Saturday, 20 October 2012

Richard Benyon's Bioperversity

Ruchard Benyon is the minister in the UK government who is responsible for biodiversity. One may be forgiven for thinking his title is something from George Orwell's famous book 1984 where The Ministry of Truth dealt with lying about the past, the Ministry of Love  dealt with torture and the Ministry of Peace dealt with waging war. In the same perverse way this minister seems to be doing a great deal of harm to biodiversity.

Firstly, in  his attitude to ragwort and secondly, as we have discovered recently his facilitation of the poisoning of our lovely birds of prey.

To deal with the ragwort to start with. He  got himself into hot water a while ago when he posted this message on his facebook page.

"I hate ragwort. It may not be the issue of the moment but I am on the warpath for those who let this vile weed spread. Chief target at the moment is the Highways Agency,"
This is not the kind of knowledgeable response one would hope for from a minister of the crown in charge of looking after biodiversity.

Ragwort isn't spreading and roadside verges are not significant sources of seed in most cases. The seeds do not spread far. There is clear research that shows that they only normally spread a few metres.

Benyon's ignorance was spotted by some knowledgeable people and quite soon he found himself rebuked.
This is  an extract from how the Guardian's John Vidal reported it:

Within hours of the post about the "vile weed", more than 30 people had complained that he was ecologically illiterate, plain wrong or perpetuating myths put out about the plant by herbicide companies.

"Minister of the natural environment!!!! You don't even seem to know Defra's [the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] guidance - get your facts straight - livestock are generally only harmed if they eat the dried plants in hay!", wrote Dusty Gedge, a leading urban ecologist and designer of green roofs. They attacked his science: "There is very very clear science on meta-population dynamics that shows that habitat loss with in a patchwork of habitats has a very severe effect. There is a chapter on ragwort in one of the standard textbooks," wrote another.

The Guardian article continued later:

Benyon struck back, saying his critics were being "unnecessarily aggressive", and that he wasn't advocating ethnic cleansing of ragwort but that he wanted to deal with "a severe infestation of a poisonous plant".

That only infuriated people more. "There is a campaign against ragwort. We are told that it kills hundreds or thousands of animals a year. We are told it is dangerous to touch it or it can give you cancer if you do. We are told it is a danger to dogs. None of this is true", said one. "Actually there is not a severe infestation of ragwort at the moment. There is a great deal of increase in the hysteria but the last government countryside survey actually shows a decrease. Ask your civil servants to check it for you."

It was all too much for Benyon, who retired from the debate and, shortly afterwards, deleted the thread on his Facebook wall.

Richard Benyon said: "I'm very well aware of ragwort's great importance to biodiversity, but what many people don't realise it that its presence can be extremely dangerous to livestock, especially horses. People should be made aware of the dangers as well as the benefits and take action to protect their animals if they're at risk."

The problem for the minister was of course  the fact , that unlike a lot of the stuff on the web, the media nonsense, and commercially' motivated inaccuracies that the  Advertising Standards Authority dealt with last year, Facebook is open for people to comment. Knowledgeable people, who know that the nonsense about ragwort is made up, can reply to him.  We know this stuff is false.  I have blogged before about it being invented. He didn't and looked rather foolish in the face of the experts.

It really isn't as extremely dangerous as he thinks it is.

However it does seem that Benyon's attitude to ragwort is somewhat hypocritical as the recent news shows that he is quite prepared to ignore really dangerous things when they threaten biodiversity.
Witness the row over his failure to ban the dangerous chemical carbofuran. As publicised in The Independent .
This is an extract:

The Wildlife minister, Richard Benyon, has been accused of being "the gamekeeper's friend" by refusing to outlaw a poison used by some to kill protected birds of prey on shooting estates.

Mr Benyon, a millionaire landowner who is strongly associated with shooting interests and owns both a pheasant shoot in Berkshire and a Scottish grouse moor, has declined a request from senior MPs to make possession of the poison, carbofuran, a criminal offence – as is the case in Scotland.

