Wednesday, 29 June 2011

British Horse Society rapped by Advertising Standards Authority

This is the really big story about ragwort. A major source of the hysteria has had its knuckles rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The British Horse Society had a leaflet prepared with a local council and they were making false statements that the law forced all landowners to prevent ragwort from spreading. The ASA contacted the council and told them to stop using the leaflet.
Also a set of other companies changed their adverts after pressure from the ASA.

It has been in the national press today.
The Daily Mirror Horse group told to tone down ragwort campaign And the Daily Telegraph. Toxic weed or an essential part of British ecology?

You can read chapter and verse from Swansea Friends of the Earth who made the complaints. There is also a press release from Buglife.

What is more a lot of companies had to take down statements from websites that were suspect and some of them came originally from publicity by the British Horse Society.

These are from the press over the years.
"The British Horse Society believes up to 6,500 horses die every year from ragwort poisoning." Hull Daily Mail - Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"The British Horse Society recently said it believes that up to 6,500 horses die every year from Ragwort poisoning."
- Mid Devon Star Monday, August 13, 2007

"The British Horse Society and the British Equestrian Veterinary Association say that more than 6,500 horses a year die from eating the weed." Daily Mail Friday July 25, 2003

The story is widespread and believed. That figure isn't credible. It is based on extreme extrapolation. You can find an analysis here. This morning on Radio 4 a BHS spokesman was saying that there were a "couple of hundred" but admitting that there were no figures.
All the data I have seen suggest much lower figures. Government figures are hard to come by but data from 2005 say just thirteen were identified by the necessary laboratory analysis.

The real story is this, the ASA take downs featured companies who repeated these dodgy figures and who, when challenged by the ASA for proof , chose to remove the statements from the adverts rather than try to provide any. The proof of course is non-existent.

Is it acceptable for a Registered Charity like the BHS, notwithstanding their use of false statements on the law on a leaflet, to use these figures to promote its ideas, campaigns, profile and ultimately at least some fundraising from that profile? Is it acceptable when those figures cannot be justified by companies using them when challenged by the advertising regulator?

And while you are thinking about it. Here are some clips of Buglife's Chief Executive on the radio this morning talking about the hysteria.

If you are a fan you can click on this link to join them.
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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Classic ragwort hysteria

A classic example of the hysteria and misinformation about ragwort has just appeared on this blog



I spend hundreds of hours driving through this pleasant & green land. One can’t help but see & feel the beauty of this Agricultural (industrial) landscape that is rural Great Britain.
However over summer this beautiful landscape is ruined by the disgusting sight of “out of control” Ragwort on the Motorways, public roads, the rail network & even in the towns & cities.
It makes me feel sick inside. It seems nobody gives a damn!
Ragwort is a noxious weed. Who is responsible?????
Common Ragwort used to be rarely seen because farmers would not tolerate it. Even the Daily Telegraph reported
“The change from rarity to infestation (….of Ragwort) reflects a fundamental change in Britain: from a society with a strong rural culture and understanding to a country dominated by urban values”

Let's get it straight. Ragwort is not out of control.
There is no evidence at all that ragwort is increasing or that it has increased. In fact there is evidence from a proper government survey that it has decreased.

It is not a good idea to quote a newspaper as evidence for a scientific fact. It is what is known as "Argument from false authority".

Before all the current fuss people didn't notice ragwort. They notice it more because it has been brought to their attention.
Ragwort can be highly dangerous to grazing animals including cattle. Every Ragwort plant has up to 150,000 seeds which can remain viable for up to 20 years. Seeds can be blown in the wind up to 100m.

This is wrong, and lacking in knowledge of the plant. The evidence, in the form of statistics from both the UK and internationally show that ragwort poisoning of grazing animals is rare. There are many other plants which contain the same problem chemicals, three percent of the plants in the world in fact, and we never heaer panic about any of them. 150,000 seeds for a ragwort plant is like a man growing to 7 ft, possible but unlikely and we notice the word "upto" again with the seed viability. This is an extreme and most seeds die well before this.
The evidence on seeds being blown shows that they fall out of the air well before they reach 100m. We know this from practical tests and from the mathematical studies on the properties of the seeds. Of course there will be some which could go further in extreme winds but these are not of any consequence. It is the nature of the land on which they fall which determines whether they grow.

The Ragwort Control Act 2003 defines an infestation as being of high risk when it is present and flowering or seeding within 50m of land used for grazing by horses and other animals or land used for feed or forage production. At 50-100m distance the infestation would be classed as of medium risk, and of low risk when at a distance greater than 100m.

The Ragwort Control Act 2003 makes no such definitions. There are various sets of guidance which may but these are not part of the act.

