Monday, 23 September 2013

Ragwort Debate More Ignorance and Inaccuracy

Again I am covering the ragwort debate on line here

It never ceases to amaze me just how inaccurate and ignorant people can be about the issues around ragwort, even when they are debating the issue with other people.
A lack of fact checking is a characteristic of the whole business. The British Horse Society didn't check their facts which is why they fell foul of advertising regulation. This also seems to be true of their supporters.                            

This quote from one of the BHS's supporters seems to be  a classic example of ignorance and inaccuracy that is all to common with those who fall for the hysteria over ragwort.
"The Weeds Act 1959 only gave protection to agricultural land. The Ragwort Control Act 2003 simply extended that protection to non-agricultural land which may be grazed by horses and other livestock and which may also used to produce preserved forage."

As I always say it is no crime to be ignorant but in this case the culprit is arguing on the net and the proper information is only a click of the mouse away.  Neither act of parliament mentions agricultural land at all!

The Weeds Act 1959, while it does not place an automatic responsibility to control ragwort, actually contains the words "weeds to which this Act applies growing upon any land"(My emphasis)
and the Ragwort Control Act 2003 does not mandate any control at all merely asking for some guidance to be created.

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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Ragwort Debate The Nerve of the BHS

The  British Horse Society have a real nerve!
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have very little regard for them. In fact it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I am disgusted by their behaviour. It is pretty clear now that they area poor source of information about ragwort.

This blog entry is based on the ragwort debate that is taking place on the Wildlife Extra website.

The first thing you will  notice is that the BHS offer no evidence other than to say Defra says you must control ragwort. Those of us who know will say  that Defra say this  because that BHS have created a hue and cry with false information. Not long ago they got themselves into trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority because one of their leaflets was false and companies were repeating their falsehoods

So we have a circular argument. the BHS gives Defra dodgy data . Defra repeat it and the BHS repeat Defra.

Defra of course as I blogged recently use such bad statistics it is questionable that they would pass a statistics GCSE.

In any case it is one of the biggest errors in thinking, particularly scientific thinking, to say something is correct because of someone in authority says it is. Worse than that research shows that people who do this habitually as part of their thinking tend to have lower IQ scores.

Of course the reason that the BHS don't offer any evidence is all the evidence they have tried to use has been comprehensively shreded by Buglife in the past.

One of the things that characterises the debate is how often BHS supporters are overly quick to find other reasons to panic about ragwort.  BHS supporters in Parliament have talked nonsense as in this example
and we have another excellent example in the forum debate

Oxford Ragwort is not actually covered by the Ragwort Control Act, though the code of practice does acknowledge that in some situations other species of ragwort may need to be controlled. There are a number of non-native species of ragwort present in the UK, S. squalidus and S. inaequidens being two I have become aware of. I understand some can hybridise with native species. Is there is any concern that common ragwort may through hybridisation be threatened as pure species. Once hybrids become established could these ragwort mongrels then be considered as non-native, invasive species. That would open a new can of worms.

The first thing here is going to be very clear to those of you who know botany is that this person doesn't have a lot of knowledge , as is typical in these debates. In fact I can see people chuckling if not laughing out loud. Oxford Ragwort ( S. squalidus) is absolutely insignificant in this debate. It simply doesn't grow in pastures. It can hybridise but not with Common Ragwort which is now in a different genus, but with Groundsel also not a normal pasture plant. The hybrids are usually completely sterile.
These are plants of waste ground. Oxford ragwort grows on railway lines, in gaps in the pavement and similar places. My local railway station carpark has a lot of it.

It is no crime to be ignorant. We are all ignorant of many things but it is annoying when ignoramuses find excuses for possible panic for no need at all. Unfortunately the BHS has  been spreading ignorance , by making ingnorant statements themselves.

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Saturday, 31 August 2013

Defra Ragwort Code of Practice Nonsense

Defra's ragwort Code of Practice is widely quoted and cited, but it is really often quite an unscientific document.
Today I am celebrating a little as this blog has been running for several years now and every August it gets the highest number of hits as ragwort hysteria is at its height and every August it does better than the one before. This year however it broke the record for the highest number of hits in a month some weeks ago and yesterday it passed the point of double the hits of last August. So today I thought it would be appropriate to tell everyone just how incompetent Defra have been. They have been very incompetent.

First let's look at one of the methods they use to estimate the risk to horses . To quote them:-

A figure of 500 horse deaths from ragwort poisoning in 2000. This figure is based on the number of confirmed horse deaths from ragwort poisoning seen by the Philip Leverhulme Large Animal Hospital Teaching Hospital at Liverpool University as a percentage of all the horse cases treated during the year, and grossed up to be representative of the total horse population.
I can hear the gasps from those of you with training in statistics! They did what!!?

You can't do this and get a sensible answer. Cases in a hospital,. whether of people or of animals, are not a representative sample of what is the case for the country as a whole. They are all concentrated in one place, so you cannot extrapolate and get a meaningful answer. Imagine, if you like, an opinion poll on political beliefs asked just people  in one of the party headquarters and then  extrapolated to the whole country. Do you think it would give a proper accurate answer?

Dr Ben Goldacre (a medical doctor and journalist) is well known for his work on educating people about Bad Science , both through his book of that name and his similarly named column in the Guardian  newspaper. In one of his articles he makes a very relevant comment which seems entirely pertinent to this situation.

We can't do a full census of the whole population every time we want some data, because they're too expensive and time-consuming. Instead, we take what we hope is a representative sample.
This can fail in two interesting ways. Firstly, a sample can be systematically unrepresentative: if you want to know about the health of the population as a whole, but you survey people in a GP's waiting room, then you're an idiot.

You can actually do a GCSE in statistics. ( For foreigners this is the General Certificate in Secondary Education that school pupils usually do at 16.)
These are the assessment objectives:-

AO1 Analyse a statistical problem and plan an appropriate strategy
AO2 Describe and use appropriate methods to select and collect data
AO3 Process, analyse and present data appropriately
AO4 Use statistical evidence to identify inferences, make deductions and draw conclusions
Ask yourself, do you think Defra would pass?

