As you drive through the countryside or stroll through our parks and gardens in town, you may have noticed an increasing proliferation of a tall plant with small yellow flowers. Pretty it might be, but you are looking at one of our most dangerous botanical 'thugs'.
Ragwort is one of five injurious weeds specified in the Weeds Act 1959. If eaten, ragwort causes long-term cumulative liver damage in livestock and other animals and can have potentially fatal consequences. At least 90% of complaints received by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs under the Weeds Act concern ragwort. The effects of ragwort poisoning are most usually observed in horses and ponies, since most agricultural livestock with the possible exception of dairy cattle are normally slaughtered before the cumulative effects become noticeable.
Provisional estimates on the number of horses that die annually from ragwort poisoning put the figure at 500, but new research by the British Horse Society in co-operation with the British Equestrian Veterinary Association suggests that the figure may be much higher, possibly up to 6,500 deaths. The threat to horses and ponies comes not just from eating ragwort growing in fields and paddocks, but also from eating dried forage contaminated with ragwort.
The Weeds Act itself empowers the Secretary of State to take action to prevent the spread of common ragwort and four other injurious weeds covered by the Act (creeping or field thistle, spear thistle, curled dock and broadleaf dock). The Act gives the Secretary of State power to serve a notice on an occupier of land on which one of the five weeds is growing, requiring the occupier to take action to prevent the weeds from spreading. They are liable to a fine if failing to do so. So serious is the situation with ragwort that an MP has submitted a private Members Bill, the Ragwort Control Bill, to strengthen the Secretary of State's powers in dealing with this threat. It has every chance of reaching the statute book, already having had its third reading in the House of Commons. The Agricultural Development Advisory Service of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is already drawing up a code of practice on the control and spread of ragwort. If you want to read it, you can access it via DEFRA's website.
So what can you do about it? Well, firstly don't assume that ragwort is a plant of the countryside. Your writer carefully cultivated a beautiful yellow plant in his own garden for over 3 months before the penny dropped and he realised that it was ragwort! If you see any in your garden or a friend's garden, then pull it up by the roots. Merely cutting it down or leaving the roots intact is insufficient since it will propagate from them. Even when you've pulled it out by the roots, do not put it on your compost heap because the seeds may escape and establish elsewhere. In fact some would argue that the only way to deal with ragwort is to pull it up and burn it!
There is however one ecologically friendly way of dealing with it. Like all things in our world, it has a reason for being. Its reason is the cinnabar moth whose caterpillars (which are orange and black striped) feed off it. If you find ragwort with the caterpillars established on it then leave it alone because they will effectively eat the plant (although not the roots of course!) Alternatively (and some local authorities do this) collect the caterpillars, pull up the ragwort and transfer the caterpillars to ragwort in an area where it is less likely to be injurious to horses and other animals. The caterpillars will then happily eat that ragwort and control its spread in that way.