The problem with this inaccurate stuff is that like the stuff that is wrong in The Telegraph someone else will read it and repeat it as fact when it isn't and we have a whole other set of upset people panicking and overreacting.(Actually it is a telegraph columnist not a regular journalist that wrote the incorrect information.)
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Friday, 24 June 2011

Germaine Greer on ragwort hysteria

For the choice of bad information based on the hysteria today. I chose a comment made today in the comments made by the public below a Telegraph article by Germaine Greer.
This leads on to Dr Greer's, previous articles on the subject.

The comment is
"The biggest drawback of not cutting verges is the growth of ragwort, the pretty yellow flower that seeds, the seeds blow for miles in the wind and recolonise elsewhere.
For the uninitiated, ragwort is a killer, it is toxic to equines.
It can also bring out a very nasty rash in humans. "

It is quite true that ragwort in common with many members of the daisy family can cause a rash in sensitive individuals but it is certainly unlikely that ragwort is going to spread for miles on the wind. In fact it has been studied and we know both from the physics and from real life studies that most seeds fall at the base of the plant and the rest almost entirely fall to the ground just a few yards away.
See Ragwort - How far do the seeds disperse?

Here is Dr Greer's previous article which shows an admirable level of rationality. She is obviously no slouch mentally. Back in 2002 she wrote this as a result of a torrent of abuse received because she mentioned ragwort's positive qualities. This is not uncommon. If you try to tell some of these people the facts they just get emotional and attack you with bad evidence.
I previously documented an example where leading European ragwort expert Esther Hegt tried to comment in an on line forum only to be met with ignorance and bigotry.

If the first torrent of letters to the Weekend editor had betrayed careless reading, the succeeding waves gave no sign whatsoever of first-hand acquaintance with my column. Though I said that I was well aware that Senecio jacobaea is a serious threat to the health of horses, she was asked in the testiest tones whether the silly woman (in other words me) knew that hundreds of horses and even dogs died of ragwort poisoning every year.

Oh dear! We have the "it poisons dogs" myth again. It is poisonous to dolphins too. They don't eat it either!

As a matter of fact I don't know this, and I doubt whether anyone else does. Any attempt to discover actual numbers of beasts dead of liver damage caused by ingestion of ragwort is doomed to founder. In Scotland the incidence is monitored by the Scottish Agricultural Disease Surveillance Centres, which recorded zero deaths in the year 2000 up to July, and three in 1999, all cattle. Cases are commoner than these figures suggest, but they are not so common that vets treating sick horses will immediately suspect ragwort poisoning, nor, if they suspect it, can they verify it, because there is no reliable clinical test.

We have more UK figures since this and they confirm ragwort poisoning is rare.As do the international figures. Dr Greer is quite right to use them.

Without an autopsy, ragwort poisoning cannot be securely identified as the cause of death, which might explain why people anxious to assure me that senecio species are a plague can say only that "up to 500" horses - that is something between zero and 500 - are killed by ragwort each year.

In over a decade of study I have seen no evidence for that 500 figure. It gives every appearance of being conjured out of thin air. Within a short time the same sources were saying 6,500. I will have more to say about this in a few days time.
It will be exposed for the nonsense that it is.

What we do know is that only horses that have eaten everything else in their fields will eat live ragwort, and if dried ragwort were not included in hay and silage there would be no problem. Yet some of my correspondents believe that "inhaling seed or spores" of live ragwort will begin the poisoning process. How has this ragwort hysteria taken hold?

Spot on Dr Greer BRAVO! Ragwort is a flowering plant it has seeds not spores. It is hysteria.
I recently blogged on this nonsense about inhaling seeds which is still in circulation.
I called it tripe and it is
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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Hysteria and misinformation makes people campaign

As ever I have a choice of things to blog about today, but this caught my eye.
It was on the website of the campaign group 38 Degrees buried in the comments rather far down but google spotted it for me.

It was in the section about what 38 Degrees should do next and it is a prime example of the hysteria that causes people to campaign against ragwort.
It is full of nonsense. Here is the comment.

"RAGWORT a flowering plant that is on the dangerous weeds register. This non native plant is poisonous, having a cumilitive(sic) effect on the liver of any animal that eats it ( or children that pick the pretty flowers and anyone that handles the plant with bare hands). There is legislation about not allowing it to seed or grow on and near grazing land or fields used to grow hay. Unfortunately neither DEFRA or the County Councils seam willing to enforce the law. (perhaps because the councils and highways agency are among the worst offenders.
If the poison builds up in the livers of the animals that we eat are we in danger of becoming poisoned ourselves!!