What is more while we don't actually know how many cases of ragwort poisoning the Phillip Leverhume Hospital recorded in 2004 when the Code of Practice was published., thanks to the Freedom of Information Act I can tell you how many they recorded in 2006. In fact I have their figures for 2006-2010, a full five years. They didn't record a single case in the whole five year period! 

It is also worth noting that the tests used would not have been definitive anyway since no test for ragwort poisoning that is definitive exists. The changes in the liver cannot be distinguished from other causes such as those caused by toxins produced in mouldy feedstuffs. See Ragwort Poisoning test.

Then we have Defra distances for where ragwort should be controlled in the vicinity of grazing land. They bear no resemblance to the studies on seed dispersal. We are told there is a risk at 100m when the seeds have been shown not to normally travel more than about 37 metres. Taken with the bizarre overestimation of poisoning risk this is totally unreasonable.

The whole idea that fresh ragwort is a  significant danger to livestock is completely without foundation and contrary to one of the most basic tenets of biology. As I keep saying, animals have co-evolved with the plants with the ragwort toxins which are actually 3% of the plants in the world. Those that ate poison died and did not pass on their genes. We find when we look at the research that animals have a whole set of resistance systems one of which is a complex system of taste genes and receptors which means they know what is good to eat.

This of course makes complete sense. The man who discovered this is so venerated in the UK that if you were to stop the average person in the street you would find they were carrying his picture in their wallet.
Charles Darwin is featured on the Bank of England Ten Pound Note!

The only problem is when owners abuse their animals by feeding it  in quantities in hay or where animals are cruelly abused by starvation. Just remember here that when you throw out the nonsensical claims of poisoning figures derived by measures that would not apparently get you a pass grade in a GCSE exam, and you exclude the abuse cases, ragwort is not a problem at all. Poisoning even including the abuse is actually very rare.

Then of course there is the damage to the environment, as Buglife put it recently in discussing the New Forest
( Again for non-UK people an ancient royal hunting ground  that was "New" when it was created by the man who became king in 1066.)
Ragwort within dried hay is known to cause illness in horses and hay-growers have a duty to remove it from their hay crop. But horses and ponies will not eat it as a live plant within open heathland and pasture. Indeed, ragwort and New Forest ponies have co-existed happily for centuries with no recorded cases of ragwort poisoning.
Absolutely and their expert Steven Falk said

"Ragwort pulling in the New Forest is a truly ill-informed and damaging activity that is totally unnecessary. There are so many rare insects in the Forest, and it is well known that a general reduction in the number of flowers in the Forest over recent decades has placed many insects under severe threat of extinction there. Examine any patch of flowering ragwort in fine weather and you will see an astonishing array of bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles".
Finally we come to a spectacular example of poor  critical thinking skills in Defra's guidance

A particular concern amongst conservation groups is that the public pressure surrounding the Code will compel land managers to carry out more extensive control measures than they would otherwise...........

There are concerns that the risks presented by ragwort on grazed nature conservation grasslands could lead to major changes in grazing regimes. These could conceivably include the abandonment of grazing on grassland and heathland sites, leading to the development of scrub and woodland which may have a consequential significant effect on biodiversity.
22 However, as has already been stressed it is not the intention of the Code of Practice to affect the balance of biodiversity. It should be remembered that the control of ragwort has been required long before the introduction of the Weeds Act 1959, which consolidates earlier legislation dating from 1921, without resulting in such drastic consequences
It is really hard to find a calm form of words  to describe what at best is seriously cognitively deficient misinformation and in reality seems more like egregious dissembling.

It doesn't matter what the "intention" is, it is the effect. In fact it is agricultural intensification pushed by people like Defra that has led to the massive declines in wildlife in the UK. Furthermore they know that ragwort control, which is NOT  automatically required by the legislation as they try to imply, was never pushed before the current hysteria. It also sounds rather like an argument from tradition which should lose any students marks in a science essay as it is a well-known example of a logical fallacy

 I want to reuse this blog post  You frequently encounter people on-line who say things like Defra are experts what do they say , or you should listen to Defra they  are part of the government they must be right. This is an answer to the people who say that.

 This is another one of those logical fallacies it is called "argument from authority". It is a falsehood. Just because someone is in a position of authority doesn't mean they are right. In this case Defra have made a real hash of some of their science.

Indeed, we know from very good, basic and fundamental research into the nature of personality that those who argue from tradition and authority and who are concerned that people have a responsibility to follow government advice tend very clearly to be less intelligent and we do see such examples out in the world of the ragwort basher.

And really finally a little joke. There is a word in Welsh. It is spelled with two Fs but the sound is the same. "Deffra". It is a command. It means "Wake up!". I think they should!

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Friday, 30 August 2013

Ragwort fungus nonsense

A really fantastic case of nonsense appeared recently in the Penarth Times.

A PENARTH resident has labelled the land near Sully Moors Road a “field of death” and raised concerns after several horses started grazing on the land.
The resident, who asked not to be named, has warned about the dangers of the horses escaping, from being poisoned by the fungus ragwort and the risk of them being stranded on higher ground if the land becomes flooded in the winter.
So ragwort is a fungus now is it? No it jolly well isn't. It is a flowering plant. This is another case of the totally inept quality of journalism that fuels the hysteria.

There is probably no risk from ragwort since we know very clearly from evolutionary biology that horses have evolved to avoid the fresh plant. So unless it is in hay or the animal is starving there is no problem but it doesn't stop the panic about the yellow peril fungus triffid :-)

Later on of course we find there is no cause for concern.

Christina Roberts-Kinsey, Principal Trading Standards Officer for the Vale Council, said: “Trading Standards take all complaints and reports of animal welfare seriously and investigate to the fullest extent. We are in receipt of a complaint regarding the welfare and identification of the current herd of horses grazing at Sully Moors Road.
“In response to the complaint a joint inspection was undertaken by an animal health officer and a specialist equine veterinary surgeon. This inspection identified there are currently no welfare issues with the horses. There is, however, a small amount of ragwort which has been addressed with the owner and a schedule of works is currently in place to remove the weed.”

