Ragwort – Friend or Foe

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Ragwort information for livestock keepers
Ragwort in flower

Ragwort information for livestock keepers

To many livestock keepers, Common Ragwort is a curse that is invading our countryside’s fields and road verges.  This tall erect plant, grows to a height of 90 cm (3 feet).  It bears clusters of bright yellow, daisy like flowers, from July to late October.

Ragwort’s role in Biodiversity

Not all is doom and gloom, this plant does play a significant role in biodiversity. It provides habitat and food for numerous insects.  As such can be considered to have an important place in the ecosystem.  But only in those areas that are well away from livestock grazing. This is because this plant in any state contains toxic compounds.  If eaten by Horses, Cattle or Sheep can it is believed cause them cumulative and irreversible liver damage.  Ragwort poisoning is rarely able to be identified before an animal’s liver has undergone serious damage. There are no early warning signs and the symptoms only become apparent in the later stages.

Whilst most livestock will not choose to eat ragwort as the smell and taste will put them off.  This cannot be guaranteed.  Despite its bitter taste, if land is poorly managed due to overstocking or sparsity of grazing livestock will eat it.  Although ragwort looses its unpalatable taste when cut and dried as in hay, it still retains its toxicity.

Ragwort information for livestock keepers
Ragwort along a road verge
The Ragwort Plant

The ragwort plant is usually biennial. That is it lives for two years flowering during its second year producing large numbers of seeds.  These are dispersed by the wind.  It is estimated the multiple flowers from a single stalk can produce two hundred thousand seeds.  Some of these can survive in the top layer of soil for 15 years awaiting the opportunity to germinate.  The trigger for it’s germination is light.  When the buried seeds are exposed to sunlight.  By actions such as mole hills, worm casts, or animals feet churning up the ground the seeds surface.   They spring into life and another patch of bare land is occupied, initially in the form of rosettes.

Ragwort rosette
Ragwort rosette

It would seem that Country folk of bygone times had only contempt for Ragwort.  This appears to be evidenced by the local names that it was called.  Such as ‘Staggerwort’, ‘Stinking Willie’ and ‘Mares Fart’.

What our ancestors did know about was the importance of keeping pasture land free of this wretched plant.  Without chemical interaction they had to be skilled at grassland management.  Knowing when to allow livestock into a field, and more importantly exactly when to take them out.  So that a tough grass sward is maintained which acts as a barrier to the scattered seeds finding bare soil.

In today’s world the problems are that pastures are often overgrazed.  By the density of livestock which is left on for too long, or grass mowed too short.  Such actions can result in the sward being weakened.  Poached ground appears, just the opportunity the seed requires.

Ragwort and the Law

Ragwort is mentioned in The Weeds Act 1959. This Act is a piece of legislation that provides for ‘AN ORDER’ to be made.  It is commonly claimed that this legislation forces landowners to control Ragwort.  Which is not the case, there is nothing that says a landowner must eliminate this plant from their land. This rather short act of parliament is about procedure and powers.  It has no bearing on the obligations and requirements placed on landowners. The Weeds Act 1959 has been subsequently amended by the Ragwort Control Act 2003.  This has no effect on the situation.  So it is not against the law to have the plant on your land.  But as a responsible landowner the sensible thing is to try to get rid of it.  Thus to stopping the seed blowing onto and effecting the land of your neighbours.

Removing Ragwort
Ragwort fork
Ragwort Fork
Ragwort remover tool
Removing plant with a ragwort fork

Ragwort plants only die naturally after they have formed and scattered their seed in the autumn.  Mowing will only encourage vigorous regrowth.  This turns the plant into a perennial.  Unless the entire root system is removed it is unlikely to be destroyed.  Any part of the root remaining in the ground will give rise to the development of new plants.  The most satisfactory system to remove the plant is by using a Ragwort Fork. DEFRA advice is that as the plant is toxic.  Suitable precautions should be taken when handling both live and dead plants.  Hands should be protected by wearing sturdy waterproof gardening gloves.  Bare skin on ones arms and legs should also be covered.

Disposal of Ragwort plants

Composting is not to be recommended as the process does not develop sufficient heat.  The seeds will not be killed and there is then a risk of spread of ragwort from the composted material.  Simply remove the plants away from where animals may access them, leave to wilt and dry and then burn.

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