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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Sunday, 6 January 2019

Ruiteren & Mennen ragwort nonsense

There has been some discussion on social media promoting the website of a Dutch foundation called Ruiteren & Mennen whilst at the same time attacking the reputation of ragwort expert Esther Hegt. Esther runs an excellent website on the issue . She is an intelligent and knowledgeable person who has worked with a large number of experts on the issue as can be seen from the list of co-contributors on her site.  The same cannot be said for the anonymous author of the Ruiteren & Mennen article which I am discussing here.

Regular readers of this blog will not be in the least surprised to learn that Ruiteren & Mennen are talking complete and utter nonsense. We know from clinical psychological research that people who obsess over the cuddly wuddly image of animals too much, often do not have as clear a perception of what is actually factually accurate. So this may actually be the problem here but there does seem to be a deliberate attempt  to misrepresent things.
I should say that I do not really speak Dutch. I would describe myself as a dabbling linguist. If I go to a country I learn some of the language first. I have got rather a knack with languages so it isn't too difficult for me. It is useful for example if you arrive at a Polish train station and are confronted  with 2 trains that have just pulled in going in opposite directions and quickly need to ask which one is going the way you want to go.

 The total number of languages I have studied comes to around a dozen, but I wouldn't claim fluency in most of those and also with some I have probably almost forgotten them, but I have visited The Netherlands so I know some of the language and also I studied German in school and there is a level of broad similarity which helps. It is rather in the way in which my school French helps with the other Latin derived languages. ( I also know some Latin.) I am relying on this basic knowledge some discussions with a native Dutch speaker and machine translations. I shall be using these translations below, but I will be applying my own knowledge to improve them,change to the correct word order etc,

Let's get started. I can't cover all the nonsense but these are some main points. They make this well-known false claim about the law.

In England, landowners are obliged to combat ragwort and prevent spread. If one remains in default, one can even count on a fine of no less than £ 5000.00 or 2 years imprisonment.
This is nonsense. You are not obliged to control the plant by law. You may be ordered to control it but it isn't compulsory and the claim that there is an automatic minimum fine of £5000 is of course wrong!

Claims like this this have led to advertisements being stopped after action by the Advertising Standards Authority ASA.

Incidentally, they also get their geography wrong. England is not the same as the United Kingdom. I am a British citizen with a British passport, but I am not English and a lot of my time I even speak another language indigenous to these isles.

Then there is this piece of nonsensical exaggeration.

The first year ragwort has a rosette-shaped growth, in the second year the flower stalks will form 150,000 to 200,000 fluffy seeds.
An advert claiming that just the lower of these two figures for seed production has been banned by the ASA too.

As you can see there is a pattern of nonsense emerging. Then there is a silly list of supposedly confirmed cases of ragwort poisoning. The person writing this stuff for Ruiteren & Mennen simply does  not know the science. You cannot, I repeat cannot, have a confirmed case of ragwort poisoning unless you actually saw the poisoning taking place, and even then care is needed.  There is no test which can confirm ragwort poisoning 100%.    There are other things that cause indistinguishable changes in the liver.

Then we have some ridiculous nonsense about bees.

  1.      Excessive consumption of PAs may lead to physical attenuation and premature mortality in bees 
   2.      Bees are forced to feed their queens and larvae with pollen and nectar that contains an overdose of PAs. It is unknown whether this leads to premature death of the larvae or the eventually occurring bees. PAs may cause bee disorientation for bees. 
   3.      Insects, but also insect eaters, are potentially hampered by the excessive toxins in their reproduction. PAs can damage the DNA

Oh dear! This completely misunderstands the biochemistry. PAs (Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids) aren't poisonous in themselves.  It is breakdown products produced in the vertebrate liver that are the problem.There is no evidence that this happens in invertebrates like bees!. Indeed the evidence is to the contrary. The author of this tripe ridden rant from Ruiteren & Mennen has used Friends of the Earth as a reference and their document on ragwort makes it clear that there are even bee species that specialise in using yellow flowers like ragwort.

Then, in my honest opinion, the writer of this awful post from Ruiteren & Mennen confirms their lack of understanding of the scientific method in a spectacular way.

In 2005 my then neighbor, for 2 days, removed manually standing ragwort in bloom from  a horse meadow   of an acquaintance When I met him at the end of the 2nd day, he graciously showed his green hands and forearms and said "Oh what a job, maybe I should have worn gloves anyway".
He was dead two years later. Died of cancer of the lungs and liver. A healthy, vital 70-year-old man, who suddenly got serious fatigue symptoms, became ill and died.  

Oh my goodness me! What a load of claptrap! Surely anyone with knowledge of science , logic and critical thinking knows you cannot make an argument like this and be taken seriously? Just because one event happened and another one followed doesn't mean they are connected. The thinking here seems positively  medieval.