There is an interesting comment on facebook where someone who clearly knows the field says that the yellow flowers were actually buttercups. Who knows? But it really wouldn't be the first time the two have been confused.

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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Mad Panic in Scottish Borders

Today's blog posting is about the silly unnecessary panic in the Scottish Borders as reported in the Southern Reporter

Councillor Gavin Logan is expected to raise the issue of the toxic plant in the open questions section of the meeting.
He is set to ask officials: “Has the council any long-term plans to deal with the scourge of ragwort on council-owned land?”
The Conservative councillor for Tweeddale East told us: “The point of the question is, if the council are not controlling ragwort, why should the other landowners in the Borders bother?”
Well perhaps the council should be sensible and not fall for the hysteria on ragwort.
Poisoning is so rare as not to be of any significance and most of the stuff is made up. The statistics seem to indicate that grass is a worse problem for horses

Under the 1959 Weeds Act, landowners, including councils, are bound to remove the noxious weed from land they own.
 This is not true the weeds act does not say that. There is no automatic responisbility placed on landowners or councils to do anything. See this briefing on ragwort law

He admitted: “There are cost implications, however potential costs can only rise if ragwort continues to spread.”

To right this is a waste of money. Ragwort is not increasing. Ther last government survey showed a really significant decrease . There is a recognised psychological phenomenon where somehting seems commoner because it is drawn to someone's attention.

When complaints have been made about the propaganda the Advertising Standards Authority has stopped adverts..

Ragwort is one of the most important wildflowers  for biodiversity the charity Buglife has a special set of pages.

A large set of myths about ragwort are debunked here

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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Ragwort He Who Burns His Buttocks Must Sit On The Blisters

A piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph recently. It appeared only in the print edition it would seem since
I cannot find it on-line.

Professor Derek Knottenbelt a well known figure in the ragwort debate has been complaining that people don't like what he says.

There is quite a bit of research into scientific type people and it seems fairly clear that they get irritated by nonsense. You will find debunkers all over the net debunking nonsensical claims and I am afraid that the same appears true for many of  the professors claims. There are, it seems, rational people who debunk him.

Derek Knottenbelt , professor of equine medicine at the University
 of Liverpool, has spoken out about the lethal effect the plant can have if the
 animals are exposed to it over a period of time, and has advocated measures to
 control its spread.

But since he began raising his concerns over what he calls
 a "silent killer", he has received a torrent of angry letters and emails,
 and even anonymous phone calls, from opponents claiming to be concerned
about the environment. 
He has done a little bit more than argue for control measures. He has argued, it seems,for the total elimination of a native wildflower. Now of course it would be wrong to harass someone, but he has been making some pretty strong statements that are not, it seems, supported by the evidence.
For example, claiming that ragwort is a severe problem in South Africa when the experts there say that there is no evidence that it grows there!

The article continues
 A solution to the problem is necessary, he said, but with such bitter opposition
 to ragwort control, the debate has become polarised.
 "I just can't get my mind around why people are so defensive around
it on the one hand, and so irrational on the other," he said.
This really does seem to be the pot calling the kettle black. Professor Knottenbelt is quoted in a number of places saying "It is toxic to humans, so what the hell are we doing with it in this country"
To someone with a detailed knowledge of botany this seems highly irrational indeed. There are many many poisonous plants in Britain. Even oak trees contain toxins. Potatoes and tomatoes grow on plants that have poisonous parts. Bluebells and daffodils are poisonous too. If we were to eliminate anything possibly toxic we would wreck our environment. 

An earlier wave of malicious letters had arrived after he warned several
 years ago that around 500 horses and ponies were struck down with ragwort
 poisoning annually, he said.

"I got hate mail saying 'this is rubbish and we're going to lose more of our
 summer beauty', that it's not called summer gold for nothing, and so on,"
he said. He has nevertheless continued to speak out about what he fears is a
"ticking time bomb" for horses.
It is entirely possible that he may have had mail criticising him over his claim of 500 horses dying a year, because he has apparently published the method by which he makes this claim in a newspaper and it appears entirely based on a nonsensical use of statistics. This is coupled with the fact that a Freedom of Information Act request to his university showed that , despite his saying that he gets more than ten cases a year, that they had recorded not one single case  in a five year period.

This link goes to a page giving a list of questionable claims by the professor 
These are examples through the years, such as saying  that ragwort is increasing ,when a government survey said it decreased.; that the number of horse deaths would double because of this; that ragwort could cause problems  with the meat , when the experts and a standard textbook say not; that the cinnabar moth ( which isn't the main issue anyway) could survive without ragwort, when the evidence says not. It even seems that he has claimed that the moth is poisoned by this plant when it is its main a natural food.

To people reading this blog I say nobody should be harassed but when an academic seems to make claims apparently using poor evidence and doesn't seem to check his facts then he deserves some criticism.

The is an old Dutch proverb that seems to fit this situation. "He who burns his buttocks must sit on the blisters"


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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

ragwort outbreak panic up north

Today's entry is abut a ridiculous article that appeared in the Northern Echo

Apparently there have been "ragwort outbreaks in Weardale". One does wonder if there have been outbreaks of daisies or dandelions. This sort of language suggests that ragwort is spreading when we know that it has been there all along and that it is , if anything, declining in abundance. It quotes a local Cowshill resident Ian Reedman.

“It is poisonous to horses and potentially to humans. People need to be aware of it and report it to the authorities. The only way to get rid of it is to pull it out of the ground."
To those of us in the know of course this panic seems rather foolish. There is no reason to panic about this native wildflower as it is only rarely any problem. Oak trees are poisonous too but we don't panic about them. Ragwort is a bit more poisonous but there are no records of anyone every being poisoned in the UK.
You would have to eat quite a bit of it and horse problems as I blogged this week seem to be rather exaggerated. and when the exaggerations were examined by the Advertising Standards Authority adverts were stopped

It is the silly season and with all the politicians on holiday we get this nonsense every August.

