Sunday, 29 April 2012

British Horse Society Spokesperson's Gaffes on Ragwort

The British Horse Society have again, it seems, been distributing scare stories about ragwort and this time their spokesperson  appears to  have demonstrated very very clearly the ignorance of basic biological knowledge that characterises the hysteria over the plant.

This matter is over a BBC Radio Wales broadcast where unfortunately the BBC chose to put on air a person whom , it appears,  was just repeating things she had heard., without having a proper technical understanding of the issue. To be frank, from the viewpoint of a knowledgeable person,  it seems she made a right fool of herself.

Rose Brooke,  who the  BBC lists as the BHS press officer for North East Wales,  went on radio and gave an interview that she seemed  ill prepared to make. It appeared to be full of gaffes, real howlers of gaffes!

First of all she started by saying that a spoonful of ragwort could harm a horse and went on in the course of the interview to say that the ragwort would make the animal sick for years and years and years.

The reality is that horses avoid ragwort., and this is backed up by many scientific papers and experts around the world. It is basic elementary science that they would do so. It isn't just because ragwort tastes terrible, because of the bitter taste. The bitter taste exists because it is poisonous. Nature created a system in all animals called taste. It is different in different animals, but the bitterness factor developed because of  need to detect and avoid poisons. Those animals who did not have a good working taste system died and did not pass on their genes.

There are two possible circumstances where there might be a problem . Where the ragwort is dried an in hay, and where the animal is being starved to death and eats poison out of desperation. Neither is the case here.

Toxic doses of ragwort to a horse are not usually measured in spoonfulls, but often  in percentages of body weight which for a horse is a lot.

The BHS seems to have been doing this all around the country. Putting up people with poor knowledge to make press statements and getting things badly wrong. Often the journalists don't know anything either and the nonsense gets printed or broadcast. More people believe the nonsense and it multiplies. On this occasion though the BBC  had some information from an expert , which they used rather badly, and at least some of the ignorance was , it would appear, revealed..

When questioned about the environmental benefits of ragwort she just didn't seem to know anything much . Instead of mentioning the many invertebrates which require ragwort , it seemed she only knew about the Cinnabar Moth and then proceeded to get its biology hopelessly wrong. "There is a theory" she said that the Cinnabar Moth feeds on ragwort. Well it isn't a theory!. It is a solid hard FACT. It really is questionable that a registered charity should raise its funding profile using people who will talk about fact  and theories when they don't appear to know the difference . Then came a series of really bad statements. She said the moth fed on the flowers when it actually eats the whole plant and then, quite dreadfully, said that it only lives for a day!. Cinnabar moths stay on the wing for weeks and have a year long life cycle!

She then goes on to say that there is evidence for this, from Professor Derek Knottenbelt. This professor's claims are worthy of several blog postings, but let's suffice to say they a  do not appear to be supported in any way by the evidence, or by the opinions of all the experts with whom I regularly correspond.
He has claimed that based on his research, that thousands of horses are dying from ragwort poisoning a year. A freedom of information request to his university shows that over the last five years for which records have been disclosed 2006-2010 the number of recorded  cases of ragwort poisoning in horses is exactly ZERO.

Rose Brooke didn't seem to know much about the work done there anyway. She said that the horses had to be operated on. This doesn't appear to be normal for this kind of liver damage, beyond a simple biopsy. It just seems to be another example of her ignorance.
Ignorance is no crime. We are all more ignorant of more things than we are knowledgeable about, but the real fault seems to lie with the charity which put someone up to speak for them who, it seems, was simply not up to the job. It seems that they too have been made to look right fools!

There is a well known phenomenon in psychology called "The Dunning-Kruger Effect" where in which unskilled individuals think they are cleverer than they are, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This appears to be a clear example of it. When Rose Brooke is confronted with evidence from an expert she laughs as if it is wrong. Well, unfortunately for her there will have been quite a few knowledgable people laughing or groaning at her poor knowledge of entomology.

Rose Brooke does however, deserve some sympathy. She is not the only person who it appears is misled by the hysteria over ragwort. She gives the impression that she is probably a very kind and  nice person, who frightened by the misinformation, is concerned about the welfare of animals.  It is quite understandable that ordinary people do not appear to have the technical knowledge to see through the nonsense. As I said,  real fault is apparently with the charity which appears to have a poor knowledge of the scientific method itself.

The BHS have seem to have a poor record  on ragwort information as is evidenced by their leaflet on Ragwort  and  series of adverts repeaing their information that were stopped after action by the Advertising Standards Authority.

You can listen to a clip covering the entire  item from BBC Radio Wales here

As ever proper information can be found on these websites.

Ragwort Facts

Ragwort Myths and Facts

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries