Sandy’s Garden ... Ragwort

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“Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is an erect plant usually 30-90cm high, but may exceed 100cm.

“The stems are tough and often tinged red near the base, but brighter green and branched above the middle. A basal rosette of leaves usually dies before flowering but the stem leaves persist.

‘‘They are deeply dissected, with irregular, jagged-edged lobes. All the leaves are dark green and rather tough and may be sparsely hairy on the lower side.

‘‘The inflorescence is a conspicuous, large, flat-topped head of densely packed yellow flowers with ray florets and disc florets, all of which are bright yellow.

‘‘The seeds are borne singly and have a downy appendage making them readily dispersible. Once in the soil seeds can lie dormant for several years before germinating.”

This description of common ragwort is taken from the Scottish Government’s unambiguously-entitled publication ‘Guidance on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort’, which was updated in December 2009 and which, to judge from the local countryside, needs to be more widely publicised.

Ragwort is a native species of the British Isles and is a specified weed under the Weeds Act 1959 by virtue of the fact that it is highly toxic to a range of animals including horses and cattle.

Any animal which consumes a large quantity of ragwort in a short space of time will die in a matter of days and, though farm animals will not eat live ragwort because of its bitter taste, horses and cattle fed on hay or silage during the winter will happily munch any ragwort in this winter feed.

The risk to people is very low, though anyone handling ragwort before eating with unwashed hands may feel slightly unwell.

It might seem that ragwort is a prime candidate for eradication by some government programme or directive. But, as a native plant, ragwort is very important for wildlife in this country, supporting many species from caterpillars to a range of fungi.

However, ragwort is spreading rapidly despite a legal requirement on the occupiers of land to keep the plant under control.

It is, perhaps, self-evident that the best method of controlling the spread of ragwort is to prevent it from becoming established in your land in the first place; but this is easier said than done, for ragwort is a very adaptable species, growing happily in a wide variety of environments and being very easily spread.

It is not a problem in cultivated gardens or in any managed grasslands such as parks, sports grounds, tended grazing areas or areas of maintained landscape.

But it is a problem in so-called amenity areas like road verges, railway land and woodland; and any activities which cause disturbance to the soil and the loss of ground cover may increase the risk of ragwort becoming established.

The Scottish Government has instructed the occupiers of all land, including uncultivated land, derelict areas and waste ground, to be vigilant for the presence of ragwort; and landowners or land occupiers who fail to control any infestations of ragwort can be issued with a notice under the Weeds Act 1959 requiring them to take action to prevent the spread of the plant.

But, like so many government directives, detection of offenders and enforcement of the remedial action is, at best, haphazard and, at worst, non-existent.

And, in answer to the obvious question, “Why has the ragwort problem increased in recent years?” the reason seems to be the ease with which the seeds are spread.

Ever-increasing human mobility, with more car-owners, more walkers, more climbers and more adventurers is spreading the seed ever-more widely, including into hitherto unaffected areas of the country.

Walk through an affected field, drive the car 200 miles and walk through another rural area and who knows if you have spread the seed. That’s a sobering thought.