Thursday, 2 January 2020

Horse nutrition bible ragwort nonsense.

As it is the new year I have been doing something which I do every few months.
I scour the internet and various sources and archives for information relating to ragwort.

This is a useful activity to do, as quite frequently new things appear. Often  they are really old things which somehow have been put on-line or archived somewhere or other. This happened last year when I found out about the old article by Professor Derek Knottenbelt. I have just updated my article on it again. This time I number the problem issues in it in my debunking on my website. There are SEVENTEEN of them.

If we had only had this kind of information back in 2004 we could have really stopped a lot of the hysteria, because we would have been able to establish very clearly that the information being circulated was nonsense.

In the process of doing this searching process for this new year. I came across some text from a book. It is called The Horse Nutrition Bible : The Comprehensive Guide to the Feeding of Your Horse and it was published in 2003.

It contains the following text, which I will deal with piece by piece.:-
Of the many plants poisonous to horses, the one they are most likely to consume is ragwort.
Do we really know this? Is it provable? I don't know of anything in the scientific literature that substantiates it.

This and other toxicants, such as heavy metals and some mycotoxins, can cause liver damage.
This is true. Indeed, the damage done by the breakdown products of the compounds in ragwort, that actually produce the toxic effect, cannot be distinguished  from damage done by mycotoxins. They produce the same damage on a molecular level, by cross linking DNA molecules.

Then there is this well-known falsehood.

 In the case of ragwort poisoning, the poisonous principle,
pyrrolizidine alkaloids, accumulates in the
liver and halts its regeneration. 
Oh no it doesn't!  The alkaloids do not accumulate, indeed they are destroyed in the process of cause toxicity, as I say above!  The damage indeed can be cumulative, but there are repair mechanisms and small doses will not cause problems.  We know this from the biochemistry and is an important difference.
If it were to accumulate then every bit would count. With damage accumulating every bit isn't important, because the repair mechanisms prevent damage for small doses. This text in this "Bible" exaggerates the risk.

Incidentally, I blogged recently about people believing that civil servants and government departments were infallible. This error was also made by Scottish civil servants in an official publication some years ago.

And here we go again, another false claim.

Liver disease is becoming increasingly common,
mostly due to the rapid increase in the
amount of ragwort in and around horse
pastures in Britain.
As I point out in the debunking of the Knottenbelt article which I link to above. there was a survey of plants done by the government that covered this period. It showed that ragwort had decreased at this time.

This is yet another example of a horse textbook with poor information on ragwort.

Finally as it is the new year I will once again post the video of the current lead expert in the UK Professor Andy Durham. He has actually done research. Here are some quotes Ragwort poisoning is  "pretty rare really" "I do think we
need to stop talking about it so much." ,  "In reality there really is no evidence it's a common cause of liver disease  in horses."
It is an audio only video of the relevant part of a longer podcast with a small segment added to explain a point which he made at a  meeting that a colleague attended explained with reference to other experts' writing. It lasts just 1 minute 48 seconds in total. Listen to it!

Oh and just in case some ragwort basher tries to say I am taking things out of context, here is the original podcast which lasts 33 minutes.

The video below is shorter but contains the relevant piece.

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Sunday, 22 December 2019

Psychology and a legal case involving ragwort.

I haven't blogged for a while. It is midwinter and there are fewer ragwort stories around. I could still blog more regularly as I regularly see nonsense but I have, as I have said before, got other ways of doing things now so I often don't bother. However, this is an interesting one and it gives me a chance to talk about some of the political psychology surrounding this issue.

I must thank my dear and most excellent friend and colleague Esther Hegt for the background to this. Esther, who I have mentioned before, is a Dutch horse enthusiast who originally belonged to a ragwort extermination group in the Netherlands. However, she is really very intelligent and researched the matter properly, discovering that the information being circulated was hysterical nonsense.

Digressing a little from my main themes of this post I should explain that so many people in the Netherlands have excellent English that our hysteria has spread there. In fact some of my best material came from a friend of Esther's who had kept old copies of British horsey magazines. To digress further this led on to yet more information  some rubbishy arguments by Professor Knottenbelt, who regular readers will know talks some real horse manure about ragwort.
 He is undoubtedly a fine veterinary surgeon but his comments about the ecology surrounding ragwort are just plain dreadful. He goes outside veterinary matters and he isn't an expert in those other things. Ragwort isn't, despite his quoted protestations, poisoning the cinnabar moth to death. It is the moth's main natural food!

The papers I obtained then were not the worst. The worst was the one I discovered fairly recently. I did eventually get around to putting an analysis on my website.  I have been mentioning it in previous blog entries so you might as well see this. Here is the full debunking.

Coming to the main matter in hand, it concerns a court case in the Netherlands and a Freedom of Information request which has led to some documents being released on-line. The court case concerns the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP) a rewilded area and there have been some quite peculiar legal claims made.

One of my constant themes in this blog is that the ragwort bashers actually don't understand the ecology at all and this is what leads to a lot of the hysteria. I will also come later to some of the science around the psychology that governs the political beliefs that motivate some of this.

This court case is a really good example of this. One of the documents contains this very revealing statement.
"In de rechtszaak van volgende week wordt Staatsbosbeheer beschuldigd dat zij JKK in de OVP geïntroduceerd heeft"
Which translates to :-
"In next week's lawsuit, Staatsbosbeheer is accused of introducing ragwort  to the OVP."
I should explain that Staatsbosbeheer literally translates to State Forest Management but that the organisation also looks after many wild nature areas that are not covered in trees. This includes the OVP.

