Saturday, 19 May 2012

Double Dutch Nonsense About Ragwort

As I have mentioned before because the people of The Netherlands speak such good English that they have picked British hysteria up from the internet  and have repeated it. The following are translations of an item from the Dutch website .Paardnatuurlijk and it is full of the usual nonsense.

It says about the toxins in ragwort

There is no "safe level" within which an animal can get, the poison (Glycosides) is permanently stored in the liver and brings enormous damage. Every intake, however small, is included by the liver and "so it counts."
There is one howler of an error which jumps out clearly. The chemicals are alkaloids not glycosides. This is a pretty clear indication that the person writing the information hasn't studied the subject well.

These chemicals are not stored in the liver. It is possible for damage to be cumulative but only if each individual dose is sufficient. So it isn't true that every intake, however small counts. There are a whole range and factors involved which can destroy the alkaloids, which are actually non-toxic until they are converted inside the animal. I blogged in a bit more detail about this last year when a vet group were directing people to a daft website. ( Yes, a vet group. Vets can and do get things wrong about ragwort!)

The leaflet continues

2002: In England  6500 horses died from  consumption of  Ragwort.
This is of course balderdash!  It is based on junk science although the British Horse Society were pushing it for years  Last year several companies had to remove the claim from their websites in the UK because of action by the Advertising Standards Authority.

One last irritating point, it wasn't "England" anyway, but the UK. There is a difference which people from outside the UK often don't understand. The UK ( The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is made up of four constituent nations. England is but one of them, the others are Scotland., Northern Ireland and Wales. The latter nation is from where I am blogging.  In Wales we even have our own distinct Celtic language which is totally incomprehensible to English speakers, Yr iaith Gymraeg. ( The Welsh language.)


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Thursday, 17 May 2012

They made it all up you know!

Notice to the reader : There are some people who attack me personally about this blog . Please see the notes at the end of the article after you have read it  which explain why you should trust what I am saying.

Subsequently to writing this blog entry I have become someone who is sufficiently respected as an expert that he is allowed to sign letters to the press on behalf of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. ( Scotland has an independent organisation.)

I should say before I start this that ragwort is poisonous. No one denies that. It contains chemicals that are toxic and that are also found in 3 % of all flowering plants. It is a problem in hay and where animals are starved into eating it in desperation. This is not what a blog about. I blog about the hysteria that leads to environmental damage.

I should also before I start say quite clearly that none of this is about people lying. People often believe quite odd and incorrect things because they have been told them or they have misunderstood something . The usual cause is poor critical thinking skills often combined with a lack of knowledge of science.

There has been a need for a while for a posting that I could point people to which sums up why I blog on this subject. Ragwort is the subject of hysteria and is not the problem it is made out to be. The problem is essentially one that has been invented.

There is a well-known hoax about a substance called DHMO which is described as being present in cancer cells, used in nuclear power stations, killing hundreds of people a year, etc. This is actually a true description of the substance presented in an inaccurate way. DHMO is Di-Hydrogen MonOxide or water. Its true properties are overexaggerated and it has even led for some politicians to call for DHMO to be banned. It is very similar to the propaganda about ragwort as it is true it is poisonous . Poisoning is rare, however, and in the case of ragwort, they have even invented new things about it.

To say that the problem  of ragwort is invented sounds quite some charge to make . That people, organisations and public bodies have been making a fuss about an invented problem. It is however, supported by the evidence.

It is important to realise that anyone can make silly claims and publicise them. Debunking them however, is time consuming. A scientifically minded person has to have evidence for everything, and there are a lot of superficially plausible sounding myths out there. It has taken years of work for me to get through all of them Documenting every myth and error. I started with visits to the British Library. It is a magnificent world class source of information. It is a  national treasure, but even they failed me on occasions. One crucial paper on seed dispersal had apparently been discarded or something and wasn't available. Fortunately a foreign expert had a copy. It takes a lot of work to examine all of these data. The propagandists however, do not appear to have these scruples. Their literary muse is not fettered by such considerations as ensuring they have the correct facts.

