Guide to rules on ragwort control for livestock farmers

The weed common ragwort can pose a significant threat to grazing livestock and can be an offence when left uncontrolled. Here are the latest ragwort rules and regulations.

What is common ragwort?

Common ragwort is a weed and is toxic to livestock. It is usually 30-90cm high, with tough stems, which are often tinged red near the base, but brighter green and branched above the middle.

All the leaves are dark green and rather tough and may be sparsely hairy on the lower side. Yellow densely packed flowers distinguish the plant.

Common ragwort is a danger to all stock, but particularly horses, cattle, free-range pigs and chickens.

See also: Grassland weed control academy

Why is ragwort a problem?

Ragwort contains alkaloids which cause cirrhosis of the liver and there is no known antidote. Although largely unpalatable, animals may eat ragwort when the plant is green and when other grazing is sparse.

It is palatable when dead or dying because of the release of sugars, so contamination of hay or silage is very dangerous.

Ragwort is a toxic plant and suitable precautions must be taken when handling live and dead plants. Hands must be protected and arms and legs should also be covered.

What are the rules regarding ragwort?

Ragwort is classed as an injurious weed under the Weeds Act 1959.

It is not an offence to have ragwort growing on your land and can have conservation benefits. However, it must not be allowed to spread to agricultural land, particularly grazing areas or land which is used to produce conserved forage.

If ragwort is found to be growing on any land, Defra can serve a notice requiring the occupier to take action to prevent the spread of those weeds. An unreasonable failure to comply with a notice is an offence.

What should I do if I find ragwort on my land?

When your land is affected by ragwort you should make an assessment to determine whether action should be taken to prevent the spread of ragwort to neighbouring land by establishing the risk posed to grazing animals or forage production.

Defra provides the following three risk categories as guidelines for assessing the risk.

High risk:

  • Ragwort is present and flowering/seeding within 50m of land used for grazing

by horses and other animals or land used for feed/forage production. Where a high risk is identified take immediate action to control the spread of ragwort using an appropriate control technique.

Medium risk:

  • Ragwort is present within 50m to 100m of land used for grazing by horses and other animals or land used for feed/forage production. In this case establish a control policy to ensure that where a change from a medium to a high risk of spread can be anticipated, it is identified and dealt with in a timely and effective manner using appropriate control techniques.

Low risk:

  • Ragwort or the land on which it is present is more than 100m from land used for grazing by horses and other animals or land used for feed/forage production. In this case no immediate action is required.

How do you control ragwort?

The most effective way to prevent the spread of ragwort is to prevent establishment rather than last minute control. If left unchecked the problem is likely to become worse, as growth acts as a reservoir for seeds and spread.

In managed grasslands, good agricultural management will minimise the chance of common ragwort establishing itself.

However, any activities which cause disturbance to the soil and the loss of ground cover may increase the risk of ragwort becoming established.

See the PDF of ragwort control methods

How do you dispose of ragwort?

Cut and pulled flowering ragwort plants may still set seed and all parts of the ragwort plant remain toxic when treated or wilted.

Options for disposal of include, sealing in plastic bags for incineration or landfill, or by disposing in an environmentally acceptable way, whereby it will not be a risk to grazing animals and the seed will not be spread.

When plants are incinerated this must be undertaken in accordance with the Code of practice for the protection of air and local byelaws.

What should I do if ragwort is found on someone else’s land?

Where ragwort is found the first step is to identify the land owner manager and contact them directly to resolve the issue.

If this approach doesn’t work, complaints can be made to Natural England and enforcement notices can be issued requiring landowners to take action to prevent the spread of these weeds.

Natural England will investigate complaints where there is a risk that injurious weeds might spread to neighbouring land. It gives priority to complaints where there is a risk of spread to land used for grazing horses or livestock, land used for forage production and other agricultural activities.

Information in this article is from NFU’s briefing on ragwort and Defra’s Code of practice on how to prevent the spread of ragwort. Rules may vary in Scotland and Wales.