The one fundamental point to remember is this one. Ragwort is NATIVE in The Netherlands. The OVP is reclaimed from the sea, but surely nobody with a proper grasp of ecology would be so deluded as to believe that a native plant would have to be introduced to bare ground in an area where it could naturally colonise? The OVP has been there since 1968 which means there has been plenty of time for plants to colonise!

Then someone is apparently ignorantly idiotic enough to include it in evidence for a court case!

It seems there is a lot of misinformation being circulated. Both Esther and I are still researching but it would appear that information is being circulated by several Dutch foundations. The Dutch language uses the word Stichting to designate these and it does seem that these are not as well regulated as British charities which are not supposed to make false claims.

From what we've been able to discover in our researches there is a Stichting involved called Stichting Welzijn Grote Grazers, which roughly means  The Foundation for the Welfare of Large Grazers.

Esther located a document where there was this absurdly wrong statement.

"Jacobs Kruiskruid is een ingevoerde plant en veroorzaakt niet tot de oernatuur van Nederland wat nagestreefd wordt en Zwarte Mosterd is vermoedelijk overgewaaid van de omliggende akkerbouwers die het vaak als groenbemesting gebruiken."
This is the English translation.
"Ragwort is an imported plant and does not engender the emulation of the original nature of the Netherlands  and Black Mustard is probably blown over from the surrounding arable farmers who often use it as green fertilizer."
This is, of course a bizarrely wrong statement to make but these things are all too regular with the ragwort bashing community.

This brings me on to my second theme. This is turning into a rather long blog posting, but it is a while since I have written anything and this is quite interesting stuff. The psychology of it all is rather fascinating.

Whilst it is often difficult to ascribe these things to single individuals in this case, there is an overarching theme on a lot of ragwort hysteria in that it is linked to right wing and often far right wing ideologies. Esther sent me some information on another ragwort bashing Stichting showing clear links with the controversial Forum for Democracy a hard right eurosceptic nationalist party in The Netherlands.

To me a lot of the ragwort bashers seem not to have a proper grasp of reality.
Part of this the science says, may be due to various poor thinking traits.

To begin, one of the most well-known of personality traits involved here is that of Openness to Experience.  Open minded people tend to not be involved in the kind of right wing thinking that is often the problem here. Open minded people aren't racists as they find people from different backgrounds interesting. I am fairly typical of that as I have mentioned before I am so interested in foreigners that if I go to a foreign country I actually take the trouble to learn some of the language before I go. The false claim that ragwort is foreign is a common theme with the bashers and I do wonder whether the closed minded dislike of the foreign is a factor.

One of the converse, closed minded, traits that is clear in a number of ragwort bashers is that they seem not to accept new or strange things and that challenging authority is unacceptable behaviour.  One I have seen is the absurd idea that civil servants carry authority and everything they say must be right and that no account should be made of the facts in considering this.

It should be pointed out that the research  is rather clear  that open minded people tend to be a bit smarter and indeed another concept associated with Openness  is that of intellect. One is tempted to think that part of the problem with ragwort bashers is lack of intellect and indeed that does seem to be an issue with some of them.

 For those interested in a technical examination of this idea. This is an excerpt from The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity and Personality Research published by Cambridge University Press. It is on Openness to Experience.

I have encountered a ragwort basher who is always claiming that peer reviewed literature says certain things when either it doesn't or that the arguments made in a paper don't stand up to scrutiny. The person seems to have read different papers to the ones under discussion, despite it is clear that they are the same, and persists with the incorrect claims despite being continually taken on and debunked by various people. This blog , it is argued, cannot be right because it isn't regulated. This is such an authoritarian individual that one almost imagines it is being proposed that  some kind of permission needs to be granted to exercise  the right of free speech and that criticising the British government's department Defra for their ineptitude should be verboten.

This authoritarian behaviour is well studied. Right Wing Authoritarians are a large part of the studies reflected in the excellent book The Authoritarians  by Bob Altemeyer who is a retired professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, where he studied authoritarianism for forty years.

Professor Altemeyer has very kindly made his book available for free on the web. As he himself warns you shouldn't make the assumption that just because it is free it is valueless. There was probably a limited market for the book and after it had sold the professor still wanted people to read the volume that he had worked so hard on. One would imagine that a retired professor would not be in the poor house and would not be  desperate for money from the sales. I applaud his generosity.

Here is the link:

I also recommend the rest of his website where he has some fascinating ideas on Donald Trump whose rise to power post dates his book.

Here to finish the blog posting is an excerpt from the book. This just rings so many bells. The thinking is just like the ragwort bashers. To me it is just too uncanny for this research not to be applicable.

RWA= "Right wing Authoritarian"

 Illogical Thinking 
Sitting in the jury room of the Port Angeles, Washington court house in 1989,
Mary Wegmann might have felt she had suddenly been transferred to a parallel
universe in some Twilight Zone story.  For certain fellow-jury members seemed to have attended a different trial than the one she had just witnessed. They could not remember some pieces of evidence, they invented evidence that did not exist, and they steadily made erroneous inferences from the material that everyone could agree on.

