The first job of the New Year was to get over to Saltbox SSSI to dig up the Ragwort. Although Ragwort is the host plant for the Cinnabar Moth,It isn't just the Cinnabar Moth as ragwort is one of the most important plants for invertebrates.
it is, unfortunately, also very toxic to grazing animals and eventually the effects can kill them.Despite what we are told the scientific literature shows that the only real risk is from hay. Grazing animals avoid poisonous plants instinctively. Those who didn't had their genes removed from the populations millions of years ago. It is also worth remembering that these alkaloids occur in 3% of all flowering plants and yet we only hear about ragwort.
Horses are particularly sensitive to the plant if eaten and for this reason one is obliged by Defra's Code of Practice, to remove it if there are grazing animals near by.Just because someone in authority says something it doesn't mean they are right! This is guidance from government and it contains a number of flaws including using suspect sources for the number of horse deaths. We now know, from analysis of the published statistics, that more horses are recorded dying from Equine Grass Sickness than from Ragwort poisoning. Equine Grass Sickeness is a rare malady caused essentially by eating fresh grass (Although the actual disease is more complex) It is rare, but ragwort poisoning is rarer! If more horses die from eating grass than from eating ragwort it is clear that the problem of ragwort is being over emphasised. There are far worse problems which should come before ragwort control especially when it results in damage to habitat on SSSIs.
We thought we had cleared the Ragwort from Saltbox in the summer but, worryingly, not only are there plants still flowering and producing seed heads (each plant can produce 150,000 seeds!!)Ah the widespread figure of 150,000 seeds again. A man can grow to 7 foot tall too, but neither figure is normal. The best reference work on Ragwort Ecology is perhaps that published by John L Harper and W.A Wood in the July 1957 edition of the Journal of Ecology. These are a set of figures for normally grown ragwort plants. Each one is a figure recorded on a separate site.
It is perhaps understandable that, given the bad information in circulation, that people believe that ragwort is worse than it is but it really is not acceptable that our finest wildlife sites may be being damaged as a result of bad information and hysteria and that government guidance appears to be facilitating it.