A sea of bright yellow flowers in a sun- drenched meadow… what could be more idyllic? Sadly, all that glisters in the English countryside is most definitely not gold.
Ragwort. A few stray stems of this iconic weed growing in a field of grass is enough to draw a stream of expletives from any horse owner or cattle farmer. The daisy-like weed, which flowers from late June into early autumn, is highly toxic and spreads like wildfire. It kills horses so painfully that the RSPCA will prosecute you if your pony is grazing among it. If you rub it on your skin, you risk breaking out in a painful rash.
And yet you may have noticed that more and more of our countryside is turning into a sea of yellow this summer as ragwort grows ever more prolifically in our parks and public places, on our roadsides and common land, unchecked by local authorities. Where I live in Surrey, the village green is carpeted — I ought to say infested — with 30 uninterrupted acres of ragwort and no one in authority is taking any responsibility for its removal.
More amazing still is the existence of a campaign movement of environmental nutcases who are actively defending it as a vital part of our ecosystem: ragwort huggers, if you will. Well, why not? Pests and predators are very much in fashion. We’ve banned the hunting of foxes, with the dubious result that they now let themselves in through our French windows to help themselves to our household pets and the odd sleeping baby in a crib. Not content with protecting the ravening beasts we already have, the naturalist loons have set up pressure groups calling for the reintroduction of wolves and lynxes into our countryside.
On Ockham Common where I walk and ride, the rangers are hard at work encouraging adders by building little adder houses out of corrugated roofing sheets. I nearly stepped on a big fat snake the other day. Hello? Is anybody actually thinking this through? What might be next? Rat preservation, or cockroach emancipation, or more rights for bubonic plague? No, it turns out the up-and-coming craze is to defend weeds. Knotweed, dock leaves, ragwort. Yeah, man, weeds have rights too, you know. Far out.
On the website RagwortFacts you will find all the reasons ragwort should be left alone. Four reasons, to be precise: cinnabar moth, ruby tiger moth, goldenrod pug moth and Sussex emerald moth. Ragwort is a vital habitat — habitats are always vital — for species of moths who have declined by a third in the past 30 years.
You might say fewer moths is all well and good, seeing as you’re killing the darn things by the dozen with sprays to stop them eating your best outfits. But no, moths feed bats and birds. Anything that impacts birds usually generates mass petition signing. And don’t get our great nation started on bats. The British love bats. Anybody would think we were descended from bats the way we rally to their defence.
Well, I’m sorry to be a killjoy, but can we just list the actual scientific facts: ragwort is highly poisonous to livestock, and kills horses by destroying their livers. As the charity World Horse Welfare explains, ‘Liver failure is a horrible way to die. Eventually, they may go blind, have to fight for breath, start to stagger or stand pushing their head against the wall.’
The RSPCA lists ragwort as a ‘common equine poison’, and in a recent case where it prosecuted a man for allowing his horses to graze on the weed, RSPCA inspector Suzi Smith noted that ‘ragwort can result in an extremely painful death’. A campaign by the charity urging horse owners to remove ragwort advised anyone attempting to do this to cover their arms and legs, wear sturdy clothing, gloves and a face mask.
You would have thought the loons would at least listen to the RSPCA, patron saint of pests. Surely if the RSPCA says an organism is beyond redemption, you know it has to be controlled. But no, RagwortFacts insists there is no evidence that horses are being killed by ragwort, and that those equines that drop down dead after eating it have probably been killed by neglectful owners who poisoned them with something else. I am bound to say it again: far out, man.
Not believing in the power of ragwort is a bit like refusing to believe in weather. A single plant can produce 150,000 seeds, making it one of the most prolific weeds known to man, able to propagate itself over a vast area. One stem of it can produce a field full. Watching your land fall prey to ragwort is pretty much like watching The Day of the Triffids, only with less Howard Keel. Every time you think you’ve got it all up, you look round to see another stem which you swear has appeared from nowhere.
Truly, leaving a bit of ragwort alone is like leaving a bit of Islamic fundamentalism alone. That is why every summer, horse owners spend hours in their fields pulling up every last stalk. When I peeled off my gloves this week after doing a stint, my right wrist was covered in angry bumps where some of the petals had touched my skin.
These red sores are an inconvenient truth for those who claim the high toxicity of ragwort is a scare story put about by horse owners and farmers for some unspecified reason, probably to do with our alleged bloodlust in wanting to kill things for fun.
Any suggestion that the public don’t want ragwort controlled is music to local authority ears. Clearing roadsides is bad enough but closing off and spraying large areas of common land is a costly logistical nightmare. In Ripley, where I live, the authorities have largely given up after a fleeting attempt to get to grips with it — literally. A few years ago, the parish council put up posters exhorting local people walking on the green to pull up the 6ft-high ragwort as they went. No suggestion that they should seal themselves in protective jumpsuits, so it was just as well local people ignored this or the entire village might have ended up covered in blotches.
Under section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, there is a requirement for landowners to stop ragwort spreading to adjacent grazing land. So you would have thought it must be an offence for the council to let it spread from its land. However, Surrey County Council said it would clear ragwort only from roadsides, and a spokesman for Ripley Parish Council said: ‘Clearing ragwort is not necessarily a conservation objective as there are no grazing herbivores.’ He means that there are no cattle on the green, ignoring the bordering grazing fields full of stressed-out horse owners in rubber gloves.
But maybe the ragwort huggers are right. We’re just being uptight. We should take a chill pill and set the ragwort free to cover the earth in a toxic yellow haze. Groovy, man.