The effect of his refusal is to make a substance which is particularly deadly to birds of prey, despite it being a banned chemical with no legitimate use whatsoever, still available to any gamekeepers who wish to get rid of raptors illegally when they are perceived to be predating on gamebirds.

His stance, which is only the latest controversy arising from Mr Benyon's personal involvement with game shooting policy, met with fierce criticism yesterday. "The minister's shocking refusal to outlaw the possession of a poison used only by rogue gamekeepers to illegally kill birds of prey would be inexplicable were it not for his own cosy links to the shooting lobby," said the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas.

"Instead of protecting the interests of his friends on the shooting estates and undermining the wellbeing of British wildlife, the minister should be following the ad vice of MPs and the Scottish precedent by making carbofuran possession a criminal offence."

 One does wonder if Public School (A British term for a posh private school.) educated Benyon suffers from the problem that often results from such  treatment, i.e having too much confidence and not enough talent.  He is confident enough to want to wage war on ragwort, where the evidence says that there isn't a problem and then won't put controls on carbofuran where the evidence says that there is!.

This sounds rather like "bioperversity" to me.

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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Another peculiar reaction

As I say I could blog every single day about incorrect or misleading things being said about ragwort.
The fuss over it goes beyond all reason.It is portrayed as some deadly creeping triffid that kills all in its wake.
We are told a whole host of falsehoods. It is dangerous to dogs (see ragwort and dogs) kids,etc. It kills thousands of horses every year. None of these things is true at all. They have been comprehensively debunked. Yes there is a problem with hay, but it is a small one. Ragwort poisoning is rare.

Then we get this. Someone is watching a film and they see ragwort and feel disgusted.  As is shown in this  example from Twitter.

Nick Gaven ‏@NickGaven

So much ragwort on Saving Private Ryan. Makes me sick.
Well all I can say to this person  is this.. You are wrong. Look at all the stuff that has been made up.
Like this in Your horse magazine and if you are capable of rational thought and have good powers of critical thinking you will see you are wrong .
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Sunday, 14 October 2012

Admission of criminal activity on forum

Recently I blogged about the silly ignorance on a horsey forum, where a whole load of hysterical myths were being disseminated because they were angry at a very good letter from Buglife in The Times..
As one person put it to me,  "It is so stupid it becomes funny."

The latest from there is this apparent admission.

ive(sic) been seen pulling it out of the local verges so it doesnt(sic) spread further. NIMBY
 This is rather a silly thing to say publicly. It is a criminal offence under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act to pull up any wildflower unless you are a properly authorised person, basically the landowner , occupier or certain public officials.

Ragwort growing in verges poses little problem as the seeds actually don't normally spread far at all . Most fall at the base of the plant and the rest within a few metres.

Unfortunately the hysteria  and misinformation in the horsey press continues to promote what is essentially habitat vandalism.

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Saturday, 13 October 2012

Predictable silly ignorance

This week I blogged about the rather excellent letter by Matt Shardlow in The Times.
Rather predictably, there has been a burst of angry ignorance in the horsey community. This beautifully illustrates why it is I do this blog.

The fuss about ragwort, is as I have blogged before, largely made up. The plant is only a risk if it is put in hay and all the evidence internationally shows that poisoning is rare. However, there is so much nonsense in circulation that some people refuse to accept the scientific facts even when they are given them.

Today's great example of this phenomenon comes from the Dalesfans Message board where some horsey people have displayed a marvellous degree of ignorance.  Ignorance is, as I have said before, no crime as the word simply comes from the Latin for not knowing and we are all ignorant of many things. Ignorance abounds about ragwort hence my blogging. It is very irritating.

The first piece is probably an ignorant near malapropism which made me laugh. OK not everyone has studied classical languages but I thought it funny.

