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 to 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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Friday, 16 February 2018

Gardeners' Question Time on ragwort breaking the BBC's Editorial Guidance.

A recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme Gardeners' Question Time contained a clear falsehood on ragwort.  It is most frustrating when journalists don't check their facts,
It is a clear breach of the BBC's Editorial Guidance which insists on accuracy,

It was falsely stated,
 “according to the Weeds Act of 1959 landowners are required to prevent the  weed from spreading."
It is just not the case. There is no automatic requirement to prevent this plant from spreading. You may be ordered to control it but otherwise there is no requirement to act.

The Act states:
 “Where the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (in this Act referred to as “the Minister”) is satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this Act applies growing upon any land he may serve upon the occupier of the land a notice in writing requiring him, within the time specified in the notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading.”
It is no different from many pieces of legislation where you may be ordered to deal with something if, and only if,  it is considered a problem.

I have made complaints about similar claims to the Advertising Standards Authority. The adverts were stopped. I have also complained to  the Press Complaints Commission about an article in a magazine on the same issue. A correction was forced.
If anyone repeats the  information commercially there would be a criminal breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 which prohibit actions which mislead customers.

If this kind of statement cannot appear in advertisements, in the press, or in the course of commerce, then it should not be broadcast on BBC Radio.

I have complained of course and we shall see what action they take.

At the bottom of this of course is the campaign of falsehoods, which I usually blog about. Rigged surveys with false questions etc etc. Articles misleading people . And crazy claims like telling people the cinnabar moth, which eats this plant as its natural food. is being poisoned by it! Or that the plant is running amok in South Africa which actually has no record of it at all growing there.

As I and the conservation organisations who work on this keep saying. People have been misled.

To quote Friends of the Earth
Common ragwort has been subjected to a campaign of “awareness raising” often involving distribution of a whole set of misunderstandings and falsehoods in which:
Ragwort has been blamed for animal deaths which were unproven or obviously not ragwort related;
Bad or irrelevant statistics and poor and biased surveys have been used to spread scare stories; and,
Ragwort has been falsely branded a threat to human health or to the countryside.
Companies repeating these claims in marketing statements
could be breaking consumer legislationand despite action by the Advertising Standards Authority to stop anti-ragwort adverts such ill-informed and false claims have been repeated and adopted by councils, politicians and governments resulting in:
Unnecessary, draconian measures to control or eradicate ragwort, often causing ecological damage to nature reserves and
wild areas like the New Forest;

Miles of roadside verges being subject to unnecessary ‘tidiness’ measures;
Other valuable species of plant being targeted as a result of outdated, archaic and anachronistic legislative measures originally aimed at raising agriculture production during and after World War I;
An entirely unnecessary air of panic leading to proposals for more poor legislation based on misunderstandings of nature, such as proposed measures that started as ragwort control in Scotland
being modified into proposed control measures for all potentially toxic plants. These would have affected everything from bluebells to oak trees.
Is it any wonder that the programme said they had received lots of anti-ragwort messages!

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

Dangerous illegal ragwort quack treatments

One of the real problems in working on this issue is scientific ignorance.
People often have no clue what they are talking about and this one is a classic.
It is also illegal!

Let's start with an example. Chemicals sound as if they are nasty because they have exotic and funny sounding names. Let's take these two ethanoic acid and
n-phosphonomethyamino-ethanoic acid. These are both chemicals. In fact I bought some of the first one this morning and I am going to eat it later.
This is not as bad as it sounds as ethanoic acid also known by its older name of acetic acid  is the main constituent of vinegar. A chip shop up the road from me has reopened under new management and I am going to try them out.
The other chemical is a weedkiller commonly called Glyphosate or Roundup. It can also be called n-phosphonomethyglycine

This is what the originators of a quack ragwort treatment say.

I do my best at my place not to use weedkillers in the fields. I don’t want Roundup or anything similar near me or my animals, or any of the other little creepies and crawlies that live here, especially the bees, or the many hares, badgers, bats, swallows, raptors, and so on. I like to think of it as a mini nature reserve of sorts, so, no nasty stuff is allowed.

I have been attempting to wage war on ragwort with topical applications of homemade stuff for literally years. Salt on its own (a generous pile poured on the cut off root of the plant) didn’t work. Vinegar didn’t work. I have forgotten the other things I tried… they didn’t work. Creosote worked, but is another horrible chemical that I’d rather not use in my fields! 
My current concoction definitely does the trick. No regrowth either – I took these photos months ago when the earliest rosettes came through. No sign at all of any regrowth.

