Looking at this bright yellow daisy-like plant, you’d never know this was the "curse" invading our countryside, fields and road verges — the common ragwort. Equally, you might not realise its importance to nature.
A Daily Mail article in 2013 said: “Plant that kills horses has infested the country” – without giving any evidence of how many animals have actually died from eating ragwort.
Like many other wildflowers, ragwort is poisonous to animals – so it’s not good if it gets mixed into the dry hay fed to horses and cattle. But few other plants are as scapegoated as ragwort.
In an edition of the BBC’s popular Countryfile programme in 2016, farmer and presenter Adam Henson said ragwort is “very poisonous particularly to cattle and horses.” He did point out that animals “tend to avoid it in its green state but if it gets mown and ends up in hay it can have a serious effect on their liver.”
He added: “although it's not against the law to have it on your farm, if you have too much the government can come in and make you remove it. But as a responsible farmer it's sensible to try to get rid of it on your own land and to stop it blowing on to your neighbours' [land]. So the best way to do that is to pull it by hand to get the whole root system."
Ragwort’s importance to nature was not mentioned and the tenor of the programme was to treat ragwort as a problem plant.
Hysteria in high places
With the number of misleading articles and campaigns, it’s no wonder ragwort has so many enemies in high places. Royalty, peers, government ministers and local councils have lined up to condemn ragwort, thus perpetuating myths and spreading misconceptions.
For example, Prince Charles wrote to government nature watchdog Natural England asking how it would combat “the spread of injurious weeds such as ragwort”.
Natural England replied that ragwort is important for wildlife but buckled after a second royal letter, and sought the Prince’s approval of its plan to be “more proactive” in controlling ragwort.
Is this really the best use of squeezed public sector staff and budgets?
Hard labour: pulling up ragwort
In 2014, former Conservative minister Lord Tebbit said youngsters should be “required as part of their contribution to the society which finances them, or which they have abused… to uproot this weed.”
He told our fellow nature charity Buglife that pulling up ragwort should be a low-cost form of National Service for “young people who are not in education, work or training and low-level criminals”.
That’ll teach ‘em, Your Lordship.
"Troublesome youth" could learn something useful about nature and our countryside, like how ragwort supports wildlife. But why bother when you could force them to rip up ragwort in the mistaken belief that it’s the best way of dealing with it?
Is ragwort dangerous?
A lot of intelligent people are getting worked up over ragwort. Here are just a few of the ragwort myths being put about, and why they are just that – myths.
Myth 1. Ragwort is a serious risk to horses and cattle
Ragwort is mildly poisonous, but the taste of the plant is usually off-putting to livestock. That’s why it's not unusual to see horses in fields chomping on grass but leaving the ragwort – clever things.
The danger comes if ragwort that’s been cut and dried gets mixed up in dry hay fed to livestock. The onus is on owners to ensure dry feed given to horses and cattle is clean and fit to eat – just as with anything else they feed their animals.
Myth 2. Ragwort is poisonous to humans
It is if you eat vast quantities. But are you really going to eat plate-loads of ragwort any more than foxgloves or other poisonous plants that can be found in Britain’s fields or along paths and verges?
Myth 3. Ragwort must be removed wherever it’s found
Ready for a quick legal lesson? The laws on ragwort do not require ragwort to be automatically removed. The Weeds Act 1959 and the Ragwort Control Act 2003 are routinely misquoted.
Under the 1959 Act a landowner or occupier may be ordered to control the spread of ragwort. The 2003 Act allows for the creation of a code of practice. Neither Act makes ragwort control compulsory in the absence of an order. In short, there’s no compulsion on landowners to remove ragwort.
By contrast, here’s the other important legal bit: It is illegal to uproot any wildflower, including ragwort, unless carried out by the landowner, occupier, someone authorised by them, or by a specified official.
The town council in Alton, Hampshire is therefore incorrect to tell its residents that “ragwort cannot be left untreated as it is poisonous.”
It does make sense to exercise caution with ragwort where animals regularly graze but, as in Myths 1 and 2 above, there’s little or no harm to humans and the main risk to animals is if dry ragwort gets mixed up in their dry food. But the law does not require removal of ragwort.
Myth 4. Pull ragwort out before it goes to seed
Pull up ragwort if you insist, but you’re likely to be helping it to grow more.
First, ragwort plants only die after they have formed and scattered seed in the autumn. The seeds need bare earth to germinate so make sure the ground where ragwort is growing is also covered with other plants and the soil is not bare.
Second, unless you remove the entire root, mowing or pulling ragwort is unlikely to destroy it. Letting nature take its course and leaving the plant to go to seed is likely to be more effective.
For more ragwort facts and fallacies see our document Ragwort: problem plant or scapegoat?
So how do you control ragwort? Professor Michael Crawley of Imperial College advises fencing off the affected area, letting the plants go to seed (see Myth 4 above) and making sure the soil is not bare.
Decisions about controlling ragwort are too often based on common misconceptions and the need to be seen to be doing something.
Ragwort hysteria should not be allowed to distract local councils, farmers and landowners from properly managing land and taking care of livestock.
Nor should cash-strapped public bodies be required to spend public time and money controlling a native British plant in ill-informed ways, especially when it’s a vital source of food for bees, moths and other wildlife.
Ragwort is an important native plant that helps feed dozens of bees, moths, other insects and birds.
In its report Our Vanishing Flora Plantlife reveals that “Britain’s wild flowers are in trouble. Ten species have become extinct in the 60-year reign of HM The Queen but even that stark loss hides the scale of the problem.”
Plantlife explains that some counties in the UK are losing a species of plant every 1-2 years. In his foreword to the report Prince Charles rightly says, “I’m afraid to say, Nature in this country is far from flourishing”.
Let’s act on facts and grasp the nettle, not the ragwort.
More in Friends of the Earth's briefing Ragwort - Problem plant or scapegoat? which explains how blaming ragwort is a distraction and waste of public money.