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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 10th July 2013
Fear and Loathing in Rural England

It’s that time of year, again. The time when hysteria about Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, dominates the ‘horsey’ world. Click on that link for the plant page and a list of all the times I’ve blogged about this but, if you’ve read enough, don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat it all here.

But I did see a thread in the Horse and Hound forums that seemed to have wider significance. I often think that the things people believe about poisonous plants give an indication of attitudes to many other areas of life.

vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

The thread began last year when someone posted a picture of a plant and asked if it were ragwort. It has been revived, this year, by the originator posting to say that, having left some of the plants to develop, it is now clear that it is not ragwort.

A number of things interested me about the responses over the seven pages of the thread. Some came from people who said it was most definitely ragwort, no doubt. One went so far as to say he could identify ragwort with his eyes closed, he’d had such long experience with it. I did chuckle when someone told him it might be better to try and identify it with his eyes open because the plant in question wasn’t ragwort.

There were a number who said they were sure it wasn’t ragwort but, and this is the link to what I posted in June about fear, Tuesday 25th June 2013 if they had it in their pasture they would remove it just in case.

Then there were others who citing this leaflet from the government (when DEFRA was MAFF)  said that young ragwort was variable in appearance and, therefore, the plant was ragwort. That leaflet dates from 1999 and the 2004 Code of Practice doesn’t say anything about variability in appearance of the young plant. This seems to be another example of the sort of thing we see so often from Kathy Gyngell Tuesday 26th February 2013 where the latest information is ignored in favour of something older that supports prejudices.

vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

There was some good news. One poster showed an image of two horses in a field full of yellow flowers. He said that, the first time he posted it, people went mad about the amount of ragwort before he explained that the plants were from the genus Solidago, known as goldenrod. That's a useful reminder that, when the British Horse Society says it is doing a survey of ragwort prevalence Wednesday 11th July 2012, it is actually just surveying yellow-flowering plants. 

As often happens on Horse and Hound forum threads, the discussion got nasty with people claiming that posters who disagreed with them were irredeemably stupid. What’s interesting about that is, of course, that the posters calling people stupid for saying the plant wasn’t ragwort are absent once the identification as ‘not ragwort’ has been confirmed. It is obviously over-optimistic to hope that people would acknowledge their mistake and, even, apologise for the rambunctious way they presented their erroneous opinion.

vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

The plant was, finally, identified as Erucastrum gallicum, dog mustard, but that didn’t end the debate. The originator of the thread said he read that it could be toxic causing stomach upsets and he’d, probably, keep removing it.

That final post contained three general principles. One, as mentioned before, is the application of fear. Pull it up just in case. So much of what we hear today about assessing risk seems to take the precautionary principle to extremes.

The second is that, though there may be places that say dog mustard is toxic, it is not mentioned by any of the authorities on poisonous plants I looked at. We have this strange situation where every site on a subject says nothing about a particular issue but the one that does mention it is the one that gets believed.

And the third point is that, after asking for advice, and receiving it, the originator is going to ignore what he’s learned and carry on doing what he was doing. It seems as though he started the thread hoping to get confirmation of what he’d already decided to do.

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