Common ragwort is a native biennial found throughout the British Isles. Although it is relatively harmless to gardeners, it can be potentially fatal to livestock and must be controlled on grazing land.
Chances are that you’ve seen common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) growing in fields, gardens and on scrubland and not paid much notice to it. It grows thinly to around a metre tall, with deep cut toothed foliage and flat topped yellow daisy-like flowers, similar to buttercups, appearing between July and October. Ragwort is considered a long standing and important part of our native flora, with over 30 species of native insects and funghi reliant on it, including the daisy carpenter bee and the cinnabar moth.
Ragwort is the one of the five weeds covered by the Weeds Act 1959. The Ragwort Control Act 2003 amends the Weeds Act 1959 and provides specifically for more effective management of ragwort. Ragwort is poisonous to horses (and other livestock), causing irreparable damage to the liver when eaten. The toxic effect builds up over time, so eating even small amounts could prove fatal. Mature ragwort plants have a very bitter taste, so most horses will wisely avoid them. However, younger plants and wilting plants can lose their bitter edge and become much more palatable to curious livestock. Many horses have been exposed to ragwort via contaminated hay. Humans may be at risk from ragwort poisoning through direct contact or the consumption of contaminated food. Research undertaken by the Government suggests that the risk to human health in the UK through the contamination of staple foods i.e. grain, milk, eggs and honey is likely to be insignificant. The responsibility to control ragwort rests with the occupier of the land, and farmers that have land rented under Agricultural Holding Act or Farm Business Tenancy agreements should enforce their lease provisions regarding the spread of this noxious weed. Farmers and landowners should seriously consider the implications of the spread of this weed and if they have concerns, contact their agrichemical consultants or environmental consultants for further advice.
Controlling and removing ragwort from your property
If you have identified ragwort growing on your property, now is the time to act. If you have not followed the government’s guidelines for ragwort control, you may be liable for prosecution. Unfortunately for landowners, ragwort is an incredibly resilient plant. It can be difficult to control, especially where it has not been effectively managed for a long time. It can be necessary to use a variety of control methods over an extended period to reduce populations if, on the basis of the risk assessment, they have been found to be problematic. The following three risk categories are provided in the 2011 DEFRA document, Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort, to provide guidelines on how to prevent the spread of ragwort and assessing the risk level (refer to GOV.UK for the latest advice):
- Ragwort is present and flowering/seeding within 50m of land used for grazing by horses and other animals or land used for feed/forage production.
Where a high risk is identified, the responsible party must take immediate action to control the spread of ragwort using an appropriate control technique, taking account of the status of the land.
- Ragwort is present within 50m to 100m of land used for grazing by horses and other animals or land used for feed/forage production.
Where a medium risk is identified, a control policy should be established to ensure that where a change from a medium to a high risk of spread can be anticipated, it is identified and dealt with in a timely and effective manner using appropriate control techniques.
- Ragwort or the land on which it is present is more than 100m from land used for grazing by horses and other animals or land used for feed/forage production.
A low risk requires no immediate action, but the situation should be monitored regularly in case of any changes.
Ragwort removal techniques
Pulling or levering up plants can prevent seed spread and can give long-term ragwort control. Special care should be taken to remove plants in their entirety, as any root fragments not removed can produce weak growth. Hand pulling works for smaller areas but larger areas require machine pulling. This method requires a height difference between the ragwort and other plants and is only suitable on certain soil types and topographies. Best results are achieved when the soil is damp and before ragwort has seeded. Cutting should only be used to reduce seed production and dispersal where other more effective control methods cannot be used. It stimulates growth and causes plants to re-flower later in the season. Cutting and stem removal at the early flowering stage reduces seed production but does not kill the plant, turning it from a biennial into a perennial habit and therefore repeat treatments will be required. Herbicides frequently provide the most time efficient and effective method of preventing the spread of ragwort, but total control is not likely to be regained with a single application. An annual chemical control programme consisting of 1-2 treatments per year will normally be necessary to prevent the spread of ragwort, as seeds can lie dormant for several years.
Any herbicide treatment programme should be conducted by an appropriately trained and qualified person in accordance with both pesticides and health & safety legislation. For help or advice on Ragwort, just call 0203 174 2187 or 01202 816134 to talk to one of our consultants.