It is also quite important for those who have not been following it to understand just how daft some of the claims are. We have been told that it kills hundreds or even thousands of horses a year. We are told it kills people. It is poisonous to the touch and can give you cancer if you do. We are told by the BBC no less that it is dangerous to dogs ( It is poisonous to dolphins as well as dogs but they don't eat it either!)

 These are just a few of the falsehoods that have been promoted. I can for a large part of the year find something on almost a daily basis that is being publicised about ragwort that is incorrect. Last year there was a letter in the Daily Telegraph that I blogged on. It was given pride of place as the only illustrated letter . It told us that this native plant was an illegal foreign invader,  and that it poisoned people who breathed in its seeds  etc.etc. I blogged about it as Bonkers letter in the Daily Telegraph. I really do try to avoid emotive language in discussing science but bonkers is absolutely correct. The only thing that seemed to be correct is that the author said there was a lot of ignorance about ragwort.

But surely you ask this couldn't extend to Parliament? Surely in our democracy we wouldn't create an Act of Parliament based on ignorance would we?

Let's look at some of the discussions about the Ragwort Control Act, which fortunately doesn't force the control of ragwort as was its original intent.
During this process Baroness Masham steered the bill through the House of Lords and boy did she say some silly things. She introduced herself  as a Vice-president of the British Horse Society. This is an organisation that has been central to dispersing incorrect information and their claims have fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority  code as I blogged about before.

These are some of the things she said.

 Ragwort has become a scourge in the countryside and has increased alarmingly in the past few years.
 Actually there has been a government survey. It shows ragwort decreasing

I am told that each plant can produce between 150,000 and 250,000 seeds that, once airborne, can travel up to 10 miles.
Even the 150,000 figure would be very exceptional let alone 250,000!
Also the Advertising Standards Authority, who are impartial and just look at the evidence, banned an advert making the claim of just 150,000 seeds being produced by each plant!

Let's look how crazy that 10 miles figure is. Ragwort seeds don't have wings they have little parachutes. This means that their general direction is downwards.  To travel 10 miles in the air they would have to have something propelling them upwards all along that distance. The wind does not in normal and typical circumstances blow up from the ground. While of course there are going to be exceptional dispersal events,  these are not significant for a quite common native plant whose seeds are going to be present in lots of places anyway. We do actually know how far ragwort seeds travel.  Most fall at the base of the plant the others travel just a few metres.

Again it doesn't matter really about seed dispersal because the plant will only grow where the conditions are right. If you don't want ragwort don't create the conditions for it to grow. The real problem here is that it causes miles of roadside to have every vaguely ragged plant or yellow flower exterminated for no sensible reason. I heard only this morning about someone wanting advice about her yellow ragwort flowers. They were actually buttercups!

It is estimated that about 500 equines die each year, but that number will rise unless something positive is done.
This is actually a figure with no basis whatsoever. There is no test that can confirm ragwort poisoning. The set of problem chemicals occur in many other British plants and 3% of plants globally. Then significantly the characteristic microscopic changes in the liver that are diagnostic have other causes including toxins from moulds that commonly grow on damp feedstuffs.

A freedom of information request to the ultimate source of this well-known myth shows that in the last 5 years for which data are available 2006-2010 they have recorded  precisely ZERO  possible cases. NOT ONE!!
This is a central part of what I mean by saying the problem has been made up! 

We also now know the statistical method under which this figure appears to have been generated. It seems to be fundamentally flawed and to break the rules of proper statistics. 

The same ultimate source has also claimed, in print, that our common ragwort is a serious problem in South Africa. The experts there tell me that they have no record of the plant even growing there!

 So we have someone getting an Act of Parliament passed with false or inaccurate information.

The same problems are repeated in DEFRA guidance, local council websites and so on ad nauseam, as I show regularly with this blog.

The misinformation continues. I blogged recently about the British Horse Society using a spokesperson who made a number of serious gaffes on radio.

You may ask well, surely even one case of an animal suffering should be avoided? This is a matter of where you concentrate your efforts. If you concentrate them on a really non-existent problem like ragwort then you neglect other problems that are worse. There is a malady called Equine Grass Sickness. It is an odd and unusual condition that kills horses that eat grass rather than hay. The available statistics show that it is much commoner than ragwort poisoning. It would seem from the evidence that grass is a worse problem than ragwort. (I should add at this point that Equine Grass Sickness is a complicated problem and that the research indicates that it may be more complicated rather than just grass in the diet, but there are other diet related problems that are much commoner and deserve more attention than all the moral panic about ragwort.)

As ever, good information can be found at these websites.

Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts
Ragwort the Sense and the Nonsense

The middle of these links goes to the site of Esther Hegt who was originally a member of a ragwort extermination group in the Netherlands where ragwort hysteria has spread from the UK. She is a really quite brilliantly intelligent person and she asked some experts and did her own research. Like everyone else who looks at them  properly she saw the hoaxes for what they were.

Finally, before my explanatory notes below ,here is a video with Matt Shardlow the Chief Executive of Buglife telling us all on the BBC about the hysteria. Buglife are an excellent organisation and have been  a lot of help.

The author frequently uses this blog entry to explain things about ragwort. Unfortunately there are people in social media circles who make clearly false accusations that the content of the posting is false, misleading or unbalanced. You frequently find, on researching it, that  they are members  of organisations criticised here. Often they may have the kind of cognitive or mental processing issues I mention above. The statements here are the product of over a decade of study helped by an international network of supporting scientific experts.
If you should have any doubts as to my integrity or honesty I would direct you to this page in the Daily Telegraph where the I am signatory to a letter. The three other signatories are leading figures in British conservation circles representing some of our foremost conservation organisations, with whom I work on this issue. These knowledgeable experts  evidently believe I have good judgement and integrity. (The letter was a response to the "bonkers letter" about which I write above.)

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Wednesday, 16 May 2012

It spreads to other plants now,.

I'll start this blog post with a short digression. One of my many interests is in languages. After posting  today's blog subject I have some time scheduled to deal with my langauge studies. One of the things I study is Latin. You may think it is not a lot of use. I can say rather useless  things like "Possum Latinam loqui" ( I can speak Latin) or more truthfully "Non Latinam bonam loquor" ( I don't speak good Latin). I can certainly read it quite a bit, but I don't get much chance to speak it. The real benefit of studying it is understanding English better, and in particular, understanding technical or legal jargon.

Today's subject is a case in point. It is a classic example. It is about a website called where rather oddly, they start talking about ragwort and other land plants in the context of pond weeds.

Fourth most common invasive aquatic plants is the Himalayan balsam. This one can grow dominantly, reaching a height of two to three metres, capable of stopping other pond plants from thriving. In addition to these plants, there are other particular  weeds which can be damaging to animals such as common ragwort, spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, curled dock, as well as broad-leaved dock. Among these weeds, the most perilous is the ragwort.
It is because of its poisonous parts that can immediately kill livestock when they eat them. If you want to stop these invasive pond plants from spreading out of control, you must always seek some help first from professionals or local environmentalist for proper and safe treatments.
Let's deal with the list of plants first "common ragwort, spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, curled dock, as well as broad-leaved dock". It would appear that the author of the article concerned doesn't understand a piece of legal jargon which is derived from Latin. These plants are all listed in the Weeds Act 1959 as "injurious weeds". The one thing that "injurious" doesn't mean in this context is causing injury!
In fact  this word actually derives from the Latin word “iniurius” which in the middle ages would have been often spelled “injurius” . It carried the meaning of  unjust or wrongful and over the years from this it eventually developed the meaning of something that did injustice or wrong to something else, or that did in some way harm to an interest. In this case "injurious" means "harmful to the interests of agriculture."

It can't mean poisonous in this context because all the other plants apart from Ragwort are actually edible!
They may not be that good to eat and some docks do, like quite a few plants, contain toxic oxalic acid.
Many edible plants contain something that is not good to have in  excess and there have even  been livestock deaths caused by brassicas.

The Weeds Act is an anachronistic piece of legistlation . It doesn't make having these weeds on your land illegal it just gives certain powers to government  It was developed at a time when the emphasis was on increasing agriculatural production. It was never actually used until all the ragwort hysteria started. but now we see that the other rather harmless plants being targetted because "They are listed in an act of parliament" and so they must be dangerous. This is a common mistake even repeated by official bodies on occasion. Back in 1959 the civil servants would have done Latin in school perhaps. Today that is less likely to be the case or may be they use less legalistic jargon in writing laws.

We should remember it isn't just ragwort that gets targeted. It is any plant which might have yellowish flowers and also now all thistles and dock like plants in some cases. This affects all the wildlife that needs them too and thisles are an excellent nectar source.

Of  course I should point out that the statement, "It is because of its poisonous parts that can immediately kill livestock when they eat them. (sic)" even ignoring its incorrect use of pronouns is very badly incorrect about ragwort. Ragwort poisoning is, all the evidence says, rare and the classic symptoms are certainly not instant and sudden death.

 For more information on the meaning of "Injurious" see : Injurious weeds explained

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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Highland Council repeats ragwort notifiable weed hoax

It is an all too  typical occurrence for a council to get the facts wrong about ragwort. This time it is  Highland Council in Scotland who say incorrectly.:-

Householders are reminded that the brown bin collections and garden waste skips at Recycling Centres are intended solely for garden waste such as grass cuttings, hedge trimmings, twigs and small branches, flowers and weeds but excluding notifiable weeds such as Japanese knotweed and ragwort.
I'll repeat it again as I have said it before there is no such thing as a notifiable weed in UK law.

Why on earth shouldn't this plant be composted anyway. It doesn't make compost dangerous. There are plenty of other plants containing the same chemicals and to see this native and ecologically valuable mentioned next to Japanese Knotweed just serves to highten the hysteria.

Worse still this is a press release. It is already appearing on other sites. A blog and a forum so far and it is just a matter of hours. Telling people it is "notifiable" makes them complain more and more fuss is made and we get more hysteria.

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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Horse and Hound An Inaccurate Article on Ragwort

The May 3rd edition of Horse and Hound contains  an article on liver damage in horses that is accompanied by the most dreadful misinformation on Ragwort. They state:

"150,000 the number of seeds each ragwort flower carries"

This is clearly wrong. these are figures for normal ragwort plants at 8 sites that are documented in one of the best papers on ragwort ecology.


Clearly it is wrong to state that each flower carries such a large amount

more detailed scientific information is availavle on this article on Ragwort Seed Production

"70 the percentage of ragwort seeds from every flower that will go on to germinate"

This is also clearly wrong. Many seeds will not fall in a suitable place and the germination percentage, which is in the range that quite normal for many plants, is a laboratory figure. On average only one plant will be produced from each parent. Indeed it will be less than that since we know that ragwort is actually decreasing.

Horse and Hound has been printing the most dreadfully inaccurate information on ragwort for years and this is only the latest example.

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Monday, 7 May 2012

Country Land and Business Association's Nonsense on Ragwort

The Country Land and Business Association has just put some real nonsense about ragwort  on their website. They start with this:-
Following the early hot weather and heavy rain in April ragwort is rife this year.
I wrote about this odd claim that ragwort is increasing because of the weather- any weather before. Last year Horse and Hound claimed :-
Cold weather in November and December, followed by a mild January have caused the deadly weed ragwort to start to grow early.
The actual facts are that the latest government survey shows that ragwort is DECREASING. There is in any case nothing in the scientific literature which I have seen that would support either claim about the weather affecting ragwort. What is actually happening is more notice is being paid to theamount of ragwort, because of the hysteria.

However some really ignorant  nonsense from the CLA follows.
The Council does not have responsibility for dealing with ragwort on private land. As a result members are reminded that as Ragwort is a notifiable weed it is the responsibility of the landowner to remove it from private land.
There is no such thing in UK law as a "notifiable weed." The CLA have got it badly wrong and are misinforming their members. There is no automatic legal responsibility to remove ragwort from private land.

They should remember too that there is no evidence that ragwort is a serious risk to livestock. The inflated figures for horses have been conclusively shown to be WRONG.

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