Encountering my research as she was later developing her Ph.D. dissertation project, she suspected the people who "got it wrong" had been mainly high RWAs. So she recruited a sample of adults from the Clallam County jury list, and a group of students from Peninsula College and gave them various memory and inference tests. For example, they listened to a tape of two lawyers debating a school segregation case on a McNeil/Lehrer News Hour program. Wegmann found High RWAs indeed had more trouble remembering details of the material they'd encountered, and they made more incorrect inferences on a reasoning test than others usually did. Overall, theauthoritarians had lots of trouble simply thinking straight.
Intrigued, I gave the inferences test that Mary Wegmann had used to two large
samples of students at my university. In both studies high RWAs went down in flames more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:

All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea..
Therefore, sharks are fish.
The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the
reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, "Because sharks are fish." In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way, they don't "get it" that the reasoning matters--especially on a reasoning test.

This is not only "Illogical, Captain," as Mr. Spock would say, it's quite
dangerous, because it shows that if authoritarian followers like the conclusion, the logic involved is pretty irrelevant. The reasoning should justify the conclusion, but for a lot of high RWAs, the conclusion validates the reasoning. Such is the basis of many a prejudice, and many a Big Lie that comes to be accepted. Now one can easily overstate this finding. A lot of people have trouble with syllogistic reasoning, and high RWAs are only slightly more likely to make such mistakes than low RWAs are. But in general high RWAs seem to have more trouble than most people do realizing that a conclusion is false.

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Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Defra actually haven't a clue about ragwort

I often use this blog as an extension to Twitter. Twitter doesn't have the space so I write something here.

In essence today my posing is inspired by a question from Dr Georgina Judd as to whether the buffer zones suggested by Defra are considered good practice. These are areas near grazing animals where the plant should, according to them, be eliminated.

You would expect that Defra as the government department in charge in England would know what they are talking about on the subject of ragwort, but they don't. THEY REALLY DON'T!

It is pretty obvious really. Their estimation of risk is hopeless and useless. They take figures that have every appearance of being conjured out of thin air to scare people, and use them in the most crassly wrong way to claim that 500 horses a year are dying. They talk about "confirmed cases" when anyone who knows the science knows it is impossible to confirm poisoning 100%.
(Those links go to my website which provides references for everything I can find and as I am working on this blog entry another paper has come in from a colleague with a reference to yet another veterinary text confirming this.)

There has obviously been a political decision just to accept the horsey lobby's nonsense and apply it as if it were true.

The buffer zones bear no relationship to the distances known for seed dispersal and are based on the fallacy that animals eat the fresh plant, when they have evolved to avoid it and there are natural detoxification routes.

Yes animals do avoid these plants. You would hardly believe it from the propaganda. Just to give you an example. This is the text that I first read a few hours ago. It is talking about ALL the plants that contain these toxins. They comprise about 3% of all plant species (Funny you never hear a fuss about the others!) The title of the book is quite simply "Veterinary Medicine" and is written by FOUR veterinary professors.

The plants are not very palatable and are usually eaten in sufficient quantity to be associated with illness only when other feed is short, or when they are included accidentally in conserved fodder such as hay or when their seeds contaminate feed grains.

It is really simple. Animals that were naturally poisoned didn't pass on their genes the ones that avoided the plant or detoxified it.

Defra claim it is a cumulative poison and ignore the biochemistry. It can be but not at every dose as I'll explain below. All most all of their "science"  comes from a source in the horsey lobby , Professor Derek Knottenbelt, and as I'll explain below, my honest opinion is that nobody with any sense should listen to him.

I've already posted it on twitter, but just for completeness sake and anyone reading this blog entry in isolation, here is the crazy claim in a quote I posted.

This quote comes a book called The Horse and Pony Care Bible in Association with Horse and Hound published in 2007.
  Professor Knottenbelt is quoted as saying: -

`I would not normally advocate the eradication of any species, but this one has nothing to offer. I don't accept that eradicating ragwort would eradicate the Cinnabar Moth, which feeds on it. Ragwort is burgeoning and the Cinnabar is declining. In fact, I believe it is being poisoned. The moth was common throughout the years that ragwort was rare and now that ragwort is widespread, Cinnabar Moths are difficult to find. If we care about the moth, we have to find out why its population is declining in the face of an ad lib supply of "feed'.

 It is an INSANE idea!

It is not the only problem with his ideas, coming back to the idea that it is always a cumulative poison. I'll quote a piece from a page on  my website. He states the following
"Ingestion of the ragwort plant (in any state in any amount) will result in the absorption of the pyrrolizidine alkaloid (called jacobin[sic]) that passes to the liver in the portal blood vessels. On arrival the toxin damages the liver cells to an extent that is proportional to the concentration of the chemical.
It seems that again the professor is mistaken for it appears ,according to the scientific literature. that the statement "the pyrrolizidine alkaloid (called jacobin [sic])" is incorrect. Far from being a single pyrrolizidine alkaloid there are in fact fourteen of them which have been recorded as occurring in common ragwort of which Jacobine ( as it is correctly spelled) is only one. They are Senecivernine,Senecionine,Seneciphylline,Spartioidine,Integerrimine,Jacobine, Jacozine,Jacoline,Erucifoline,Jaconine,Adonifoline,Usaramine,Otosenine,Eruciflorine and Retrorsine. These are not necessarily present in every plant and vary in quantity. (Pelser et al.2005) and their level of toxicity may also vary depending how efficiently they are metabolised.

