The above photograph was taken by myself earlier this summer at Croft Hill in Leicestershire. It was a sight that quite literally took my breath away and I couldn’t reach for my camera quick enough: I wanted to preserve this moment in case I never witnessed it again. This landscape appeared, in my mind, pre-historic. Swathes of rugged foliage and yellow blooms bursting from ancient rock strewn and shallow-soiled grassland that could just as easily have been a montane wilderness born from the melting of the last ice age as it was a quarried hillside a few miles down the road from where I live.
And it wasn’t just the sight; the sound too was immense. Bird song and the constant hum of insects reverborated around the embankment. Butterflies, bees and hoverflies busily danced around the flowers whilst Swallows dipped and dived around the vegetation taking insects on the wing. In contrast to the zipping and darting movement of creatures making the most of the pollen, nectar and food on offer, the warm sunshine brought a heady calm to the entire scene. It was a beautiful moment and just as the image conjured a sense of the anciet, standing there fully engaged with the ecosystem that we are all part of but too often forget, felt truly ancestral.
But why is this year so special? Well, simply put, it’s because this year Ragwort has been allowed to do it’s thing. Ragwort is probably the most maligned plant in the United Kingdom, often hated with such passion and venom from certain sections of society that to argue in favour of it is futile. For many, many years, Ragwort has been associated with little other than death; viewed as a silent killer of horses and livestock, this ‘weed’ has been vehemently removed from town and country annually for as long as people have believed a mere sniff of this plant can bring a horse to its knees.
Ragwort contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which once digested and broken down by the liver becomes toxic. The plant is ‘poisonous’. But, I want to be clear here: Horses and cattle need to consume somewhere between 5% and 25% of their body weight for effects to be fatal. That’s a lot of ragwort for an animal of this size. Large herbivores are not stupid and much like wild animals and humans, they know instinctively what they can and can’t eat. Ragwort when eaten fresh is extremely bitter and distasteful and this alone is enough to trigger repulsion in livestock – left to their own devices, livestock will steer well clear. Indeed the very field at Croft Hill pictured above is grazed by livestock, hapilly I might add.
Most cases of Ragwort poisoning (and they really are few and far between) occur when dried Ragwort has been included in silage or hay and later fed to livestock or horses over an extended period of time. The problem here seems to be human error, rather than one of the natural world posing genuine risk – negligent animal husbandry or silage/hay-making by external parties is the real risk, but clearly it’s much easier to blame the environment than the person. A common theme in our modern, ultra-anthropomorphic world. Afterall, a fairly significant percentage of all of our wild plants and flowers in the UK may be deemed toxic or harmful in some way. Borage, comfrey and common groundsel all contain the same alkaloids as Ragwort for instance. I’m yet to see armies of volunteers deployed to remove foxgloves, Digitalis, from our towns and countryside because in spite of it being extremely toxic (greatly so to humans) it is perhaps one of our most-loved wildflowers. The deep-seated negative reputation of Ragwort appears in stark contrast to that of nearly all of our other native wildflowers and that could be due to the continued misinterpretation of the law.
The 1959 Weeds Act (which, with changing attitudes and the passing of 60-odd years of time most-probably needs some revision and updating) states:
“(1) Where the Minister of Agriculture Fish and Food (in this act referred to as ‘the Minister’) is satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this act applies growing upon any land he may serve upon the occupier of the land a notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading.”
In this legal context, ‘injurious’ refers to ‘detrimental effect on agriculture’, not to its toxicity and nowhere does the current law imply that Ragwort should be automatically removed though an order of removal could be served on landowners should the plant become a problem or a perceived problem. It seem this is regularly misinterpreted not just by landowners, but by local authorities too who often deem it necessary to erradicate Ragwort from towns, villages, roundabouts and roadside verges – areas where a threat to livestock/agriculture simply doesn’t exist.
We have covered the perceived negatives of Ragwort – but the positives this plant brings to us and our natural world far outweigh those. Find any stand of Ragwort, be it in the town, suburbs or countryside and you would be hard-pushed not to find the beautiful gold and black caterpillars of the exsquite red and black Cinnabar moth, sometimes in extraordinary numbers.
Cinnabar moths have declined some 83% in the last 35 years and one of the perceived causes is the lack of (or removal of) their larval foodplant – Ragwort. There are around 30 species of invertebrate that are totally dependant on Ragwort for food, so if we extrapolate the decline in Cinnabar moths to those other dependant species then that does start to ring some significant alarm bells. Beside those critters that rely solely on Ragwort for survival, they are also visited by a wealth of Bees, wasps, solitary wasps, hoverflies, beetles, butterflies and moths for pollen and nectar. Ragwort has a fantastically long flowering period so when it is abundant it provides a real and reliable bounty for so many polinating insects. In turn of course these insects feed birds and small mammals which in turn feed the higher echelons of the foodchain. Ragwort has the ability to support and sustain life across the entire foodweb and as a formidable early coloniser of waste ground and pavements in towns and cities they have the power to brings riches to areas otherwise depleted in biodiversity.
Ragwort hasn’t always been looked upon unfavourably, well, not by everybody at least. Poet John Clare was definitely a fan:
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold
Whilst I noticed Isabella Tree – a great advocate of Ragwort and founder of the Knepp rewilding project – recently posted a picture on Instagram of Ragwort in a vase – and why not! Take a closer look at the deeply knotched leaves combined with the proliferation of golden flowers and it makes for a very attractive plant.
The Covid-19 pandemic has unboubtedly caused significant pain, loss and distress for many right across the world but it appears there have been at least some measureable benefits for wildlife and the wider environment. Nowhere is this more plain to see than in the case of Ragwort – with some areas of land management and roadside-verge maintenance taking a backseat during the lockdown, wildflowers have proliferated. Ragwort still beams from all of the countryside road verges close to where I live, indeed there is Ragwort growing from the pavement on the corner of my suburban street, at the bus stop and even in the City centre close to where I work. In my lifetime I have never seen such colour and variety in wildflowers and plants springing up even in the unlikeliest of places and it’s a real delight. It will certainly be interesting to see, now that Ragwort has had a rare year of glory, whether the number of cases of ‘poisoning’ increase to record levels.
I am not suggesting that livestock farmers and paddock owners act without caution. In fact, it would be reasonable to remove Ragwort from fields where livestock and horses graze for peace of mind (although it isn’t particularly necessary). Removal of Ragword from hay meadows created for consumption by livestock is a necessity. However, I see no genuine reason why other agricultural land and field margins should be treated in the same way and I see absolutely no sense in local authorities, gardeners and other organisations targetting Ragwort in verges, parks, brownfield sites, pavements and indeed nature reserves. I think now would be a good time to take another look at the 1959 Weeds Act. We need to have a conversation not about ‘perhaps cutting the verges less’ but about introducing environmental protections for areas of wildflowers, grasses and sedges, to protect our green spaces rather than try and ‘protect’ us from them. Things are changing, slowly. More and more councils are tidying less and less, verges are flowering more and more, but I would call on councils to extend this approach to Ragwort. Away from livestock, these flowers are just as beautiful, if not more so, and just as ecologically important, if not more so, than those that are already lucky enough to be treated with kindness and met with joy.