Incidentally, you get liver cancer or lung cancer. It is not usual to get the two together and it would be most usual for it to start in the lungs and spread. The liver being a common place for it to spread to.

All in all the Ruiteren & Mennen stuff seems to be complete nonsense written by a person showing great ignorance of logic and science.  The problem is that a lot of people will believe this stuff because they themselves don't have the skills to spot that a long scientific sounding post full of fancy language  is actually "bovine excretion". If anyone repeats this stuff beware they are using scaremongering nonsense!

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Saturday, 27 October 2018

Review: Wildling - The Return of Nature to a British Farm

I don't often get to do book reviews on this blog. The subject is a bit narrow  Readers will remember my review of Robin Page's awful book,  Messages From A Disappearing Countryside.  

However, on this occasion I have a truly wonderful book to review, written in an intelligent and knowledgeable fashion. It was first drawn to my attention in a tweet.

May 28
Afternoon ! I don’t know if you have yet to read Wilding by ? If and when you do, there is an exposition therein on ragwort that will gladden your heart
With a tweet like that what could I do but read it! Indeed, it did gladden my heart and when I did read it I knew I would be writing this blog entry. There is a chapter in the book about ragwort called "Living with the Yellow Peril".

The full title of the book is Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm  and
its subject, rewilding, intersects very neatly with my reasons for writing this blog and all the other work I do combating the hysteria over ragwort. This chapter is so good and so informative that it is worth taking time over this review and first I will explain why it intersects so neatly with my work.

As a conservationist I am acutely aware of what is now named The Biodiversity Crisis.  The loss of species globally at an alarming rate and the loss of numbers of all species of wildlife. There is one concept that has become clear and which I have spent a lot of time studying. This is the concept of Metapopulation Dynamics.

The word Metapopulation is a typical scientist's word. It is half Ancient Greek and half Latin in derivation and it therefore sounds quite complicated. However, the basic concept is actually quite simple. Organisms live in groups of interconnected colonies. Periodically, for one reason or another an individual colony will die out, but as long as there is another one in a reasonable distance and the habitat is still OK it will eventually be recolonised by an individual from another colony. In time perhaps the colony which provided that individual with  suffer the same fate and die out but be recolonised from the site which it previously seeded.

There are important repercussions of metapopulation theory. Firstly, in order to conserve wildlife it has to be done on a landscape scale and secondly, because it takes a long time for all populations in the system to die out, even if the system is ultimately doomed, then wildlife losses will continue to decline even if no more habitat is destroyed.

The key therefore is to recreate more habitat and indeed I have spent sometime studying the technical matters of habitat recreation.  If someone is claiming that because a plant is poisonous, like many, that it must be eradicated and being quoted as saying, "It is toxic to humans, so what the hell are we doing with it in this country?"  , then it is going to cause problems with any wildlife restoration scheme. Wildlife sites would be subjected to even more agricultural intensification in the name of weed control. This is why I work on ragwort hysteria. because in the big picture it harms conservation.

This is of course where rewilding comes in . It is one of the processes that is necessary to conserve our wildlife. Ragwort hysteria is obviously a block to it and this is demonstrated in Isabella Tree's writing in this book.

To cover the main theme of the book it describes the work of the author and her husband on their 3,500 acre estate in West Sussex returning the site to a more natural state while still using it to farm livestock.

The chapter with which I am concerned starts with an explanation of the fact that people were unhappy with the changes that were taking place in rewilding the site at Knepp. Then it goes on to explain one problem which as you will note, "threatened to derail the project."

But one particular aspect of the project refused- and continues to refuse - to die down. A furore so intense that at one point it threatened to derail the project altogether. To many people, the most offensive aspect of the Knepp project, epitomizing our neglectful ways and ranging in locals’ minds from a ‘great disappointment’ to an ‘unmitigated disaster’, is the appearance of ‘injurious’ weeds. ‘Sir Charles has turned a well- farmed estate into a wasteland of thistles, docks and ragwort,’ wrote an observer to the County Times. Of these three offending species, by far the worst seems to have been ~ and continues to be - common ragwort.
This is entirely in keeping with the entries I have been making on this blog for years. I don't blog so much now as I tackle stuff in other ways but I still regularly see hysterical nonsense about the plant.  The author continues ....

The moral outrage ragwort engenders in Britain is usually aimed at alien invasives like Japanese knotweed. Hostility to a plant that has been part of our environment since the last ice age is a peculiar new phenomenon. Less than two centuries ago the poet John Clare was extolling its ‘shining blossoms . . . of rich sunshine’. The Isle of Man knows it as ‘cushag’ - its national flower. Yet to the rest of Britain ragwort is an evil to be expunged from the world. Its sulphur-yellow flowers are rags to irascible bulls. Feelings run so high that recent attempts by DEFRA and the Wildlife & Countryside Link - a coalition of forty- six conservation organizations - to encourage a sensible approach have failed to dent anti-ragwort propaganda.