It is questionable whether the claim that ragwort in any amount will result in the absorption of the alkaloids is correct, and the following statement that the toxin damages the liver cells in proportion would seem to overstate the simplicity of the process. In fact there are a number of factors which might prevent the alkaloids from being absorbed where there are only small quantities, bacterial destruction inside the digestive tract and then simple failure to be absorbed etc..
Then they are actually not poisonous in themselves until they have undergone conversion into other chemicals which are the actual toxins. Fu et al ( 2004) Each of these steps is unlikely to be 100% efficient and the resultant pyrrole compounds are highly reactive and can react with numerous substances in the cell. They will only result in a toxic effect when they attach themselves to DNA molecules.


 I will be amending that page as one recent paper I have come across crystalises the science on detoxification. The alkaloids are non-toxic in themselves and only become toxic because of degradation BUT, and Defra appear to know absolutely nothing about this, there are 3 routes of degradation and only ONE causes problems. I knew about this but the paper makes it clearer and I can quote it for clarity.

I wrote an entry on this blog a while ago about an article I'd found by Professor Knottenbelt. I didn't cover everything and  it is so full of problems that it will take a while for me to write a page on it on my website. The falsehoods in it have the habit of popping up all over the place. It is known that he  gave a number of talks  and undoubtedly there will be other articles. His incorrect ideas have a habit spreading.

There are significant problems with what he says and here is a larger but still partial list of a dozen of them just from this one article.

He says it is a problem for insects. It is one of our best plants for insects.

He says it is spreading catastrophically. Government survey data says a significant decline.

He uses a figure for seed production that has been banned in an advert by the Advertising Standards Authority. It didn't fit reality and was banned as misleading. It is likely he was the ultimate source.

He quotes a laboratory figure for germination and says that it applies to all seeds. If that were the case we would all be buried by the plant in a few generations.

He gets the law wrong.

He makes misleading statements about groundsel as a foodplant for the cinnabar moth.

He blames ragwort  (again )for the decline of the cinnabar moth. BONKERS! It needs it as a food.

He says. "The poisonous alkaloids have been found in milk and honey, and although the amounts are so small as to be insignificant, the presence of any is unacceptable."
The poor logic in this is poor surely? If something is scientifically insignificant as a danger then there is no problem!

He quotes a notorious and crazily derived survey to claim 6500 horses a year die from ragwort poisoning. It takes a tiny and very inaccurate response rate and multiplies it as if everyone had responded!

He says estimates research will show one in five ordinary horses have poisoning. It was done. It showed nothing of the sort, almost nothing at all. A sample of 91 sick horses ( not ordinary ones) had 1 case in a mistreated animal.

He accuses it of wiping out biodiversity, when it is one of our most ecologically valuable plants.

He says things like this which make the plant sound terrible but are actually rather pointless, "Recoveries from terminal stage liver failure are not possible." Oh dear!  If its terminal of course the animal can't recover because that is what terminal means!

Clearly there are serious problems with what he says, yet it seems Defra accept him blindly.  A while ago a colleague made a Freedom of Information Request to them about the evidence behind one of the scary claims in their Code of Practice.  The reply said that they didn't have any evidence, "but Professor Knottenbelt thinks it does."

The other significant things  about the Code of Practice document are what Defra said about it a while ago. This is a page from the COP. They implied it is an "invasive non-native plant"

The significant thing here is that they say themselves that the information is out of date and that it has been withdrawn.

The Ragwort Control Act is very clear. Any Code of Practice created has to be put before parliament. They created some really bad new advice that implied strongly a lot of incorrect things including that the law said it was forbidden to plant ragwort. It isn't. Then they reinstated the old document in effect making a new Code of Practice. It hasn't been put before parliament so surely it isn't legal?

I could go on and on about how bad Defra's work is on this and how they mess things up. The problem is twofold, there doesn't seem to be any real expertise in the people drawing up advice in general and there is a political push to do something based on a campaign full of nonsensical claims.

In short their work does not conform to reality as shown by the peer reviewed research. It therefore cannot be trusted.

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Friday, 2 August 2019

Natural England spreads phobia of dock plants with Ragwort hysteria

Today's posting is about the effect that the proven hysteria on ragwort is having on other wild plants also there is a petition to the government that has been raised to repeal the Weeds Act.

The Weeds Act causes a lot of problems. It, is as we will see below a really old law. It gives the government the power to create orders to control certain weeds. Out of fear of orders nature reserves are damaged and eco-diverse road verges are cleared. Some people even misunderstand the law, or decide to misrepresent it. You can look on twitter, people say they are controlling weeds, usually ragwort, they are asked why and often say , falsely, that it is a legal requirement, which it isn't.  The British Horse Society who are behind a lot of the hysteria are STILL saying this so it is no wonder that people believe it!

 A bit of background, in 1920 , nearly a hundred years ago, the then government was  concerned to increase agricultural production which was then in its pre-industrialised state.  They created an amendment to the Corn production Act 1917 with   the Agriculture Act 1920 which produced a list of weeds that  they were to be given the power to order controlled. This was part of what is now a quaint and archaic attitude to agricultural husbandry, It of course long predates the modern concern with biodiversity, the loss of which is often caused by the modern agricultural methods which did not exist in 1920. Note the weeds were not made illegal to grow and the main aim seems to have been that wealthy patrician landowners who were very prevalent in parliament in those days were concerned that their tenants could be forced to maintain their property in they way that they wanted.

They created a list of "injurious weeds". Now I have a full explanation of what Injurious weeds means on my website. It is often translated as harmful, but that is not the real full meaning.  In this context , it means harmful to the interests of  Agriculture. I will quote a section of that website below.  This refers to a debate on the Act which took place on the 3rd November 1920.

