures.

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Walkers and cyclists are now asked to clean boot soles and tyres when entering and leaving woods and marshes to help stop the spread to new sites.

Meanwhile, there is concern over the impact of diseases such as Ramularia, which can slash barley yields and could hit the £5.5bn-a-year whisky sector.

The call comes during Plant Health Week and Professor Fiona Burnett, of the specialist Plant Health Centre at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), said: “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.”

Professor Sarah Gurr of Exeter University commented: “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% 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.”