 The eventual concoction contains domestic washing detergent which contrary to the author's assertions can be an extremely nasty stuff to have around. It contains a load of stuff that you really wouldn't want to throw around in large quantities in the environment. One common ingredient is 
4-(5-Dodecyl) benzenesulfonate which is toxic to fish at concentrations of only around 4 parts per million in water. Imagine this being used near a trout stream.

The Health and Safety Executive are very clear on the law on pesticide use, which includes weedkillers.

Before any pesticide product can be used, sold, supplied or stored it must be authorised for use.
So let's be clear these homemade cocktails of chemicals are ILLEGAL and you can be prosecuted for using them. This is because they have not been tested for safety. This is a European rule that applies throughout the EU.

Now I am not a lawyer but I have looked into this matter but it seems quite possible from the case histories I have looked at that section 8 of the Accessories and Abettors Act 1861, which is still law in the UK, applies.

Whosoever shall aid, abet, counsel, or procure the commission of any indictable offence, whether the same be an offence at common law or by virtue of any Act passed or to be passed, shall be liable to be tried, indicted, and punished as a principal offender.
This would mean that if you pushed this idea on websites or social media you could be prosecuted for doing so. Remember it is very likely to be toxic to wildlife so we  know that so if someone does cause a fish kill or something else or someone is just looking for someone to make an example of, and you have been pushing this as a cure, you could face prosecution.

One other point the author of the website article also states that she has tried Creosote as a weedkiller.
This is ironic because one of the reasons that there is no test for ragwort poisoning is that there are other chemicals which produce the exact same microscopic changes in the liver. Creosote is a mixture of all sorts of nasties and it is likely that it contains compounds which would produce those changes,.

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

States of Jersey puts out ragwort fake news.

The States of Jersey has put out fake news i.e. false and inaccurate information on its own laws.

They have told people that there is a legal obligation to control ragwort when there is not.

They put out a tweet directing people to a website with the following false information on it.,

Land occupier obligation and the law

Ragwort is specified as an Injurious Weed under the Weeds (Jersey) Law 1961 which requires occupiers to prevent it from spreading.
Land occupier co-operation is required to control this weed and prevent it from maturing, seeding and ultimately spreading throughout the island. This is a legal requirement if you are the occupier of the land upon which the weed is growing.

This is not true.

There is a law on Jersey called the Weeds (Jersey) Law1961
 It does not say what that website says. It is basically a copy of the UK's Weeds Act, It says :-

The Minister, if satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this Law applies growing upon any land, may cause to be served on the occupier of the land a notice in writing requiring him or her, within the time specified in the notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the injurious weeds from spreading.
To use an analogy. In the UK there are Curfew Orders which allow authorities to tell parents to keep their children off the streets in problem areas. This doesn't mean that there is a universal requirement on parents to keep their children inside all the time. Just like with ragwort orders can be made to deal with specific problems.

When there were additions to the  Weeds Act in the UK. In the form of the oddly named Ragwort Control Act ( It only creates a Code of Practice and doesn't oblige control) It was originally planned to make it force control but this was decided against. Claims from firms making statements like this in the UK have been stopped after action by the Advertising Standards Authority.

There is also the issue that it has been repeated by the BBC!

Further information can be obtained from these documents from  Friends of the Earth. They cover the legal position in the UK, but as I said the Jersey law is just a copy of the UK one.


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Friday, 14 April 2017

Animals can eat quite a bit of ragwort with impunity.

Today I am using this blog, as I sometimes, do to explain something that a tweet would not be able to hold and this time I have some new information which I haven't made public before.

I run a website which has all the technical side of things and I use this blog for more informal things or for stories that are current.

The matter has arisen of the usual nonsense being put out by some government body or other that is based on the nutty stories being circulated by equine organisation.

The matter has come up of a small number of poisoning cases recorded on the island of Ireland. Well the organisation recording these seems to get things badly wrong.

First of all the toxins in ragwort are found in 3% of plants  and secondly there is no definitive test . Mouldy feed can cause the same problem and I am told there are cattle cases where ragwort has been claimed as a cause in England where it is pretty obvious that it can't be.

This is covered on my website here There is no test for ragwort poisoning

So you can't say that a case is caused by ragwort unless you have direct evidence that ragwort is to blame and these would be abuse cases where animals are starved into eating it.

One thing is clear the odd plant of ragwort in a field is not going to be a problem.
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