There are many uses of the words "injurious" and "injuriously" during the debate. All of them have the "harmful/prejudicial to interests" meaning including this from James Gardiner then MP for Kinross and Western Perthshire.
"Every agricultural committee I know has intimate knowledge of agriculture and an intimate knowledge of the district in which control is to be exercised. They are, therefore, well able to ensure that nothing injurious to the cultivation or the country results from the orders they give. "
It is very clear that the meaning of the word as used in this legislation is not "toxic" or "poisonous" but harmful to the interests of land or agriculture.

You will also see a similar use of the word in regards to the interests of people being used in the
old Act to which I link to above.

Later on  the Weeds Act 1959 was created. It wasn't actually discussed at all in parliament it just transferred across the old legislation into a new form.

The list of weeds is listed in the law as

    spear thistle (cirsium vulgare (Savi) Ten.),
    creeping or field thistle (cirsium arvense (L.) Scop.),
    curled dock (rumex crispus L.),
    broad-leaved dock (rumex obtusifolius L.), and
    ragwort (senecio jacobaea L.);

The modern scientific name for ragwort is Jacobaea vulgaris.

It is important to note that the plants other than ragwort are actually listed in books on free wild food.
They are actually edible. Of course docks contain oxalic acid, just like rhubarb, and in excess this can cause problems but they are less of a problem than many foods. For example, eating a whole nutmeg might be seriously dangerous. It is the dose that makes the poison.

There is an issue that had been raised about ragwort.  It was claimed that it was poisonous to handle. The evidence is very very poor, the toxins are very poorly absorbed through the skin, but it makes a nice scare story of course so it gets circulated. A colleague of mine asked Defra for their evidence. It came as no surprise when the said that they didn't have any. Then quite disturbingly they  said that Professor Knottenbelt thought it was dangerous to handle. I blogged about him a few months ago. This is the anti-ragwort campaigner who claimed it was causing serious problems in South Africa, where in fact it has never been recorded and that ragwort was responsible for the decline in the cinnabar moth, which is actually reliant on it for food! As I said I collect his stuff avidly, because in my honest opinion, he cannot open his mouth on the subject without putting both feet in it very firmly!

Dock leaves are a traditional cure for nettle stings. The two plants often occur together and if I get  nettle sting I have since childhood rubbed a dock leaf on the sting to relieve the pain.

Why then in the name of all reason does English Nature tell people to wear protective clothing when handling dock leaves (and all the other weeds on this list)? Surely even thistles aren't that dangerous! 
 Here is the text from the form on reporting Injurious Weeds 

WARNING: on no account should a member of the public attempt to enter railway land or verges alongside motorways to verify the presence of weeds or to remove them. You must also have the owner’s permission to enter other land. You are also advised to wear protective clothing and gloves whenever injurious weeds are handled.

It is an example of the well-known and well-documented hysteria on ragwort leading to even the government's nature conservation body in England promoting unwarranted fears about nature. This is just unacceptable! We never had this sort of form or advice before the hysterical campaign against ragwort started. It is also rather significant that they fail to mention that it is illegal to remove the plants without the permission of the landowner or occupier.

The problem is there is a history of officials deliberately exaggerating the risks because they want to help the campaign against ragwort.  There are many examples such as this one. Bill Ellson made a public Freedom of Information request to Surrey County Council because they had a real hatchet job on their website on ragwort that contained a whole list of well-known myths from the anti-ragwort campaign. He asked them for the evidence behind their claims. This is often a very good strategy because when you do it then you find that the information they are using you nearly always find it isn't really evidence at all but someone's assertion in a magazine like Horse and Hound or The Spectator and often there is another piece of juicy misinformation that is invaluable in showing what is going on. In this case the Council  had to admit that they didn't have that evidence. but significantly the website originally had the words,"Hopefully it is not too late to help in the campaign against this insidious killer." on it. It seems that it was very clear what the intention of  the Council was to promote the campaign against ragwort with scary and false information. The Council tried to say that they originally did have evidence, but as an expert I know it was exactly the kinds of articles which I mention above and that I debunk here regularly.

There is a general pattern you see here on official websites, because there is a law called the Weeds Act, there is a general panic about obeying it and even to misrepresent what it says. Defra at one time were strongly implying that the law said that you must not allow the plants to spread. The Welsh equivalent of Defra has had officers working in a part of Wales where lots of people still speak the language producing information and rather sneakily they have written the Welsh language version with stronger language. Farmers and other landowners who are the target are different to the general population. They in particular are less likely to be immigrants and more likely to have inherited their land over the generations and therefore still speak Welsh. ( I speak it fluently.)

A lot of this crazy habitat destroying activity would not exist if it were not for the Weeds Act.

Here is the petition. Please do help those of us working on this and sign it. You really can help conservation by doing just this little thing.

Repeal the archaic Weeds Act 1959 to benefit pollinators and wider biodiversity.


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Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Yvette ter Meulen What are you smoking? Not ragwort!

One of the frustrating things about working in this area of nature conservation is the sheer amount of ignorant numbskull nonsense written about ragwort.  I got a message last night about a comment written on Facebook by Yvette ter Meulen who according to her profile works for Ruiteren & Mennen who have a shameful, discrediting screed about ragwort on their website about which I have blogged before.