First of all there is no such thing as "the dangerous weeds register". There is the weeds act but that does not automatically compel anyone to control ragwort and most of the weeds it lists are not poisonous. For the legal stuff see an earlier posting on ragwort law.

Second it is most definitely a NATIVE plant and it is very valuable ecologically.

Third there is no real risk to anyone that just picks the flowers. The alkaloids are very poorly absorbed through the skin and if you look at this article co-authored by a man with a Phd in ragwort you will see this.

Through our research about the sources of the reports on the danger of touching ragwort, we conclude that there is no substantial evidence that there is a health risk for people. The amount of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that might be absorbed through the skin is very low and there is no proof that these alkaloids are being changed into a toxic form.

Fourth the alkaloids do not accumulate in the liver. The damage can but the alkaloids are chemically changed in the process and destroyed. So the meat is no risk to people. Here is chapter and verse on ragwort and meat from the experts.

The worrying thing is three people said they liked the comment!
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Friday, 17 June 2011

Loads of errors on common article.

One of the motivations for this blog is to expose the large amount of rubbish about ragwort circulating on the internet. This gets repeated and repeated with nobody checking it. People see it so often that they assume it must be true. More of it gets posted on the internet and so on in a vicious circle.

One particularly bad page has just come into the searches over the last few days. I count no more than it only a short article of no more than about 350 words yet it contains SIX major falsehoods. A further piece of searching revealed that it actually comes from an articles site and is duplicated in a number of places which makes it even worse. I am going to the article source and commenting after I make this posting.

Falsehood one.

probably kills thousands of horses every year.

There is no proper evidence that this is true at all. It came onto the internet because someone did a particularly bad survey where they asked a lot of vets, got a tiny number of answers which were about suspected cases . ( You need a lab to tell you, usually at a post mortem.) They then multiplied this unreliable number as if everyone had replied! This is extremely bad statistical work. The published lab figures show a handful of deaths and are consistent with the data internationally.

Falsehood two.

An average plant produces more than 150,000 seeds.

This figure of 150,000 seeds started off as a maximum. It isn't impossible but it is very very high. It is like saying men can grow to seven feet. They can but don't very often, but in this article it has been set as a sort of minimum! The average is then said to be more than this! The overwhelming majority of ragwort plants do not produce anywhere like this number of seeds.

Falsehood three.

Every part of the plant is poisonous to your horse and even the smallest amount ingested will be converted into toxins

This is not true. Small doses will have no effect and may, they may be destroyed, they may not be absorbed and they may cause no damage or that damage will be repaired. I give this a proper treatment in the page about the nonsense about animals inhaling seeds.

Falsehood four
carried on from that sentence

which then multiply and spread

This is nonsense. Toxins are not alive they cannot multiply and spread like that. This is an error of the standard of very simple basic schoolboy or schoolgirl biology.

Falsehood five.

It is even advisable to wear a mask to prevent inhaling the tiny seeds.

Ragwort seeds are not tiny. They are a millimetre or two long at least. They are certainly not tiny enough to be inhaled by anyone accidentally in any quantity. If you inhaled one you would cough and cough until it came up.

Falsehood six

It is now illegal for landowners to allow ragwort to spread by failing to control it.

Here we go again. Hardly a day goes by without yet another example of this old chestnut appearing. There is no law in the UK that says this is the case. There is a posting on ragwort law which explains it all in more detail.

The article also talks about ragwort being poisonous to people. Which it is if you are daft enough to eat it and the author may be thinking of the skin absorption hysteria when she talks about the need to wear gloves, but I'll give here the benefit of the doubt. Ragwort can like many daisy type plants cause an allergic reaction from other chemicals that are in it. These are not the liver damaging ones.

As a whole the article epitomises the problem with ragwort hysteria. You get people all over the place believing the nonsense and spreading it further.
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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A video gets the law on ragwort wrong.

A wildlife enthusiast has drawn my attention to this youtube video.
It is a good video in general about a wildflower meadow being grown in an orchard.

However, at around 7 minutes 53 seconds there is this statement.

We don't want ragwort. That's poisonous. Strictly speaking it is against the law to have it on your land, because it can kill horses.

This is incorrect.

There is a previous blog entry on ragwort law, but it is most definitely not against the law to have ragwort on your land.

This is yet another example of how the propaganda on ragwort has affected people and caused them to believe false ideas.Ragwort is a valuable plant ecologically as is documented by Buglife's piece on ragwort

The problems with horses are much exaggerated.
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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Oh Nay! It's Emus now!

