Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
A Ragwort Summer
Late summer is the time of Common Ragwort, tall, elegant and potentially deadly. Indeed, I think 2013 is notable for the profusion of this notifiable weed and wonder if anyone else has noticed too. Generally, farmers and other landowners are busy with control and eradication methods, but this year, 2013, I have seen hundreds of fields with no control at all. Bearing in mind the problems which this can cause for farm stock, and other grazing animals like horses, I wonder what has happened. Maybe with cuts to farming advisory services and related ‘policing’, landowners are simply turning a blind eye. I would like to know.
Long known to country folk ragwort has a string of appropriate names like St James’s Wort, Yellow tops, Stinking Willie, Mare’s Fart, and Cankerwort (from its herbal use in treating cancerous growths). Called Cushag, it is the national flower of the Isle of Man. At once, this is a stunningly beautiful flower and a plant, which is spreading along roadsides, pathways and of course in meadows and pastures. It is in the latter that farmers and horse-lovers dread to see this Notifiable Weed (indeed, one of just a handful of plants for which landowners have a legal duty to control). Generally, at this time of year, you will see farmers, nature reserve managers, and others, carefully handpicking the plants or else spraying with glyphosate or a similar weed-killer. The pickers and pullers wear gloves because the toxin is absorbed through naked skin and it bio-accumulates i.e. it builds up in your system to gradually poison you – nice! The same thing happens with horses or cattle if they eat the plant and the poisonous alkaloids build up to eventually cause fatal cirrhosis of the liver. Ragwort is responsible for around half the cases of stock poisoning each year. Yet it is only relatively recently that the serous dangers associated with Ragwort were widely recognised. Generally, grazing animals avoid the live plant but dried hay, which unfortunately retains the poison, is readily consumed.
In times past, the plant was highly regarded for herbal medical purposes – including for veterinary uses. Called ‘Staggerwort’ it treated staggers in horses, and as ‘Stammerwort’ it alleviated speak impediments in people. Culpepper noted that ‘….it cleanses, digests, and discusses. In Sussex we call it Ragweed’. The Fenland poet John Clare wrote ‘Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves, I love to see thee come & litter gold…..The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn, So bright & glaring…..’ This is a plant deeply associated with English pastoral landscapes and yet one that carries a barely hidden threat. Even the insects that eat Ragwort come with a warning sign. The larvae of the day-flying Cinnabar Moth feed exclusively on the Ragwort family absorb the poisons and so become poisonous or at least distasteful to predators. Therefore, instead of hiding away, the ‘Tigers’ Tails’ caterpillars announce their presence with striking black and orange stripes.
No camouflage need, just a warning to beware, ‘I taste bad’. Therefore, I wonder what the reasons are for this upsurge, whether it is a widespread phenomenon, and if it will continue in future years. Only time will tell if this is the case, but this is one trend that is not welcome.
Ian Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change