I have a small gap in my timetable today so I thought it would be a good thing to write my honest opinions about. I have a backlog of quite a few things to write about such as English Nature telling people to wear protective clothing before touching dock leaves! ( They are on the same list of plants which were designated as poor for agriculture as practiced in the 1920s), but those will have to wait.

However, this one is so egregious and likely to spread that it needs to be combated.

This is the comment from Yvette ter Meulen. JKK is Jacobskruiskruid which is the Dutch word for Ragwort.
Van paarden is inmiddels bekend dat sommigen de groene rozetten van Jkk wel eten. Dat zou te maken kunnen hebben met een het feit dat de plant hallucinogenen bevat, die mogelijk een verslavende werking hebben. Net als drugs bij mensen.
and it translates as

It is now known that some horses eat the green rosettes of ragwort. This could be due to the fact that the plant contains hallucinogens, which may have an addictive effect. Just like drugs in people
Now let's get this straight .The scientific literature is clear poisoning is a problem with ragwort in hay ONLY.
But oh boy what was Yvette ter Meulen smoking? Was she writing this from an Amsterdam coffee shop or something? The idea that ragwort contains hallucinogens is just simply crazy. I suspect it is a stupid misunderstanding of the word alkaloid, but when it comes to ragwort hysteria who knows.

Unfortunately this is  the kind of nonsense that passes for fact and gets passed around and even published in magazines. As I have said before there is nonsense around that I could blog about daily and this is unfortunately all too typical and remember it seems her employers are just as bad so it is no wonder she talks nonsense.

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Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Ragwort germination and spread nonsense

As is often the case today's blog entry is based on something happening on Twitter. In this case this rather amusing but accurate tweet by Bill Ellson.
It gives me chance to express my honest opinions based on approaching two decades of detailed research.

If ragwort spread at the rate some people claim the British Isles would have sunk under the sheer weight of the stuff some years ago.
Indeed, there are many crazy claims made about it spreading. One of my colleagues once sent out a message advising people to help me and jokingly suggested that there were so many silly claims that ragwort might be blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire.

  This brings me back to an article I recently discovered by the influential Professor Derek Knottenbelt.

He has been influential in the spread of the hysteria around ragwort and you will remember that I wrote about his insane claim that the plant was causing the decline of the Cinnabar Moth which actually relies on it for food.

Well, the article which I used to confirm that story is a real gold mine. I could blog about it for weeks. I collect Knottenbelt's writing avidly, for not only is he the source of a lot of the problems, but his writing about this subject is really wildly wrong.

It is, in any case, always a good idea to examine the views of the best of those opposed to your view as it guides against error. So I do try to do this. The problem is that my opponents in general are sometimes so desperately awful  that it is really hard to find anything challenging. Just look at what I have written in the past about the British Horse Society!

At  this point some people will say who  am I to challenge a professor? How can I understand  or evaluate such a high standing expert?

The answer comes from one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century ,the Nobel Prize winning physicist Professor Richard Feynman. He sums this up in a famous quote during one of his recorded lectures. He was talking about the derivation of knowledge about the laws of physics but the principle applies to all of science.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn't matter how beautiful the guess is. It doesn't matter how smart you are. Who made the guess . What his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”
Indeed, using arguments from authority is one of the biggest errors it is possible to make in science. Only the facts make something true, not who said them. Furthermore, people who have authoritarian tendencies have been studied clinically and shown to have deficits in mental processing that inhibit logical thinking.

Coming back to the point about the exaggerated claims about ragwort spread. This is a quote from Professor Derek Knottenbelt in the article which I found.

" It produces more than 150,000 seeds, with an expected germination of more than 80% for up to 20 years."
Now here we have a prime example of how panic is generated. This is at best highly misleading if  not definitely untrue.  That 150,000 seeds figure was used in advertising by an equine charity.  I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The figure being used was an exact 150,000 not "more than", which is worse of course.  The ASA, who are of course independent, banned the advert as misleading. Now we seem to know , yet again, that the story comes from Professor Knottenbelt.

80% is a normal germination rate for many flowering plants but of course such a high figure being mentioned sounds alarming. It is pretty much irrelevant in telling you anything about the rate or degree of spread. On average a plant produces one offspring, and produces enough seeds to ensure this. Then "up to 20 years",is that true? Well  it is rather suspect. Most of the research shows a much lower figure. There is a study using an unusual soil type where it is extrapolated that 1%, just 1% , of the seeds might survive.

It is interesting to note that later in the article Professor Knottenbelt uses this wrong figure again.

"The BHS and DEFRA offer leaflets giving advice on methods of removal -- but all we need to remember is that every plant that is left to seed this year can produce another 150,000 plants over the next few years. "
Of course this is wrong, but you can see how horse owners would be panicked by this.

Another interesting and wildly wrong statement is this:-

 At Liverpool University we have a research group developing a non-invasive equine blood test, to be used as an early indicator of ragwort poisoning before the clinical signs develop.  I estimate that 20% of horses in this country will have ragwort poisoning in their body.
Just imagine the panic this sort of thing causes among horse owners. We have an equine veterinary professor telling them there is a 1 in 5 chance that their horse is suffering from poisoning that could kill it.  It would be unnecessary panic because this claim by the professor was hyperbole. The facts showed it was wrong by a massive amount.

They did do the the research. A PhD student was given the task of doing it. Given the amount of work I do on this you would expect that I would know all about this research and I do. I have a copy of the thesis.

