Combatting the yellow peril of ragwort

 Pretty yellow flowers disguise a deadly weed

Pretty yellow flowers disguise a deadly weed

One of the toughest but most important jobs we have to do on the farm is to keep ragwort under control. This bright yellow flower might look pretty in the first few days it flowers but in fact it is a deadly and fast-spreading plant that poses a threat to your animals and sucks the nutrients from the ground, preventing good grass growth.

For horses and cattle, ragwort is deadly. In the short term it causes stomach pain, loss of appetite, intolerance to sunshine, loss of coordination, difficulty in breathing and loss of eyesight. In the long term, it causes irreparable liver damage as the toxic effects of the plant build up in the liver.

Removing ragwort from your paddock or meadow is an essential part of paddock management, and this includes the dead stuff as ragwort remains poisonous even when it has been killed. Although the plant has a bitter taste, when dead this can be masked if it inadvertently gets into the silage or hay.

Know your enemy

In autumn, ragwort seedlings will start to appear, these are 10-15mm high. Ragwort rosettes can be found growing low to the ground from early spring onwards and the mature plants, which can reach up to two metres in height, burst into flower from May to October.

 Rosettes mark the early stages of a ragwort's life

Rosettes mark the early stages of a ragwort's life

Once they have flowered, most of the plants die and some of the seeds germinate in the area where the mature plant has been. Ragwort also spreads quickly because one plant can produce thousands of seeds, which are covered by a fine down. This means that thousands of seeds are dispersed by the wind and this accounts for the rapid spread of the plant in the local area, although there is evidence that suggests that the seeds do not travel a great distance.

Take great care when pulling ragwort

The plant is also harmful to humans, so wear protective gloves and cover arms and legs when handling it. Ragwort should be removed before it flowers, but if this is not possible use a face mask to avoid inhaling the pollen. If you do come into contact with the plant, wash with warm, soapy water.

If you have ragwort growing on your land, it is your responsibility to get rid of it. Although not a notifiable weed – a commonly held belief – ragwort is one of five plants covered by the Weeds Act 1959, which allows the Secretary of State to use a measure of enforcement to stop the spread of the plant on private land. This legislation is rarely, if ever, used.

Pulling power

The easiest way to remove a small number of plants is by pulling the whole plant up, including the roots. It is best to do this at the seedling or rosette stage and, if possible, after rainfall when the ground is soft. Ragwort can regenerate from root fragments, so it is important to remove as much of the root as possible. A specialist fork can be purchased from retailers to help remove ragwort roots.

To tackle a widespread infestation, spraying is the best option, but you must rest the field for the recommended time after treatment. Agricultural merchants can offer advice and information about available products. The dead plant is still poisonous, so you must remove all traces before putting your animals back out.

Ragwort needs to be disposed of carefully. The most effective way is to burn the weeds, taking all relevant precautions. Defra can advise on this and other methods of ragwort disposal. Ragwort control is an ongoing process. As the seeds can remain in the ground for many years before they germinate, you are likely to find that you will have plants to remove year after year.

While the plant is much maligned, as with all things in nature, it also does good. In the case of ragwort, it is home and host to many, many species of insect. 

 Queen Victoria's favourite!

Queen Victoria's favourite!

 

Ragwort facts:

  • Queen Victoria encouraged the growth of ragwort because she thought it was a pretty plant.
  • Ragwort is also known as Stinking Willie
  • One plant can produce 2,000-2,500 flowers and 75,000-120,000 seeds.
  • Ragwort is home to at least 77 insect species, with 30 using ragwort as their only source of food.
  • The poet John Clare wrote an ode to ragwort - he obviously didn’t spend hours trying to clear the noxious weed!