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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 12th July 2012

This is Ragwort Awareness Week. Or, maybe, not.

I think something has happened at the British Horse Society (BHS). I don’t know if there has been a change of personnel or just a change of attitude but, judging from its website, the society seems to be taking a more sensible and pragmatic approach to the issue of Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort.

This time last year was Ragwort Awareness Week, the time for the BHS to press its case about the dangers posed by this plant. In 2011, the week was launched by revealing the results of a survey conducted during the same week in 2010 and I expected that, around the end of June, we would hear about the results of the 2011 survey together with an announcement about the 2012 Ragwort Awareness Week.

But, nothing has happened. At least, there has been nothing from the BHS. Back in March I wrote about some of the flaws with the survey. The respondents were self-selecting i.e. it was not a representative sample of the population that might have given an overall view of ragwort prevalence. It didn’t ask for any demonstration that the plant seen was ragwort so, in effect, it was a yellow flower survey. A proper survey would have wanted to distinguish between common ragwort, named in the Weeds Act 1959, and the other species of ragwort that are not.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea),
common ragwort

The survey also had a single question about whether animals were grazing ‘on or near’ land with ‘ragwort’ on it. I would have thought that should have been two separate questions and I would have thought that, where animals were grazing fields with ‘ragwort’ in them, it would have been helpful to ask if there was any sign of the plants being grazed. My own limited experience is of seeing Jacobaea vulgaris in a field with cattle, for a number of years, and the plants not being eaten. If anyone produced evidence that animals were choosing to graze ragwort that would be an important discovery because, as the BHS itself says, at the moment ‘There are [only] anecdotal reports that some horses can develop an acquired taste for the plant, especially if there is little else to eat’.

The survey was, therefore, very unscientific and any findings would be easy to criticise. It seems, though, that the opportunity to criticise is not going to be available as the BHS has not published the results. And it has not announced a 2012 Ragwort Awareness Week.

Looking for any information about a 2012 ragwort week led me to read more closely what the BHS says about ragwort and it is not all nonsense. True, it does talk about plants producing 150,000 seeds, which is like saying the summer temperature in the UK is 38.5oC based on one single occurrence of that temperature, but it also stresses the need for pasture management;

‘Good management all year round will help to prevent the spread of ragwort. Do not overstock or overgraze paddocks and remove droppings on a regular basis. Ensure that the pasture is well seeded and fertilised if necessary, to help establish a thick, healthy sward and limit the chance of bare patches forming.’

And it points out that;

‘where land is not grazed or used for forage production, ragwort is part of a diverse plant community, has biodiversity benefits and does not require control.’

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea),
common ragwort

Those two points are often attacked by the most ardent ragwort-haters on horse forums so I wonder if they just haven’t read what the BHS says. I’m sure there is fun to be had by baiting such people with direct quotes from the BHS site without identifying them as such but I wouldn’t expect it to change the minds of those who persist in ignoring the science in favour of their own prejudice.

It is nice to be able to write about a 'horsey' website that isn't entirely a fantasy when it comes to ragwort. But I recommend the recently revised information on the Buglife website for the full picture of how to realistically deal the potential harm from this plant.

Back to my opening paragraph. I wrote that this is Ragwort Awareness Week though the BHS has not said so, because Scardale Veterinary Group, in Derby, has announced it and produced a leaflet on ‘The Dangers of Ragwort’ to coincide with this week. We all make errors so it is unfair of me to mock the typographical mistakes in the leaflet that show it wasn’t checked sufficiently before being issued. But I couldn’t help but chuckle at the one that makes the plant seem much more benign than intended.

Under a heading ‘Ragwort Facts’, Scardale Veterinary Group tells us that ‘each plant can have up to 1,500 seeds’. I wonder how many anti-ragwort campaigners will quote that ‘fact’ in the future.


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