The loudest accusation of all is that it is a killer of livestock. Ragwort is, indeed, a poisonous plant. It contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids - toxins that, when eaten in large quantities by mammals, cause liver- failure and death. But grazing animals have lived with it for tens of thousands of years. Our own longhorns, Exmoors, Tamworths, roe, fallow (and subsequently red) deer graze amongst ragwort with no adverse effects whatsoever. They know to avoid it. The plant itself warns them away with its bitter taste and a smell.
It is all too true. What I really admire about the author's work is that she has done her homework and understands the science and then writes in a clear and articulate fashion the truth and points clearly to where the blame lies. The comparison with Japanese knotweed is a very good one since you will regularly see ragwort listed on council websites alongside this plant. Often it will be with misleading or plainly wrong information that has clearly been a result of someone reading the anti-ragwort propaganda that is so prevalent. Another piece of insightful understanding follows.

The source of the most recent wave of ragwort hysteria can be laid at the door of the British Equestrian Veterinary Association and the British Horse Society. In 2002 they published the results of a survey claiming that as many as 6,500 of the UK population of around 600,000 horses die every year from ingesting ragwort. It was an astonishing leap from the average often ragwort-associated horse deaths per year estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1990. The BEVA’s claim - it emerged was based on bad science. 4 per cent of BEVA members had responded to the survey, reporting that they had seen, on average, three ‘suspected’ (note, not ‘confirmed’) cases of ragwort poisoning (note not deaths) that year. The BEVA had then simply multiplied this average by the full BEVA membership of 1,945 to produce a total of 6,553 cases for that year. No one at the BEVA seems to have considered the most likely reason that the majority of vets failed to respond to their survey was that they had no cases to report. Despite the fallibility of their reasoning and their having subsequently removed the misinformation from their website the BEVA-based myth has developed a life of its own, particularly in the folklore of horsiculture. As the old adage goes, a lie can get halfway round the world before truth has got its boots on.
Indeed, this is really bad science and correctly identified as such. There cannot be anything really than suspected cases because the test which involves microscopic examination of liver samples to distinguish ragwort poisoning from other, commoner causes of liver damage isn't precise since these changes can also be caused by fungal toxins in invisibly mouldy feed. All too often we see claims of ragwort poisoning where even this test hasn't been done and all there is is liver damage. We know, from research, that the overwhelming number of cases of liver damage in horses, where this nonsense started, are from causes other than ragwort.

As she says this stuff is still circulating.I myself have taken adverts repeating this nonsense to the Advertising Standards Authority and got them stopped.

Again her talent for identifying the truth in the face of an onslaught of nonsense is shown in this paragraph where after quoting a letter sent to her husband. accusing them of letting seed blow onto their land ,the author quotes the science destroying the claimant's argument with great ease.