Someone who was annoyed with Matt Shardlow's fine letter and disbelieved it through apparent ignorance wrote.

Perhaps we could concoct a reply? 
I read it as meaning "compose a reply" but concoct has a subtly different meaning coming from the Latin "cook together or "cook up".
The massive multi-tomed Oxford English dictionary, which is accepted as the definitive guide to the English language, has the following:-

To make up, devise, or plan by concert, or by artificial combination; to put together, make up, or fabricate (a story, project, fraud, etc.).
The problem is that most of the panic about ragwort has been concocted in this sense! People, often with a  financial interest, have cooked up a load of misinformation and diseminated it.

Another silly misinformed and incorrect comment about Matt Sharlow is:-

What a fool
I'm sure I've read a report about how even a small amount of skin contact (pulling up a few plants) with ragwort and the toxins can be found in our liver
I know Matt Shardlow. He is no fool! The Independent newspaper described him in 2008 as :-

The environmentalist with the most conspicuous rising reputation in Britain.

Of course the clincher is that his critic here has been rather foolish and repeated the nonsensical skin absorption myth which  have blogged about before
To briefly recap it has been looked at by experts including one with a PhD in ragwort and it isn't right!

 But it gets worse! With comments like this!

Everyone should be doing their part to get rid of it. They won't actually mobilize fully until a kid drops dead from the stuff.
This is laughable nonsense. The plant is nowhere near that toxic. There are many plants which contain the same toxins which are all over the place. My local public park has plenty. Of one of them is a close relative of ragwort  and it is no danger. Tomatoes , potatoes, runner beans etc all have poisonous parts, more poisonous probably, but it doesn't stop people growing them.

Then we have this ridiculously inaccurate gem:-

I don't believe this plant should be described as native. Its(sic) not indigenous to these shores. Some Victorian collector brought it back from Asia to somewhere like Kew I think. Can't remember exactly but it was on a gardening programme a few years ago.
I am probably the last person to recommend listening to experts solely as a way of getting information but when a leading nature expert writes to The Times newspaper and says something about nature, as Matt Shardlow did when he wrote, it should at least raise the doubt in any sensible person's mind that he might be right.

Of course this is nonsense. Common ragwort is well-known by any botanist to be a native plant.

This is a classic example of what happens all the time. People having read nonsense in the press, repeat it over and over again, until it is believed.


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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Excellent letter from Buglife

There was a short but rather excellent letter in today's edition of The Times  It was from Matt Shardlow the Chief Executive of Buglife the Invertebrate  Conservation Trust.  They are an excellent conservation organisation that is well worth joining.

There was one of the usual letters in the paper earlier this week repeating the usual nonsense that I blog about. People believe this because of dodgy publicity put out by people with a vested interest and it spreads around. (Ragwort is, as I frequently say, shown to be decreasing in official surveys.)
However, this letter succinctly puts the other side.

    The claim by G. Smithers (Letter 8th Oct) that the public and grazing  animals  are being let down by councils and landowners  who are indifferent to the spread of common ragwort was typical of the  hyperbole surrounding this native flower  The Ragwort Control Act 0f 2003 does not force landowners to control the spread of ragwort, this can only be done via a specific  order served on a landowner. Ragwort is only dangerously toxic if eaten in large quantities. We are unaware of any properly confirmed  livestock death  from ragwort in  the  past decade. A few plants of this native  species along public rights of way  cause no harm  and help to support our declining populations of other pollinators.

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Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Another vet posts bad info?

From time to time I point out how even vets get taken in by the misinformation about ragwort and today it seems we might have another example.

Today we have  this from twitter

 Dr. Anna Russau ‏@WarrentonHWorks 
What do you know about Ragwort?

and this is how Dr Russau describes herself on twitter

Dr. Anna Russau
Warrenton Horse Works, PLC is owned by Dr. Anna L. Russau, DVM, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Virginia ·
It is rather ambiguous as to whether she actually believes the stuff on the website, but I would assume that she wouldn't post it like this if she didn't.

