Weeding out double standards in rural management

One could be forgiven for forgetting that this is the driest year since 1976, as relentless rain showers blight the summer. But the dry spring defined our preparation for harvest. Grain stores were cleaned, machinery serviced and Thermos flasks washed and primed for an anticipated early July start.

The middle of July has come and gone. The wheat is still standing stoic, albeit on the turn. But our preparedness has been invaluable. It has allowed my farm manager Jamie and his sidekick Mark the luxury of time to spend a week pulling ragwort. 2011 may not be remembered as a year of bumper hay yields, but at face value it is a very “good” year for ragwort.

But should we be spending hours weeding field margins which have been contaminated from roadside verges rife with “senecio jacobaea”, or common ragwort? And common it most certainly is.

My newsagent has placed a temporary embargo on Rupert Murdoch’s titles (not unjustified) and thus we found our copy of The Times replaced with the more cosy musings of the Daily Telegraph. The newspaper has recently published several feisty letters about ragwort – some saying it blights the countryside and kills thousands of horses and sheep every year, others that it harbours more biodiversity than almost any other plant.

Our forebears have told us that ragwort is bad. But historically nettles were also regarded as a noxious weed and now we see them as the perfect habitat for many species of butterfly. So what is the current thinking?The Entry Level Stewardship manual makes numerous references to the control of ragwort within its scheme. Many options prescribe spot spraying or topping “for the control of injurious weeds” (ie creeping and spear thistle, curled and broadleaved dock and common ragwort), so it is still defined as an injurious weed as per the Weeds Act 1959. Although not illegal to have on one’s land, the wording in the manual insinuates that ragwort should be discouraged.

My issue is not with ragwort per se, although I have been brought up to regard it more foe than friend. I am frustrated by the contradiction in standards. We, the farmers, are mocked as the park keepers of rural Britain. We are brought up and taught which plants are good for the countryside and which are bad. So why are farmers expected to control ragwort while others in charge of rough grazing, verges and highways are allowed to turn a blind eye and allow it to poison adjacent land?

Last year, Jim Paice suggested that “tackling the problem (of ragwort) can be a practical example of the ‘big society'”. “Working together, we can be part of the solution to control the spread,” he said. “Landowners, conservation and community groups can all help by being on the lookout and to help remove this weed.”

Perhaps this year’s bumper crop of ragwort is a true reflection of the “success” of the big society. How can we expect everyone to roll up their sleeves and pull it up while walking in the countryside, when half of society regard it as an injurious weed and the other a rich habitat? If the Weeds Act is relevant it should be adhered to. If not, it should be repealed.

As farmers we follow strict standards of cross-compliance. While verges and highways are not subject to the same rules, their mismanagement should not be allowed to compromise carefully stewarded farm and grazing land.e_SFlb

Ian Pigott is 41 and farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of organic arable. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.

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