Once again, prejudice and alarm outpace science. It was virtually impossible, according to the government’s own guidelines, for ragwort to be colonizing the countryside from Knepp. Research
has shown that 60 per cent of ragwort seeds fall around the base of the plant, and it is the seed source in the soil, rather than the source from windblown seed, that generally germinates. The seed
being blown on the wind is lighter and likely to be infertile. It is estimated that, for a plant producing 30,000 healthy seeds,- 18,000 of them land at the base of the plant, 11,700 at 4.5 metres (15 feet)
away, and so on, decreasing with distance, until 36 metres (120 feet) away only 1.5 seeds land. In accordance with the code of practice published by DEFRA we had created a 50 metre buffer zone
inside our boundary that we keep regularly topped, allowing no weed seed sources to develop, and to further reassure our neighbours we voluntarily pull up ragwort by hand in a further 50 metres. In areas of particular sensitivity where, for example, our land abutted a llama firm, we cut a 100 metre strip - twice the area recommended by DEFRA. Our ragwort seed, viable or not, was - and still is - highly unlikely to be travelling beyond our boundary.
This book is really excellent. It really does gladden my heart. Get your copy now!
You will not regret it. It is written by a talented wordsmith and the Knepp project is so lucky to have her as an advocate. I will leave you here with the final paragraphs of the ragwort chapter where the case for rewilding to restore the lost wonders of British nature is made so charmingly and eloquently. We have lost so much, even in my lifetime, we need to restore habitat on a much wider scale. In the words of Dylan Thomas, a poet from my hometown, we should, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Aesthetic sensibilities are deeply subjective, and hard to acknowledge and analyse clearly. They take root in us from the moment we’re born. They bind us to a particular view of the landscape, something we
begin to think of as ‘natural’ or, at least, benign. What we see as children, particularly where we grow up, becomes what we want to continue to see, and what we want our children to see.
Nostalgia, and the sense of security that nostalgia brings, binds us to the familiar. We are persuaded, too, by our own absorption in this aesthetic that what we are seeing has been here for ever. We
believe the countryside around us, or something very similar to it, has persisted for centuries and the wildlife within it, if not exactly the same, is at least a fair representation of what has been here for centuries. But the ecological processes of the past are hard for the layman - and often even conservation professionals - to grasp. We are blinded by the immediacy of the present. We look at the landscape and see what is there, not what is missing. And if we do appreciate some sort of ecological loss and change, we tend to go only as far
back as our childhood memories, or the memories of our parents or grandparents who tell us ‘there used to be hundreds of lapwings in my day’, ‘skylarks and song thrushes were ten-a-penny’, ‘the
fields round here used to be red with poppies and blue with cornflowers’, ‘cod was the poor man’s fish when I was a nipper’. We are blind to the fact that in our grandparents’ grandparents’ day there
would have been species-rich wildflower meadows in every parish and coppice woods teeming with butterflies. They would have heard corncrakes and bitterns, seen clouds of turtle doves. Thousands
of lapwings and hundreds more skylarks. A mere four generations ago they knew rivers swimming with burbot - now extinct in Britain - and eels, and their summer nights were peppered with bats and moths and glow-worms. Their grandparents, in turn, saw nightjars settling on dusty country lanes and even hawking for moths around the street lamps in towns, and spotted flycatchers in every orchard, and meadow pipits everywhere from salt- flats to the crowns of mountains. They saw banks of giant cod and migrating tuna in British waters. They
saw our muddy North Sea clear as gin, filtered by oyster beds as large as Wales. And their grandparents, in turn, living at the time of the last beaver in Britain, would have known great bustards, and watched shoals of herring five miles long and three miles broad migrating within sight of the shore, chased by schools of dolphins and sperm whales and the occasional great white shark. We don’t have to look too deeply into the history books, into contemporary accounts, for scenes dramatically different to our own to be normal Yet we live in denial of these catastrophic losses.
 This continuous lowering of standards and the acceptance of degraded natural ecosystems is known as ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ - a term coined in 1995 by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, who
noticed that experts who were charged with evaluating radically depleted fish stocks took as their baseline the state of the fishery at the start of their careers, rather than fish populations in their
original state. Hundreds of years ago an area of sea may have been heaving with fish. But scientists’ reference point for ‘natural’ population levels is invariably pinned to levels dating back no more
than a few decades from the present. Each generation, Pauly realized, redefines “hat is ‘natural’. Each time the baseline drops it is considered the new normal Something similar has happened with
the British Trust for Ornithology setting 1970 as its baseline
year for monitoring British bird populations. Of course, a baseline has to be set somewhere - and the declines since then, meticulously recorded, have been dramatic - but the baseline itself begins to
encourage pre-baseline amnesia. We forget that there was once more. Much, much more.
Evidence of shifting baselines was apparent on our first tractor- and-trailer tours of Knepp in the early 2005, when we began to take mixed generational groups from NGOs like the National Farmers’ Union and the Country Landowners’ Association around the project. We were familiar with the usual reaction from our own generation, the forty-to-sixty- somethings. Children of the agricultural revolution were aghast at what we were doing. The twenty-somethings were often more responsive. For them the idea of national food security, of digging for Victory, was an anxiety from a bygone age. They had grown up in a time of plenty - an era of globalization, cheap clothes and cheap food, their supermarket shelves stocked with Spanish tomatoes in winter, asparagus from Peru, lamb from New Zealand, tiger prawns from Thailand and beef from Argentina. But they had never heard a turtle dove, and rarely a cuckoo. Most had never seen a living hedgehog. The emptiness of British skies, the absence of birds and butterflies, was their normal. Yet they had also been educated, at school at least, to worry about the environment. Knepp was something new and we watched their confused delight as they waded through insect- filled air, picked up grass snakes and slow-worms, and raised their voices above surround- sound birdsong.
But the real surprise came from the oldest generation. Those in their eighties could remember the agricultural depression between the wars, when marginal land across the country had been
abandoned the era of Charlie’s great-grandfather, when most of Knepp had been allowed to revert to scrub. To them, clumps of dog rose and hawthorn, thickets of hazel and sallow - even swathes of
ragwort - were not offensive at all The landscape recalled them, instead, to their childhood ramblings in a countryside heaving with insects and birds, to the days when there was a covey of
grey partridges in every field. There was nothing threatening or alarming about what they were seeing. Quite the reverse. To some, it was positively beautiful. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking
about,’ one old boy berated his son - a baby during the war - who insisted what they were seeing was ‘unnatural’. ‘This is how the countryside always used to look!
Do you get the point? It is all like this. Buy the book and read it!

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