The problem that I have is that the website concerned is very familiar to me and I as someone who has studied ragwort in detail for many years believe that some of the things that it says are as nutty as squirrel droppings.

It exaggerates the risk. It posts nonsense about animals breathing in seeds. It uses exaggerated statistics.
It claims that ragwort seeds are spread widely on the wind when we know from the data and the mathematics that they don't and oh yes, it gets things wrong about UK law too.

Regular readers will be familiar with this site. Someone at Edinburgh University mentioned it before on twitter.
So for full details look at my previous posting. I described it then as "bonkers" and "tripe".

Perhaps Dr Russau would care to correct any false impressions she may have made?

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Monday, 8 October 2012

Horse and Hound prints more ragwort nonsense

Horse and Hound is a frequent source of nonsense on ragwort. I blogged on this earlier this year. They have now done it again with more inaccurate and unscientific material.

We are told that ragwort is worse than ever. Why? Because of the weather. You know, ragwort must be the oddest plant on earth. According to the press any kind of weather causes it to grow more luxuriantly.

As I blogged last year,  Horse and Hound were saying it was cold weather and the Western Daily Press had been saying it was hot summer weather. Now we have a cold summer and that is causing it to grow more.
It is a miracle! And apparently you can use to to change water into wine, cure lepers and raise the dead too. :-) (Please note the smiley. I don't want another set of myths going around!)

The facts are that when the research is done properly by an official government survey ragwort is actually shown to be decreasing. It doesn't stop these silly articles though.

Apparently they justify it because , due to the mounting publicity people have sent more replies to the British Horse Societies "Ragwort" ( or rather yellow flowered plants) survey.  This is the same society whose publicity material  led to the Advertising Standards Authority stopping  adverts because they were wrong or had no evidence to support them.

Worse that this the story is being passed, as true, around websites. It got repeated  on the MRCVS.couk site. On the site of and tweeted by many people.
It seems that critical thinking skills are not always in good supply out there.

Oh and while we are at it there is a classic example in the article of the misunderstanding of terminology. It comes about because of the lack of teaching of Latin in our schools. We noticed   that even an Eton educated patrician toff like the Prime Minister didn't know what Magna Carta meant when asked recently on US television. Fortunately,  even plebs like me can study Latin and I hope to spend some time this evening working on a book on Latin poetry that I am supposed to be writing.

This example is the use of the word "injurious" which  appears as "injurious weeds"  in the  Weeds Act 1959.
The article has a  Mrs Claire Harding-Brown saying :-
It’s an injurious weed and it’s by my horses.
Injurious does not mean poisonous in this context. It derives from the same roots as Justice and Jury. It means harmful to the interests of something. In this case agriculture. Most of the listed weeds are not poisonous. The link in this sentence leads to a briefing  on the meaning of Injurious Weeds with full details.
Remember, as I have blogged before most of the scarey stuff about ragwort has been made up.

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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Silly story There is no dog poisoning risk

Today's silly story on ragwort comes from the Skegness Standard where a story starts as follows:-

A CONCERNED resident is urging dog walkers, children and passers-by to be mindful of potentially harmful ‘ragwort weed’ which is alleged to be growing in nearby Skegness fields.
The implication being that the plant is of great danger. Of course as regular readers will know the stories about ragwort are largely made up and there is no serious risk. This is one of a regular stream of stories that occur, frightening people about their children and their dogs.

As I regularly say Ragwort is poisonous to both dogs and to dolphins but as neither species eats it and a considerable amount has to be eaten to kill it is not a serious risk.

A while ago I blogged about the well-known author Dr Germaine Grier commenting about this.

Unfortunately common sense and basic biological knowledge do not abound in the press and we see these silly stories appearing all the time.

See this for a briefing on ragwort and dogs.

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