This test never really worked as expected although the biochemistry seems sound. If horses really had eaten ragwort the signs should show in the blood. A student was given the research task for her PhD.

What you have to realise at this point is that ragwort poisoning is difficult to diagnose. It just shows up as liver damage, which can have many causes. Other more recent and separate research has shown that only a minority of these might be ragwort. We have to say might because although there are characteristic microscopic changes in the liver, which you can see by taking a biopsy, these changes can also be cause by toxins in mouldy feed.

In the research for the PhD ninety one horses that had signs of liver damage were tested. Only one , a case were a horse had been mistreated, showed a positive result.  Note, these were not the general population about which the wild claim that 20% of them would have positive signs of poisoning. These were sick horses already showing symptoms and yet no sign of ragwort poisoning could be found except in a case where the horse had  been mistreated.
 The article goes on and on with poor information.He uses the infamous survey claiming thousands of horse deaths as if it is accurate. The statistics are really very obviously crooked  talking a minute response rate and multiplying it as if everyone had replied.  Adverts using it were again stopped after action by the ASA.   Surely a professor should recognise such misuse of statistics?

He gets the law  badly wrong, as he has on other occasions.

Classified as a noxious weed in the Weeds Act of 1959, every landowner has since been required to control ragwort either by direct spraying or by lifting and burning.

 Again adverts making the same false claim were stopped after ASA action.  Every landowner is not required by this act to control the plant. Incidentally the word noxious isn't even in the act!

He makes this ridiculous claim:-
"Until the last decade, ragwort was not widely seen"
 There is a botanical recording scheme which shows that its distribution has not changed since at least the 1960s and a few years after this article was published  government research actually showed that ragwort had been declining in abundance.

It should be obvious to anyone why I honestly have a problem believing anything this man says.
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Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Melissa Kite- Fake news on Ragwort and the Spectator apology

I have had a limited amount of time to do this but there has been some activity on social media and it merits a blog entry to act as a reply to some of the nonsense out there.

The current leading expert on this issue in the UK is Professor Andy Durham and this is what he wrote in a recent article:-
Perhaps the best-known cause of liver disease in UK horses is pyrrolizidine alkaloid toxicity resulting from ragwort ingestion. Clearly this might be expected to occur as an outbreak in horses sharing pasture or forage sources. So well-known is this disease that there has been a strong temptation to speculatively attribute causation of many liver disease cases to ragwort in the absence of specific evidence of such; creating a self-fulfilling belief that it is a common cause of liver disease.
Recent surveys of horse owners, veterinary surgeons and pathologists however, indicate that genuinely confirmed ragwort toxicity is actually not at all common in UK horses

Let's get it straight here. Ragwort is poisonous, just like many wild plants, but it is nowhere near as dangerous as is often claimed. There is a campaign against the plant which raises false awareness.( It raises funds too.) I can show by scientific evidence that this campaign is based on falsehoods and exaggerations.

The essence of the story behind the social media activity is that a columnist in The Spectator, called Melissa Kite, wrote an anti-ragwort piece attacking my website and making a blatantly wrong claim about what I said and then Matt Shardlow CEO of Buglife  and I complained to the press regulator and The Spectator published an apology.

It was claimed that I had something ludicrously wrong about ragwort which I hadn't said and surprise, surprise, Melissa Kite got the law wrong!

(I do intend to come back to the subject of the apology and the original awful article at some point but I need to put something to match it on my main website first.)

You really would expect that Melissa Kite, as a professional journalist, would know how to check facts. There are several copies of the law on-line now. The first one that went on-line I put on myself, but either she did not read the law or did not understand it.

I want to come back to this at some point but there is a real issue here and it is one of proper behaviour in a democracy. This is not specifically about the failure of Melissa Kite to do her job properly but a wider issue about whether it is right for people to use  misinformation to promote things that benefit them or things they claim to care about, and raise money in the process.  Remember, there are quite a few people employed by the equine charities that have gained coverage and eventually money as a result of their reprehensible activities in promoting the proven falsehoods about ragwort.

Let's start here by discussing my motivations. Yes, I am interested in nature. Yes, I am a nature conservationist. However, that isn't all of it. I am interested in science and I dislike seeing unscientific falsehoods being spread around.

I can describe it  like this. I am also a musical person. I have some nice Bach playing in the background as I type.  Some years ago I was in a situation where I was near a pub that had a Beatles tribute band playing. I quite like the Beatles but I didn't like this because the singers were singing out of tune. I had to put headphones on and listen to something else. It offended my musical sense.

It is a similar feeling with the nonsense around ragwort. It offends my sense of reason. I am not alone. You will find debunkers like me all over the internet. They will be debunking nonsense like the claims that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; the earth is only 6000 years; the Apollo moon landings were faked; vaccines cause autism and so on. One of the people who tweets like me on ragwort also debunks the notion that chalk marks on pavements are signals between thieves wishing to burgle houses, when in fact they are placed there by utility companies. He also has a interesting way of correcting people who tweet historical inaccuracies.   Like a lot of debunkers out of necessity he has become very knowledgeable. You can't do this in public, on-line forums, unless you know your subject, because you get flattened by your opponents.
Now let's get to the nonsense about ragwort. I used to say that things had been grossly exaggerated out of all proportion. I now have the evidence  to say that things have just been made up. The anti-ragwort campaign is based on both exaggerations and clearly established, provable, unequivocal falsehoods. An example was the error about the law which Melissa Kite's employers had to apologise for.