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Monday, 26 August 2013

More foolish ragwort comments from an equine professional

A while ago I posted an account of how the BBC had encouraged law breaking on ragwort.
and that they had broadcast a statement from someone who had contacted them making the silly claim that ragwort was not a native plant.

I regularly post accounts of how equine professionals seem to  make silly and ignorant statements on ragwort. Like this one where a vet posts a link to really nutty material or this one on the same nutty material and on getting the law wrong. and as I have blogged before  it seems even an equine veterinary professor is not beyond making quite serious mistakes.

Well I have tracked down the originator of the statement. He has, it seems, been bragging about it on facebook on a page commenting about the BBC programme.

Richard Halls Had my say last night, one group was saying ragwort was ok. I said its[sic] not native coming from South America and was spread by the railways.

Mr Halls is of course wrong. The ragwort in question is a native plant. He will have quite well have had botanists groaning around the country at this foolish ignorance. There is a ragwort that is reckoned to have spread around the railway network but this is a very different and smaller plant called Oxford Ragwort. It doesn't come from South America but from Mt Etna in Italy.

But the facebook account reveals more. He is an Equine Dental Technician. This is is yet another example of the phenomenon, perhaps caused by the nonsense in  the press,of an equine professional not knowing their stuff.

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Sunday, 25 August 2013

Who tells the ragwort truth?

Today's blog entry is inspired by the following tweets.

Over 2,000 horses die a year as a result of RAGWORT poisoning. Time to completely eradicate this horrible plant.

And then after being  pointed to an article saying this wasn't the case by ragwort expert Esther Hegt

There seem to be as many articles 'for' Ragwort as there are from those 'against'. Who is telling the truth then?

How do we know what the truth is? Well we use the scientific method and evidence. With the 2000 horses figure we can actually show that these figures were examined in advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority.(ASA)
( That blog entry talks about the nonsense figure of 6500 deaths but there was one company saying 2000)

The problem is that there are two groups of people involved. There are people like me and Esther who look
at the science and there are people who just repeat what they have been told.

On Twitter Esther advised asking the University of Liverpool. The death figures are often claimed to be from data collected there.  As she knows I have already checked with them they recorded not one single death over a five year period.

Anyone wishing to do so can read about the circumstances surrounding this at a blog entry I made this week.

In regards to what happens if you look at the scientific evidence Esther Hegt is a prime example.
She once  believed the nonsense , but she is a good scientist and looked at the evidence.
It is the evidence that says it is nonsense.

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Friday, 23 August 2013

Lynne Allbutt should read about ragwort

One of the really frustrating things about this work is the monotonous regularity with which journalists publish nonsense about ragwort without  checking the facts. A particularly bad example appeared in a column in the Western Mail written by Lynne Allbutt recently. Particularly  because she gives a source which debunks a claim she makes in her column. Despite giving it out to her readers she doesn't seem to have read or understood it.

The column seems to make error after error.

 It is toxic and a particular worry for horse  owners as ingestion of either its green or  dried state can cause serious liver damage,  which can have tragic consequences for  animals.

Here we go again! We know from the data that ragwort poisoning is actually very rare. An animal hospital , which is  recognised as a centre for such things recorded no cases at all for five years between 2006 and 2011.  (These are the only years for which data has been provided)  We know very very clearly from biological science that every animal that needs to has evolved strategies to cope with the toxins which are actually present in 3% of all plant. We never hear fuss about the others and horses do not eat the green plant they have evolved not to do so. It is only a problem in starvation abuse cases or where it is eaten in quantity in hay.
 The Ragwort Control  Act 2003 (which amends the Weeds Act  1959), advises it is not an offence to have  these weeds growing on your land and  species such as ragwort have significant  conservation benefits.
 However, they must not be allowed to  spread to agricultural land, particularly  grazing areas or land which is used to  produce conserved forage.
 The problem here is accuracy for that act of parliament says nothing of the sort. You can see the full text of the Ragwort Control Act here

There is also a suggestion that the poisons  (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) can also be  absorbed through the skin if handled  with bare hands, although this has not  proven to be fatal. Knowledge is a powerful  tool, so for more information, visit
Knowledge is indeed a powerful tool. The problem is that that idea that you can be poisoned through the skin appears to be a silly nonsensical myth and worse still that website DEBUNKS IT.

You can read the page here

I understand that the author of the site ragwort expert Esther Hegt is rather perturbed that her website has been associated with the myth.

Esther, by the way ,is a horse owner who initially believed the nonsense about ragwort until she researched it.
She has gathered a stellar cast of international experts to help her write her website.  Her chief adviser on the skin absortption issue actually has a PhD specifically on ragwort.

The skin absorption myth is a particularly nasty and frightening myth. I know of an example of a teenage girl who was intensely and morbidly frightened because she was told after handling ragwort that it might kill her.

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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Ragwort An Open Letter to Alastair Stewart

Today's blog entry is prompted by several Tweets by Alastair Stewart a well known British journalist who is a newsreader on ITV.

Alastair Stewart  @alstewitn 19 Aug
#ragwort Professor Knottenbelt is right. There are more than enough other plants for insects to feed on. Ragwort,however, kills horses.

And in response to Dutch ragwort expert and horse enthusiast Esther Hegt

Alastair Stewart  @alstewitn 19 Aug
@Ragwort_horses He is right that Ragwort kills horses. Insects can feast elsewhere or evolve. Dead horses can't.
I have decided to write an open letter.
Dear Mr Stewart,
I have great respect for you as a journalist but I think that , on the basis of the evidence, that you are wrong.
The evidence very very clearly shows that the risk to horses from ragwort has been exaggerated beyond all reason and I believe since I follow the scientific method and use evidence that I can establish this clearly.

