3 August 2001

root out DEAdly RAGWORT

Ragwort is one of the most

common poisonous plants in

this country, it can be

fatal to both horses and

cattle and it is on the

increase. Catherine Hale

explains what to look for

and how to root it out

SUMMERTIME – and the countryside is golden with ragwort.

Classed under the 1959 Weeds Act as an injurious weed, the government has the power to serve clearance notices to landowners who allow it to thrive but the prevalence of this plant would indicate that not everyone is aware of this pretty yellow flowers deadly power.

Ragwort, a tall plant, with bright yellow flowers and ragged green leaves, can be seen growing almost anywhere at this time of the year.

Verges, wasteland, gardens and fields are all possible homes for the poisonous plant, also known as staggerweed. The plant has a tremendous capability to spread – each plant can produce up to 150,000 seeds, seeds that can be carried for miles on the wind and can lay dormant for up to 20 years.

It is deadly to both horses and cattle, and can even be dangerous to humans!

While it is a common belief that horses will not eat ragwort, due to its bitter taste, the plant becomes more palatable when it has died and it is now so common, it is no longer safe to assume that hay and haylage will be free of ragwort.

The British Horse Society has an ongoing campaign to raise peoples awareness of ragwort, holding events throughout the country urging people to "root out ragwort".

With ragwort-related illness on the increase, Dr Derek Knottenbelt from the University of Liverpools Large Animal Hospital knows at first hand how dangerous the plant is. In a recent interview he pointed out that this plant is indeed dangerous to horses and cattle. He is also able to prove that the plant is dangerous to humans. "I know this, as I have pulled ragwort up without wearing gloves, and then tested my own blood. I found that my blood results showed some signs of liver damage after handling the plant."

It is very hard to spot early signs that horses have consumed ragwort, he says. The symptoms of ragwort poisoning do not appear until more than 75% of the liver has been damaged, and by this time it is too late to be treated. Dr Knottenbelt and his team at Liverpool are currently trying to develop a test that will be able to detect at an early stage when ragwort is causing liver damage.

The only way to protect livestock from ragwort poisoning is to ensure that that all paddocks and fields are free of the plant, and more importantly, that all hay or haylage is ragwort-free. Follow our guidelines, to ensure that your fields are safe.

How to get rid of it…

1. One of the best ways to rid your fields of ragwort is to simply pull the plant up by the roots. REMEMBER TO WEAR GLOVES, AS IT IS HARMFUL TO YOU TOO! Regularly inspecting fields will enable you to pull up the small, rosette plants, as well as the tall, mature plants. Remember also to pull up any plants growing on odd pieces of ground around the yard and at the side of fields, as these plants can spread their seeds and re-infect the fields.

2. Burn all plants removed to prevent the seeds from spreading.

3. Spraying with herbicide can control the plant, but may have to be repeated the next year, as ragwort is biennial. Preparations such as Barrier – &#42 can be used effectively on young plants, although more mature plants may still have to be removed.

4. Always check the source of hay and haylage, to ensure that it has been grown in a ragwort-free field.