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Guest blog – Ragwort: friend or foe? by Paul Sterry

The other day a neighbour knocked on my door and asked if I knew I had ragwort growing in my garden and what I was going to do about it. My replies were ‘yes’ and ‘nothing’ in that order, to which he responded in a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone that it was a ‘notifiable’ weed and that he would have to report me. I have a bit of grounding in the subject as this was not the first time I had faced the question so, as the clenched-teeth polite conversation continued, I told him there was no such thing in English law as a ‘notifiable’ weed and perhaps he meant one of the five plant species classed as ‘injurious’ in the Weeds Act of 1959. The named plants are Spear Thistle Cirsium vulgare, Creeping Thistle Cirsium arvense, Curled Dock Rumex crispus, Broad-leaved dock Rumex obtusifolius and Ragwort Senecio jacobaea. All are great for invertebrates and I am proud to say I have all five in my garden. Anyway, when I asked him to point out the offenders I was able to tell him (rather smugly I admit) that the plants in question were not in any case Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea but Hoary Ragwort Senecio erucifolius (a forgivable mistake) and Smooth Hawk’s-beard Crepis capillaris (less so) neither of which has any whiff of illegality associated with them.

Spot the difference: Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea (left) and Hoary Ragwort Senecio erucifolius (right). Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd The leaves of Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea (left) and Hoary Ragwort Senecio erucifolius (right). Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

I have a botanical and natural history interest in Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea but I can’t claim to be an expert when it comes to the law. So previously I had done my homework and gleaned a lot of authoritative information (and some dismaying evidence of wildly inaccurate scaremongering) from two excellent websites: ‘Ragwort Facts’ http://www.ragwortfacts.com/ and the Buglife pdf ‘Ragwort: Noxious weed or precious wildflower?’  https://www.buglife.org.uk/sites/default/files/Ragwort.pdf  

If you like to check things for yourself I suggest you read The Weeds Act of 1959. It is easily accessible online and as legal documents go it is straightforward https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/7-8/54/contents It names five plants specifically and states that where the Minister (then MAFF) ‘is satisfied that where there are injurious weeds to which this Act applies growing upon any land he may serve upon the occupier of the land a notice in writing requiring him, within the time specified in the notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading.’ Bear in mind that ‘injurious’ does not mean poisonous and rather it relates to plants that might have an economic impact on farming. And it’s all about the potential for ‘spreading’ rather than merely having them on your land. As far as I can see you can grow as much of the five as you like and there’s no legal requirement to remove them unless the Secretary of State asks you to do so.

The other bit of legislation that relates to ragwort is The Control of Ragwort Act 2003 and it is also worth a read. It is brief and to the point and enables a Code of Practice to be laid down. Said code (dated 2004) can be viewed at http://www.defra.gov.uk/publications/files/pb9840-cop-ragwort.pdf and is introduced by Rt Hon Alun Michael MP who signs off by referring to himself as ‘Minister of State for Rural Affairs and Local Environment Quality and Minister for the Horse’. The latter reference strikes me as rather odd, and I can only suppose it is some form of whimsy. Make up your own mind but for me the document is oddly schizophrenic: at one turn it conjures up nightmare visions of dead and dying horses – hundreds of them – dropping like flies through ragwort poisoning; and at the other extreme it extols the virtues and value to wildlife of Senecio jacobaea. I may be wrong but it has all the hallmarks of a document written by committee, but a committee whose polarised members could not agree.

Despite the dystopian world, littered with dead horses, that the Code of Practice depicts it states: ‘The scale and extent of illness and death in animals through ragwort poisoning is difficult to determine, as an autopsy would be required in every case to confirm the exact cause of death. There is no current test available to diagnose accurately whether an animal is suffering from ragwort poisoning, and certainly no test to help determine whether any such poisoning relates to ingestion of conserved or live ragwort.’ So in other words the ‘evidence’ is unfounded.

I have nothing against horses but if you accept the above statement and choose to believe the facts as presented on the websites mentioned above then the risks to horse health are hugely exaggerated, as are the attributed number of deaths. That Common Ragwort contains toxins is not in dispute, but so do any number of other native wildflowers. And in the context of horses and other livestock perhaps living Ragwort is better described as distasteful rather than poisonous – the evidence of my own eyes tells me that horses avoid it and where I live an abundance of the plant is usually a clear indication of over-grazing. For those with concerns about the floral makeup of the English countryside maybe Common Ragwort should not be top of the list. A better contender might be Hemlock Water-dropwort Oenanthe crocata. I have heard this umbellifer described as the most poisonous plant in the UK (although how that was established I don’t know) but near me it thrives in eutrophic ditches (beside which horses trot) enriched by fertiliser run-off from intensively farmed fields. In the grand scheme of things I would suggest that intensive farming and eutrophication are subjects really worth worrying about.

In my garden at least, the caterpillars of Cinnabar Moth Tyria jacobaeae feed exclusively on Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea.

Stepping back from the issue of toxicity and livestock, Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea is a hugely important native wildflower and an integral component in meadows. It is a wonderful source of nectar for insects, and according to Buglife there are 30 invetebrates that are confined to it; this number includes of course the Cinnabar Moth Tyria jacobaeae, caterpillars of which feed on nothing else.

The aposematic colours of both adult and larval stages of the Cinnabar Moth Tyria jacobaeae warn potential predators of their distasteful nature. Quite literally they are what they eat, and accumulate toxins present in their larval foodplant. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd . The flowers of Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea are an important source of nectar for insects, especially hoverflies. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

In some specific circumstances there may be a case for controlling ragwort in the context of its ‘injurious’ status – the potential for spreading leading to an economic impact on adjacent farmland –  and perhaps even regarding livestock. Fine, so long as the perceived ‘need’ for control is based on real evidence and the Secretary of State has had his or her say on the matter. But whatever the rights and wrongs of Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea, it is undeniably the only species of Senecio (or yellow composite come to that) that is specified in The Weeds Act of 1959. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that my neighbour may not be alone when it comes to mistaken identification. I have come across formal complaints about a perceived lack of ‘Ragwort control’ beside motorways and dual carriageways. For a start, unless the adverse consequences of ‘injurious’ spreading can be demonstrated I can’t see there is a legal requirement to ‘control’ it unless a minister deems it necessary. But more significantly the species in question is more likely to be Oxford Ragwort Senecio squalidus than Common Ragwort Senecio jacobaea. I can see no legal basis for the former species to be ‘controlled’ despite the strange claim in the Code of Practice that other species of ragwort ‘may need to be controlled’. Sadder still, many years ago I remember visiting Fair Isle and coming across a team of National Trust for Scotland volunteers ‘pulling ragwort’. Pointless though the exercise would have been even if they had been pulling Senecio jacobaea, their piles of vegetation comprised mainly Marsh Ragwort Senecio aquaticus.

Question: When is ragwort not an ‘injurious’ plant? Answer: When it is Oxford Ragwort Senecio squalidus, or indeed any of the other half dozen or so species of Senecio found in Britain. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

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