I would first of all recommend that you listen to Esther Hegt. She is a keen and devoted horsewoman from The Netherlands, a highly intelligent and technically minded woman who at first agreed with you, but after looking into the science she realised that the stories which had spread to her country from the UK were wrong.

 I hope that being a successful man in your field who has already shown signs on twitter of being open minded that you will hear me out and listen to what I have to say.

First of all let me deal with the subject of Professor Knottenbelt. It is important to realise that being a professor doesn't give him some kind of divine right to be correct in matters of science. In science it is the evidence that shows who is right. It seems very clear to me, after spending over a decade of detailed study, that he is very clearly wrong.

Professor Knottenbelt has played a pivotal role in this subject. I could choose many many instances of him being quoted in the press to make my point, but I am mainly going to concentrate on examples where we can be certain that he has been directly involved in writing the statements concerned.

One of those sources is a letter that he wrote to the Yorkshire Post about Ragwort  Jacobaea vulgaris (The old name is Senecio jacobaea). He said some rather strange things.
    In one circumstance in Africa where ragwort infusions were fed to humans as herbal remedies, the toll was very heavy.

    A very high number of cases of hepatic carcinoma were reported as well as extensive veno-occlusive disease and liver failure. The plant is toxic to people make no mistake. For example, cereals contaminated with ragwort in Uzbekistan were responsible for large numbers of cases of severe liver disease.
And later.
      In South Africa the plant is causing massive concerns.  
 This sounds very scary but I have checked these statements out. The alkaloids occur in thousands of different plants, 3% of all flowering plants in fact. It is doubtful that the plant grows anywhere in Africa except possibly the in the northern or Mediterranean coast area.  According to my extensive literature searches which reveal that all the poisoning cases are well documented, the known cases in both Africa and Kazakhstan were not caused plant in question, and the Kazakhstan cases were plants in a different botanical family altogether!

As for his comments specifically about South Africa, I have asked around the international network of ragwort experts that I am in contact with. The South African organisation that maintains records of their flora,  have no record of the plant ever being found there.  It seems that it clearly cannot be causing "massive concerns."

In the letter he says very odd things about ragwort's distribution.
    "It has taken over fragile eco-systems on the west coast and islands of Scotland, it has spread across the hills of Wales and the Downs of England."
This is baffling to ecologists who know the plant was always there and hasn't changed in distribution or spread to new parts of the country as he seems to imply. There is however,  a known psychological effect called, "The Bader Meinhoff Effect"  where people think something has become more abundant just because it is drawn to their attention.

Back in 2000 he wrote on the same theme in a conference paper,“Over the last 5 years there has been an explosion of ragwort in the UK."
He always seems to say it is increasing but we have pretty solid evidence that during that period ragwort was actually markedly declining.  There was an official government scientific survey. I don't quote figures or pass stuff on as the real  research data figures were supplied to me as a courtesy, but they would be available I presume to anyone under the Freedom of Information Act.

In that letter Professor Knottenbelt uses a peculiar  and seemingly entirely  wrong statistical method to derive the number of horse deaths. To explain it imagine an opinion poll to decide the way the voting was going for an election and then imagine that the survey was conducted exclusively in the local headquarters of one of the political parties. Do you imagine that you would want, as a journalist, to rely on such a survey? It is obviously not based on a representative sample.

To me Professor Knottenbelt's methodology is very similar. He takes a tiny number of cases from his hospital. where after establishing himself as an expert they are going to be especially highly concentrated and common and tries to extrapolate. You cannot do this as the sample is not representative of the UK's horse population. What is also puzzling and seemingly significant is that he says he gets "more than 10 per year" cases in the Yorkshire Post letter. I have done a Freedom of Information  request to his hospital. They told me me that over the 5 year period 2006-2011 which includes the time of his letter, they recorded no cases at all of ragwort poisoning in horses, NOT ONE!

It seems to me that the professor is rather too keen to exaggerate the problems of ragwort and the frightening tales he tells are open to question.

Now let me  turn to the subject of evolution. I will try to be brief and not quote technical papers although I do have them. These alkaloids are very common. Any grazing animal is going to encounter them in a variety of plants in nature and it is very very clear from the data that the level of resistance is proportional to the likelihood of them being in the diet. The mechanisms here are many and complex, special taste senses, digestive bacteria, different enzymes etc. A horse, just like any grazing animal, is going to have evolved enough resistance to cope with normal life and that is the conclusion that the science supports. If you actually at the published cases of horse poisonings, where it is confirmed as ragwort, which most liver cases aren't, where the circumstances can be established, it is always, it seems, either starvation abuse where the evolutionary drive is going to be,"if you are going to die it is worth trying anything", and when ragwort occurs in quantities in the artificial man-made product of hay. Horses have already evolved a tolerance to ragwort growing in normal  circumstances.

At this point I was going to explain why it seems to me that Professor Knottenbelt is wrong on the toxicology and why it seems very clear that ragwort is not always a cumulative poison but it is too technical and long-winded so you can read it here if you wish Professor Derek Knottenbelt an analysis of his conference paper 2000

Now we come to the insects. I don't think I need to say very much about this. Professor Knottenbelt is obviously a  veterinary expert,  but he is not an expert on insects and he is simply wrong. There are many species dependant on the plant. Evolution is a long process so they simply cannot move to other things.

It is also important as a nectar source for many others and I could give you a long detailed and technical explanation why over zealous ragwort control is a severe problem, but I think it is unnecessary.

Finally. two resources for you ,a detailed set of RagwortMyths , and the original of that letter in the Yorkshire Post. ( You need to scroll down.)

I hope now that you understand why your tweets caused the responses you got.

Yours faithfully,
Neil Jones
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Monday, 19 August 2013

The Daily Mail hate article on ragwort

The Daily Mail recently published another of its nonsensical hysterical articles on ragwort featuring promenently the British Horse Society, one of the chief sources of bad information on ragwort.