Regular followers will know that, on the basis of detailed study of the evidence, we know that ragwort poisoning of horses, cattle etc. is rare. Or to qualify that all the reliable figures that are available say it is rare. The figures around saying the contrary have no proper basis. To properly determine if ragwort causes poisoning you need to do a post mortem.

They will also know that the press, the internet etc. are full of people panicking wildly. If they so much as touch it will kill people, horses, cattle, your pet cats and dogs and even tortoises. It is nonsense of course.

If you go into any of the forums and someone starts talking about any kind of sickness with a horse, someone else will very often suggest ragwort is to blame.
If an expert goes into the forum they get shouted down and abused. Like this example of Esther Hegt the noted expert from the Netherlands.

Well the latest one made me laugh. There is now panic over emus!

OK perhaps I shouldn't laugh. Someone is only trying to be helpful and they have I have been told lost their precious much loved pets. People loosing their animal companions is no joke, but the hysteria around ragwort is.

I should also explain that people being hurt is part of my motivation for writing this blog. It isn't just ecology. People are being ripped off by people collecting money or selling dodgy cures and treatments. There is also the serious potential problem of vets getting things wrong, and there are more examples than those which I have at present written about. This leads to more animal suffering through misdiagnosis. It also makes people panic and worry about their pets when there is no need. This is harmful. The hysteria needs to be exposed for the laughable nonsense that it is.

A rather sensibly sceptical person has asked how much ragwort would kill an emu?

It seems a friend is blaming a bit of ragwort that has fallen into a water trough for killing emus. It is extremely unlikely that ragwort is the cause. I don't know how often vets do this and therefore how much information is likely to be available for comparison but the answer is to do a post mortem on the emus.

There is no simple answer to the question. I cannot find any example in the literature of an emu being poisoned by ragwort. The alkaloids in ragwort are extremely common, however since they occur in 3% of all plants. (We never hear panic about the others.) We so find, therefore, that there are records of birds being poisoned by contaminated feed from other plants.

However, we come back to the basic point. Animals of all kinds are exposed to these substances in a variety of plants and it always takes quite a bit to poison for a variety of reasons related to the way in which this works. We know from the biochemistry that a lot of the alkaloids react in ways that cause no harm so small doses will have no effect.
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Saturday, 4 June 2011

Stirling council misleading and damaging habitats?

You never know when an advertised example of ragwort control may be necessary. It some times is, but there are times then it is advertised and you read things and you know clearly that the people doing it should not be saying what they say.

This is the case in this example with Stirling Council who advertise a work party for the public with these words.

Doune Action Day

Ragwort flowers and Himalayan Balsam can be great for wildlife but are very invasive. Help the Rangers to pull up the plants before they seed.

If enough volunteers sign up there's plenty more work to be done.

Booking essential.

As ever the problem centres around the word "invasive" to an ecologist this is a problem non-native plant. Himalayan Balsam fits clearly in that category
Ragwort does not. It is a native plant.

It is quite likely, because other councils have done this, that the council actually thinks that ragwort, which is a valuable plant for biodiversity, isn't native either. They are certainly misleading the public on this and encouraging habitat loss by making other people think ragwort is "invasive", the word used for a foreign plant.
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Friday, 3 June 2011

Another nature site being damaged

Ignorance on ragwort is rife. I would not be able to blog on this on nearly a daily basis if it were not so. It helps relieve my frustration with the nonsense and of course serves to debunk the nonsense to a wide audience.

This entry is about yet another important wildlife site being damaged.

Little Wormwood Scrubs is a piece of parkland and wilder habitat in the middle of London. It is managed by Kensington and Chelsea Council. They have a nice management plan that seems very good. It is full of excellent stuff for improving biodiversity, new hedges, wildflower meadows, everything you would expect. Then you come across this little piece.

Japanese knotweed is an invasive exotic tall herb which is present in the north
eastern corner of the site. It is recommended that this plant be eradicated before it spreads further in accordance with DEFRA advice.

Ragwort should be pulled before it sets seed and removed from site, bagged and
sent to landfill. Ragwort removal should be carried out in accordance with DEFRA
advice. Ragwort is the larval food for the Cinnebar(sic) moth, therefore allowing to grow but not set seed ensures this food source is maintained.

The terms "invasive weed" and "invasive plant" are used by ecologists to describe plants that a foreign to a country's ecology and that cause problems by spreading and replacing native vegetation. This certainly applies to Japanese Knotweed. It is a nasty pernicious invader.

Ragwort is a native plant.
It has a valuable ecological role, not just for the Cinnabar Moth. It is the food of a large number of invertebrates and a nectar source for even more of them.

There is also a real piece of baffling ignorance here.
Ragwort is the larval food for the Cinnebar(sic) moth, therefore allowing to grow but not set seed ensures this food source is maintained.

