It is that time of year again. The cherries are ripe, the plums not yet coloured, the brambles are studded with hard, green, fuzzy promises. Meadowsweet is in bloom, so that lucky damp lanes are filled with the deep honey scent from its curdy panicles of flower … and wherever I go in Plaxtol I see yellow stands and swathes of common ragwort. In some places the plant grows so thickly that I cannot help thinking that it has been encouraged for its bright yellow flowers, in cheerful ignorance of its pernicious, toxic nature.
The ragwort argument ebbs and flows in the opinion pieces, regular columns and letter pages of the national press, usually hitting its highest point at around this time. Real country people know that it is an injurious weed, harmful to livestock whether green or dried – it causes fatal liver damage – and that it should be controlled as far as possible. They know that it is a potential offence to knowingly allow the proliferation of ragwort on your property and to fail to prevent its spread to your neighbours’ land, and that any good land manager should pull ragwort whenever it appears.
Historically, every countryman would pull ragwort where he found it growing. Under the Weeds Act 1959 and the Ragwort Control Act 2003 local authorities are empowered to serve clearance notices to prevent the weed from spreading. A decade ago, Defra’s Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort set out principles of responsibility and old-fashioned good neighbourliness, with the aim of prevent harm to horses, cattle and other livestock. They also published Guidance on the Disposal Options for Common Ragwort. These guidance documents cover how to identify the problem plant – although really there is nothing like it, particularly the distinctive aroma when it is pulled or when the stems are broken or crushed – and how to get rid of it. Although they only seek to control ragwort where there is direct danger to livestock, this is a little insidious, encouraging as it does a laissez-faire attitude toward a plant which is an expert coloniser. Its presence along so many of our roadsides is both evidence of its propensity to spread and a red flag to anyone who wishes to see that spread curtailed. When the downy seed heads have set, any passing vehicle can cause them to drift, and they will travel long distances on draughts and breezes until settling somewhere else. If there is ragwort on your land, you cannot possibly know where those seeds will spread to next – including important pasture or meadowland destined for hay – particularly in a place like Plaxtol, where land-use is so mixed and varied.
In years gone by, ragwort was controlled effectively by the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth. These striped creatures would strip all the leaves from the plants, and the country writer John Moore recorded that there was something pathetic in the sight of them feebly searching the bare plants for more food matter. It was so well-accepted that the caterpillars could be largely relied upon to keep ragwort under control that when it was accidentally exported to New Zealand in bags of seed, export of the caterpillar followed soon after. But the cinnabar is now much more rare, due to insecticide use and other changes.
The caterpillar of the cinnabar moth is very strikingly striped orange and black – as easy to spot and identify as the ragwort itself. In Plaxtol, I have only ever seen two of the red-and-black adult moths – both already dead – and one lone caterpillar. It is safe to say that the sheer prevalence of ragwort is enough to prove the absence of the caterpillars.
Ragwort proliferation seems to go in phases, peaking in some years. So far, 2015 seems to be a relatively ‘light’ ragwort year (in Plaxtol, at least) and an ideal opportunity to take action. So this is an entreaty to anyone who finds the tall, yellow-flowered ragwort growing on their land or roadside: please remove it, and remove it responsibly. The Code and Guidance will tell you how.
© New Moons For Old, 2015