It gets a bit repetativeThe British Horse Society as I frequently mention have a dreadful history of putting out nonsense, so much so that they took a hammering from the Advertising Standards Authority after one of their leaflets was stopped and people repeating their bare-faced inaccuracies also had their adverts stopped.

It starts  in the usual alarmist tones that we have come to expect from a newspaper that is nicknamed "The Hate Mail."

"It's sea of bright yellow blooms that makes a picturesque contribution to the British countryside.
But despite its pretty appearance, the ragwort plant poses a serious risk to horses - and it has infested the country, animal groups have warned.
The seed has spread and the plant, which causes liver failure in horses resulting an extremely painful death, is now flourishing across the country."
One does wonder if they think that it is an asylum seeker or something. For this native wildflower has not spread anywhere and the latest government figures show a marked decline.

After more nonsensical exaggeration fom the BHs we get this mangling of the law.

The Weeds Act (1959) and The Control of Ragwort Act (2003) advised that responsibility for controlling ragwort rests with the occupier of the land on which it is growing.
These laws do not say this. to cut matters short see the briefing on ragwort law.

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Sunday, 18 August 2013

Grooms' assocation ragwort mess up.

My attention has been drawn to a video from the British Grooms' Association entitled
"Pull Ragwort correctly and safely with the British Grooms[sic] Association"
Aside from the puzzling lack of the necessary grammatical apostrophe in writing the organisation's name, I am not impressed by their efforts

As I have  blogged before. It is not uncommon for equine professionals to have a less than perfect knowledge of the ragwort issue and this organisation seems to be yet another example.

It does not start well as it features Liz Daniels the organisation's director who rather irritatingly mispronounces the name of the plant ragwort.
The "o" in "ragwort" is pronounced like the "o" in "worse", and in "worm" NOT like the "o" in "horse"!
Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary, the accepted authority on the vocabulary of the English language, refers the reader of -wort words to a special entry on the word "worm".

It says:-

"In this word, as in worse adj. and n. and wort n.1, the spelling wo is an early graphic substitution for wu (compare Middle English wolf, wolle, wonder, for Old English wulf, wull, wunder), and this again is a reversion from Old English wy (i.e. ) to the unmutated vowel through the influence of the following r. More normal developments of Old English wyrm appear in the Middle English (eastern and Scots) wirm and (south-eastern) werm."
This does not bode well  for the rest of the video, which one could retitle as, "How to propagate more ragwort plants." We are treated to a display of ragwort pulling where you can actually hear what seems to be the sound of ragwort roots breaking off and being left in the soil. Indeed the tiny tuft of roots that we see is entirely incongruous in relation to the size of the plant. This is important because root fragments are an important source of new plants. It is one of the strategies that the plants have for survival. While the presenter does say that you should get up all the roots, it is pretty obvious many are left behind.

One of the most important scientific papers on ragwort is entitled "The Biological Flora of the British Isles Senecio jacobaea"  Senecio jacobaea being the old name for what we now call Jacobaea  vulgaris or ragwort. and is written by John L. Harper and W.A.Wood. in the Journal of Ecology in July 1957.
These Biological Flora papers, of which there are many others, are special series of papers each on a different element of our wild flora and  each is an attempt to collate and explain what  is known of the ecology of  a plant.
They quote other studies and they say this about the roots of ragwort:-

"Poole and Cairns found 50 to 100 roots per crown on average plants in a cow-grazed pasture. These roots slanted down through the turf below the main mat of pasture roots to run horizontally at c. 10 to 12.5 cm. depth. Plants more than 2 years old had multiple crowns with 600 to 700 roots. The root system may extend much further than the aerial parts, especially in loose soil.
Regeneration may occur from root fragments quite unconnected with the shoot. 50 per cent of fragments (1.5 cm. long) regenerated when planted in damp soil in a warm greenhouse."

As the video continues Ms Daniels  makes this comment:-

"As soon as it dies off the horse seem to like the taste of it better, and actually eat more of it."

Let's get this straight, there is a large amount of science that shows that animals don't eat things that will damage them. The problem with is with hay and starvation abuse. Ragwort and horses  have co-evolved. The problem chemicals are in 3% of all plants. Animals are shaped by nature to avoid the fresh plant.
So that statement does not fit with what we know of the science.

Altogether I must say I am rather unimpressed with the video

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Thursday, 15 August 2013

BBC encourages ragwort law breaking

Last night the Mark Forrest Show went out on local BBC radio stations. It covered an item about  ragwort in The New Forest which quite atrociously encouraged people to break the law.

One of the presenters made the following false statement:-

"The British Horse Society and other organisations say the species can be toxic to horses if eaten  and that's why quite legally they can remove it if is growing within 50 metres of grazing land."
 This is incorrect!. All wildflowers are protected by law in the UK. You can't legally remove them without
the landowners permission. Ragwort is covered under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. This is what the Act says :-
"(1) Subject to the provisions of this part if any person
(a) intentionally picks, uproots or destroys any wild plant include in schedule 8 ;or
(b)Not being an authorised person intentionally, uproots any wild plant not included in that schedule. "

This means that it is illegal to uproot ragwort or any other wildflower unless you are the owner
or occupier of the land where it is growing or have their authorisation or if you are a certain kind of public official. See this briefing for full details.

As regular readers will know it is entirely possible that the British Horse Society did provide bad information because they seem to have a long history of providing such bad information. They took a  beating from the Advertising Standards Authority when one of their leaflets ( unsurprisingly saying incorrect things about the law) was stopped and several companies repeating their falsehoods also had their advertising stopped.

The  broadcast had someone on from the New Forest Equine Society,  talking about balance but seeming to be very ignorant of ecology. We had the hoary old chestnut about there being plenty of ragwort in other places not just where horses happened to be. This appears to show really really bad knowledge. Ragwort is an important nectar source. It is often important on grazed land precisely because it isn't grazed by the animals that have evolved to avoid eating it.  It is really basic and elementary ecology that different habitats will have different animals found on them. Therefore ragwort is going to be significant wherever it grows.