You cannot maintain the plant if you do not allow it ever to set seed. It will die out! Also what about all the other invertebrates that eat it.

It may be yet another example of ignorance where council officers don't know their botany and think that ragwort is a problem invader. There is no problem with ragwort here even with the poor Defra guidelines. There are no grazing animals nor is there hay being made. There are no references in the document to this and you would not expect it in central London. ( It is only in hay that ragwort is a problem.)

There is of course the other problem. Every time this sort of misinformation is repeated more people are likely to believe it and it becomes even more prevalent.

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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Conservation Organisations Again

The idea for this blog post originated on Twitter. The character limit there does not help communication.

There are as I have said before a problem with UK conservation organisations being taken in by the hysterical talk. You can't really blame them. There is so much bad stuff from people like Defra and the Welsh Assembly ( who were actually issuing blatant a falsehood in a press release recently.)

In this particular exchange it was the good folks at the at a particular conservation organisation , who I have decided not to name here. They were clearing up ragwort and announced it on twitter.
Now there can be very good reasons for doing this, but there is a spate in general of conservation organisations issuing problematic information. The totality of the available evidence is that Ragwort is a problem in hay ONLY!

In this case I saw this on their website.

Ragwort pulling on this meadow Site of Importance for Nature Conservation. The meadow is in the grounds of the demolished Clifton Hostital (Sic). Ragwort is one of five injurious weeds covered by the provisions of The Weeds Act 1959. Using 'Lazy Dogs' we are going to be pulling up the ragwort before it has a chance to set seed ans (sic) spread further.

First of all, why mention the Weeds Act? I have a problem with this because you can bet the average person being told this is going to assume the Weeds Act prohibits ragwort or means you have to control it. It does not.
(It is not unheard of for conservation organisations to get this wrong.)

Mentioning the Weeds Act does not help us conservationists get our point across that the evidence says that ragwort is not the problem it has been made out to be.
(There is a posting about ragwort law here which has extra resources linked.)

Then we have the statement "before it has a chance to seed and spread further".

I have made this point before. Ragwort seed spread is not significant. We know from the research that it is normally only a few yards. If a plant grows somewhere the significant ecological factor is that the site is suitable not that the seeds arrive there. If it were then we might have ragwort growing out of the middle of undamaged paving stones, to pick and illustrative but extreme example. If the site isn't suitable the plant won't grow there.

It is maybe a little unfair just to pick on them. They may have quite honestly been mistaken.

The real problem is the poorness of the response of the conservation movement to this issue. Remember if affects lots more plants than ragwort and it has much wider effects than just a few invertebrates, as I have shown previously.

A far worse example is Dorset Wildlife Trust with this very public statement with the BBC about a very well known important invertebrate site where ragwort is an important nectar source. Even after they have been taken to task

Poisonous ragwort has to be removed as grazing is also required to maintain the open downland conditions.

Now again there may be issues with graziers who have fallen for the hysteria, but this is not what they have said. It seems that they have encouraged people to believe that if you graze an animal where ragwort grows it will be poisoned.
The evidence, and the basic biology, says that this is not the case.

I am of course aware of the Defra guidelines but from a scientific perspective, based on the evidence , they don't make sense. If you are really concerned about the welfare of animals to this degree then you would never put them outdoors.
Why? Because the level of risk of ragwort poisoning is so minuscule according to the published statistics that it is similar to that for lightning strike!

(Actually I can't find proper lightning strike statistics but there are press reports that I have researched and they show a bigger problem. It is clear that lightning strike may therefore even exceed documented ragwort poisoning. Ragwort poisoning is rare. The good statistics and the information published around the world say that.)

Isn't it about time that someone told Defra not to listen to all the daft things that are being said and be rational. I would like to see some more conservation organisations studying the science and actually doing something about the hysteria.

The good guys in this of course are Buglife who have done some excellent work on ragwort

Finally just to address a point made on twitter that there is a debate to be had.
Well if there is any debate at all. It is between those that spend time looking at the scientific journals and form their opinions that way, and those that spread false stories, either for financial gain, or because they don't think critically about things.

As a perfect example of this is someone who is now one of the best experts on ragwort in Europe, Esther Hegt, a highly intelligent horse owner who was originally a member of a ragwort extermination group. She sought out the experts who told her the hysteria spreading from the UK was rubbish and then created one of the world's finest websites on the subject. Ragwort, Myths and Facts One of the experts who has a Phd on ragwort is a major co-author.

In later postings I will cover the false information and campaigning that led to the bad guidance from Defra and the devolved equivalents.
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