“Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves...”
In an 1832 poem, The Ragwort, John Clare, countryman and perhaps our greatest nature poet, celebrated ragwort as a beautiful wild flower. Clare, ever the triumphalist of what many would call weeds, revels in ragwort’s simple beauty, it’s colours - ‘gold’, ‘browns of all hues’, and ‘shining blossoms’ - which adorn sites that would otherwise be ‘dreary to behold’.
Such a view is an anathema to many modern country folk who believe ragwort to be a dangerously poisonous weed, which must be eradicated. There is even the Ragwort Control Act 2003.
But do the facts justify the fear? Perhaps it’s time for us to adopt a more balanced understanding of this much maligned native wild flower and learn to celebrate its role as a vital habitat and food source for a number of our country’s rarest insects.
Common ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) is seriously poisonous to some grazing animals, so important to our landscape, recreation, our farmers and our economy. Horses can be particularly vulnerable to ragwort poisoning. Generally they avoid the live plant so it only becomes a problem when the plant is dead in hay or if the pasture is overgrazed and there is nothing else left to eat unless they are supplied with alternative food then horses can consume lethal doses of the plant – usually 5-25% of the body weight. For this reason, it is important to keep ragwort under control in fields where animals are grazing and especially where fodder, such as hay, is being cut.
Yet, is there any need to pull up or spray ragwort where it poses no risk to grazing animals? Unbeknown to many, ragwort also supports a wide range of wildlife, playing a vital role in the ever diminishing biodiversity of our country. At a time when biodiversity indicators are showing continued stress on habitats, it is time to revaluate the role of this infamous plant and ensure that we do not proceed with an unnecessary national eradication plan, which could further damage our already fragile biodiversity. It should also be borne in mind that pulling up ragwort without the landowner’s permission is a crime under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Common ragwort is understood to be home and food source to at least 77 insect species in the UK. Over half of these use ragwort as their exclusive food source. There are even 10 rare or threatened species for which ragwort is the exclusive food source. These include the picture winged fly Campiglossa malaris, the Scarce Clouded Knot Horn micro moth (Homocosoma nimbella), and the Sussex Emerald moth (Thalera fimbrialis). The most famous is the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae - pictured above). There are also 14 species of fungi associated with the plant.
These are just a few examples of why we need to update our thinking on common ragwort. We should understand that ragwort, like many plants considered ‘weeds’, has a critical role in supporting our natural biodiversity. Instead the focus should turn to improved grazing management regimes since pasture with a tight sward and little or no bare ground will suppress ragwort emergence.
In addition, the sale of fodder containing common ragwort is illegal, and there would seem to be much that could effectively be done by Trading Standards to ensure that horse feed does not contain high concentrations of ragwort.
The final area of focus should be on improving the welfare of horses through eliminating fly grazing and ensuring horses are not left for long periods in fields with insufficient fodder and prevalent ragwort.
Where horses are well cared for, and feed carefully monitored, there is a negligible risk of ragwort poisoning. As Professor Andy Durham of the Liphook Equine Hospital recently stated “There is no evidence that ragwort toxicity represents a large health hazard in UK horses that are subject to veterinary care”.
Just as Clare fashions us with a richer understanding of the beauty of ragwort, so should we learn to love this plant – not only through seeing its beauty, as Clare did, but also seeing the beauty in the role it plays in the UK’s biodiversity, protecting a myriad of important species.
The Ragwort (1832)
Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold,
Sunburnt and bare-- the meadow bank, the baulk
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields,
Rich with the tints that harvest's plenty yields,
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright & glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
& seems but very shadows in thy sight.
John Clare (1793-1864)