We also know that ragwort is decreasing in the UK and wildflowers and wildlife are generally decreasing too.  We will also have people pulling up anything with yellow flowers or vaguely ragged leaves. This targeting of ragwort on the basis of stuff that we can show categorically to have been made up, will cause a great deal of environmental harm.

Then just after Matt Shardlow told everyone, quite correctly, that ragwort was  native. They broadcast a statement from an ignoramus who had contacted the show who said that ragwort wasn't native and it came from South America!  The poor standard of journalism that allows that beggars belief.

Why oh why can't journalists get their facts straight even when they have just been told them!

This video covers the broadcast and provides a commentary.

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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Is that ragwort control really necessary?

There has been need for sometime of a blog entry covering the repeated mentions around the internet of ragwort control measures. Let's be clear, there are occasions where ragwort does need controlling. It is dangerous in hay, in fact that is probably the only time that it is dangerous at all. However, there are often disturbing examples of unnecessary and environmentally damaging control.

Worryingly there is a lot of stuff being said even by conservation organisations that shows a disturbing lack of ecological awareness. I will be pointing this general entry at a lot of organisations in the hope that it will inform them.

You should read this list of ragwort myths  
I'll go into more detail later on but suffice it to say the scientific evidence is very very clear. The fuss about ragwort killing livestock is largely made up, invented and false.

There is one practice that I am going to condemn outright and that is calling ragwort an "invasive weed"
If you do this then I would call you a bad conservationist. Knowledgeable botanists will know that this term properly applies to problem plants from a foreign county that have invaded and taken over ragwort is native so please don't encourage the myth that ragwort is a foreign invader through  lack of knowledge leading to improper use of terminology

Similarly ragwort is NOT a "notifiable weed".  A few days  before I wrote this I saw control being justified by this myth!

It is not the only example of poor knowledge being disseminated by people involved in conservation.
Another very annoying one goes like this. "We know that ragwort is important for the cinnabar moth so we leave a little bit behind." It is really difficult to be patient with this kind of poor thinking. Firstly it isn't about the cinnabar moth, ragwort is important for dozens of insects both as a direct food source and as a nectar source.
There is very very clear research that shows that the persistence of any species in a site is dependent on the amount and quality of habitat. Reduce the habitat and you endanger it. There are for example,such things as rare bees which specialise on yellow flowered members of the daisy family for a pollen source. Do you even know if you have them on your site?

Another real clanger is "We work with the British Horse Society".  These people probably mean well, but they appear to be absolutely clueless. Last year they got hammered by the Advertising Standards Authority over their bad material

Another claim might be, "We follow Defra's advice"  ( or which ever devolved body it is) Defra , it appears have very poor scientific literacy. Let me give an analogy. If you want to conduct an opinion poll, and it is to determine which way people vote, would you do it only in the local Conservative Club?
Of course you wouldn't! However, Defra do exactly that kind of thing in determining the risk! Their statistics are worthless. They have based advice on a false basis.

Here are the simple facts.
We have the science to say, that while you may think it advisable  not to take chances, it is not a serious risk
to grazing animals.
We have the science to say it is not increasing  but decreasing in the UK.
We have the science to say that the fuss being made is not necessary.

So rather than listening to the nonsense and hysteria you should be being good conservationists and explaining the truth to people. This includes people who work in positions of authority.

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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Daily Telegraph ragwort scare again

Every year we get some articles in the press prompted by the British Horse Society scaring people about ragwort with poor facts. They have a long history of putting out suspect information on ragwort. Back as far as 2002 they put out a press release saying incorrect things about the law, using figures apparently derived from a nonsensical statistical method to claim large numbers of horse deaths and exaggerating the number of seeds produced. They got hammered last year as the Advertising Standards Authority acted against one of their leaflets and a series of companies repeating their nonsense.

It is pretty safe to say, from the evidence, that if the British Horse Society says something about ragwort there is a high likelihood of it being inaccurate.

One of the latest attempts to scare people was an article in the Daily Telegraph
Apparently they think ragwort is some kind of weird triffid spreading across the landscape killing horses whereever it goes.

The BHS in typical scary unsubstantiated style say:-

The British Horse Society (BHS) believes the poisonous weed is proliferating and that councils are failing to tackle its spread on their land.
If ingested, ragwort causes irreversible damage to the liver, resulting in an extremely painful death for horses.
Unless it is removed, its seeds are scattered by the wind, leading to an even greater spread in future years, the BHS said.
Well we know that they have been claiming  that it is increasing this since for over ten years. The fact that a proper scientific study run  by the government shows  a significant decline seems to be irrelevant to them.
The plant's distribution hasn't changed since surveys have been done in the 1960s and we know from the research that the seeds do not spread very far at all.

Then the article quotes Professor Derek Knottenbelt. This professor is a well-known anti-ragwort campaigner who seems to make rather extreme and suspect claims. His statements are well known to those in the ragwort field. Things like, “Ragwort is a thug. lt is the most hideous stuff in the world,"and
 "It is toxic to humans, so what the hell are we doing with it in this country?". 

These make no sense to me. We'll have to stop growing tomatoes and potatoes then and get rid of all  the bluebells and oak trees if we can't have any poisonous plants in the country.

The professor says :-

“In the beginning we were killing an awful lot of horses with it, up until around the mid-Nineties,” he said.
“Then there was a spell until about 2010 when the number of ragwort poisoning cases was dropping and dropping. The plant was being removed from fields, pastures and roadsides.
“However, over the last two or three years I know that it’s started to come back.
It is always rather difficult to get to the bottom of the professor's claims on poisoning  figures.  In a letter in the Yorkshire Post he said that he gets around 10 cases a year but a freedom of information request to his university shows they had recorded no cases at all in the previous 5 years.
 Some of his other claims in that same letter are also questionable. He stated that ragwort was causing massive concerns in South Africa and elsewhere he is quoted as saying that it may have caused cancer there. People would of course be scared by things like that so I checked with the experts  and their equivalent of our Kew Gardens, their national repository of botanical data, say they have no record at all of the plant growing there!.