I'll give you just a few further examples :-

It was falsely claimed that it was a serious problem in South Africa and may have given people cancer there, when in fact it has never even been recorded in that country.

It was falsely claimed that  it was increasing at a wild rate when in fact the available proper evidence showed it decreasing.

It was  falsely claimed that it was killing thousands of horses a year. The claim here was crazy. The statistics were just done incorrectly in a really amateurish and incompetent  way, taking a tiny and poorly identifiable response from a massive survey and multiplying it as if everyone had replied! It was based on supposed confirmed cases when no check seemed to have been done on how they were confirmed and in any case there is no really reliable test since common toxins in mouldy feed produce the same microscopic and  biochemical changes.

It was falsely claimed, as I blogged about  some time ago, that ragwort is poisoning the cinnabar moth and causing its decline, when in fact the moth is dependent on the plant for survival. As I called it at the time I wrote about it,  it is BONKERS. I try not to use too much emotive language, but to someone like me, who has studied this since early childhood, this really is insane.

It would be bad enough that this claim was made in print at all but it is published in a textbook on horse care by Horse and Hound!

This could go on and on with example after example of published nonsense.

I will however, draw my readers to one other thing. On my website I have an analysis of a really bad article by the British Horse Society who are responsible for a lot of really really bad information. This was published in 2001 when they had been campaigning for a couple of years, and it contains a stunning confession.
To begin with it was difficult to get the media interested. Their first question was always ' how many horses die of ragwort poisoning every year?' The answer of course was we don't know. We couldn't even come up with an owner whose horse had died of ragwort poisoning- The necessary 'case study' that is so vital for any media story.
So you have it from the Horse Society's mouth. They started the campaign without any proper evidence, and it has continued the same way.

They have publicised crooked  statistics, performed biased surveys ( which actually wouldn't prove anything about the plant anyway.)  published more silly articles ad nauseam.

The real problem here is that we get very authoritarian attitudes developing regarding this plant and its control. ( There is good evidence that authoritarianism is clinically linked to poor thinking.) 

This means that millions of pounds are being spent by councils on unnecessary controls. Council websites often have misinformation on them too, no doubt as a result of inaccurate articles  like Melissa Kite's in The Spectator. Cornwall council had something on line about spending £100,000 a year on control. This is money wasted that could be spent on better things.

People are joking, I hope, about "Big Ragwort" attacking The Spectator.
Oh how I wish there was a massive organisation to pay all the travel and hotel bills I have amassed  over the years,  as I seek out documents from far flung locations. It cannot understand how The Specator type crowd don't see it as authoritarian "Big Government" led by nutty animal people, which would be in line with other material I have read in the magazine. They don't seem to  think of the "Big Government" that the hysterical mob  wants to peer and snoop into every field and garden lest it harbor a yellow flower.

(Ironically, despite Ragwort being touted as a risk to children, new houses near to me have arrived with gardens containing its pretty perennial relative  Brachyglotis grayi, laden with the same  toxins, without a hair being turned.)

Animals are being put at risk. The overwhelming majority of liver cases have been shown by research as not being due to ragwort type poisoning, which remember cannot be proved definitely. Yet, the impression is being given that every case is due to ragwort and because of the difficulty of making a definite diagnosis it is rubbing off on vets. I just wonder how many beloved animals have been put down due to a diagnosis of ragwort poisoning when, if properly investigated, they might have got better because of better treatment of the real condition.
This is not a minor issue involving just one plant. It affects nearly every nature site in the country.  Ragwort is well established, by good evidence, as the one of the most ecologically important plants.

Go and read Isabella Tree's wonderful book Rewilding where her chapter on ragwort says that the hysteria nearly sabotaged the whole project. I review it here. In the Netherlands an important  rewilded nature reserve called Oostvaardersplassen is being threatened partly by clueless activists repeating nonsense they have read in the British equine press.

Just to refute one of the sillier arguments that is being pushed out on social media which goes along the lines of, "Well it's poisonous so don't take the risk."
What about the risk of the animal in a field being struck by lightning?
It is difficult to get good statistics on lightning strikes but it seems a similar level of risk. Especially relevant when you know that ragwort poisoning, in reality, is overwhelmingly due to preventable bad care of the animals. What about Equine Grass Sickness? It is , it seems,  some kind of infection associated with eating grass. In any case removing all poisonous plants for zero risk would dull our world, removing the oak trees and bluebells that grace our woods in springtime.

 There are people out there who will, in an authoritarian manner, tell you to follow Defra's Code of Practice. It is marked as being withdrawn anyway, but it gets the fundamental issue of risk wrong and is therefore a poor source of information. As I said, the evidence says authoritarianism is   linked to poor thinking ability, so ignore the people who promote this. They frequently make  statements that are flawed in other logical ways too.

There is a concept in psychology called "dysrationalia" and it is defined as the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence. It is this that is key here whether it is Melissa Kite getting her facts wrong because she was, as it seems, overconfident that they were correct and didn't check ,or Defra officials making crass errors because they don't check their facts or know how to perform the proper mathematics necessary to get statistics right. A lack of proper critical thinking skills colours the whole issue.

Rational thought and the evidence shows that the ragwort bashers are wrong. It really doesn't kill as many horses as has been claimed and the hysteria generated by the false awareness raising with article after article publishing what we now have come to know as "Fake News"  is leading to a significant amount of money wasted and also  environmental damage.  Let alone the misdiagnosis and consequent harm to animals.

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