Again in the same letter he blames ragwort for causing poisoning in Uzbekistan.  Now there is some good documentation about  poisoning by the toxins in ragwort, that also occur in many other plants, and it would appear that the only documented cases  in Uzbekistan were actually caused by plants in a different botanical family.

Altogether we have an article in a national paper frightening people for very little need.
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Monday, 12 August 2013

Jersey Government's ragwort lies.

This blog post is prompted by this posting on twitter:-

 Jonathan Walker ‏@RocqueJon 3h

    @jimrondel I'd put it the other way around States must clear it just as other landowners must - evil stuff #ragwort
Well I would contend on the basis of an enormous amount of evidence that the fuss about ragwort is made up.  Going by the international scientific information, not the nutty stuff we get in the press, it may quite well be possible that there has never been a recorded case of possible ragwort type poisoning on  Jersey. I have to say ragwort type poisoning because there is no test to identify it with certainty. See Ragwort poisoning there is no test.

 We get a lot of false claims in the UK. We get false claims, that it kills dogs, is poisonous to the touch, that it may have given people cancer in South Africa(  It doesn't grow there!) that it kills thousands of horses a year. (The Advertising Standards Authority acted against ads saying this) and so on ad nauseam.

This tweet mentions "States". This is about "The States of Jersey" the government on the channel island of Jersey.

Just to make it clear Jersey is not part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Head of State is nominally the Duke of Normandy, which is for historical reasons the same person as the British Monarch.

To explain briefly for any foreign readers. Long before Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were added to England to make the United Kingdom. William Duke of Normandy conquered England  in 1066 and became King. Later on one of his descendants King John lost all the rest of his French lands in battle, but the current Queen still retains the channel  islands as a separate domain. They make their own laws as a result.

There is a law about ragwort and the Jersey Government is quite simply lying about it.
This is what they say on their website.
"Ragwort is specified as an Injurious Weed under the Weeds (Jersey) Law 1961 which requires occupiers to prevent it from spreading.

Land occupier co-operation is required to control this weed and prevent it from maturing, seeding and ultimately spreading throughout the island. This is a legal requirement if you are the occupier of the land upon which the weed is growing. " 

This sounds very clear, but it is wrong.

We can look at the law on weeds and lo and behold we find that it doesn't say what is claimed!
 It doesn't make it an automatic legal requirement to control ragwort.
This is what is says:-

The Minister, if satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this Law applies growing upon any land, may cause to be served on the occupier of the land a notice in writing requiring him or her, within the time specified in the notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the injurious weeds from spreading. 

This is basically just a copy of the Weeds Act in the UK. It places no obligation on anyone to do anything unless the minister decides to issue an order. There is not even any obligation on the minster to issue it.

So while the person who wrote the first bit on the website may well have believed it true, but it isn't, and the government know this so as a body the government is lying to its populace about its own laws.

Perhaps someone needs to tell them that the fuss is made up. They are wasting money and making their farmers and landowners waste money and damage the environment while they do it.
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Sunday, 11 August 2013

New Forest Damaged by Ragwort Madness

There are so many things to blog about today it is a real job to know which one to pick. However, there is a story in circulation about the New Forest's ecosystem being damaged by do-gooders acting out the hysteria 
over ragwort.

It quotes Buglife's Steven Falk.

"Ragwort pulling in the New Forest is a truly ill-informed and damaging activity that is totally unnecessary. There are so many rare insects in the Forest, and it is well known that a general reduction in the number of flowers in the Forest over recent decades has placed many insects under severe threat of extinction there. Examine any patch of flowering ragwort in fine weather and you will see an astonishing array of bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles".

 Quite right and it is also illegal in a number of ways both under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and under Countryside and Rights of Way Act. The first prohibits the removal of wildflowers unless you are a landowner, occupier, someone authorised by them or certain unusual kinds of public official. The second prohibits damage to  Sites of Special Scientific Interest including the New Forest.

But how did this get encouraged, well our old friends the British Horse Society who got hammered by Advertising Standards for false information are involved again.

I think, on  the basis of the evidence, it is quite fair to say if the British Horse Society gives you a piece of information on ragwort, it has a high likelihood of  being wrong.

This example is one of many they have put out on press releases

They have been pushing their misleading, unscientific survey on the New Forest National Park Authority

This is an item on the National Park's website. It does not make the National Park look good.
It is a very very badly designed survey. It is known to some of us as "The yellow plant survey" and it is based
on a very unscientific false premise.

More than 75 percent of cases of ragwort reported in the 2010 survey involved land that animals were grazing on or near. Across the UK a total of 13,189 horses were identified as grazing on ragwort-infested pasture, with the figure for cattle and sheep being estimated as approaching 20,000.
Well so what! The animals have co-evolved with these plants and we know from the science that the level of resistance of an animal species relates to its likelihood of encountering the plant. There is no evidence at all that the mere presence of the plant is a problem. Do they make a fuss about all the other plants with the same
problem alkaloids in them that commonly occur in the presence of grazing animals , of course they don't!

And another amusing apparent illustration of bad science. This was the 2011 survey and  they said this.

Conducting the survey during one week means that results can be compared to the same week in subsequent years, enabling trends to be identified
What happened in 2012. They moved the week!  It is perhaps co-incidental that the change made it coincide with the school holidays when perhaps more people would be available to get higher figures.

But if you want real hysteria. There was a piece in  the New Forest edition of the Bournemouth Echo a few years ago.

It has such scary gems like this

Teams of Forestry Commission workers and seasonal staff have been toiling since July to uproot tons of the poisonous plant with its bright yellow flowers before it can be eaten with fatal results by ponies and other livestock roaming the open forest.

Lets get this straight we have good of evidence from the science to explain why the horses , which have been co-existing with the plant for thousands of years, don't eat poisonous plants. Any animal that commits suicide by eating poison does not pass on its genes. Nature therefore shapes them to avoid poisons. Like these that occur in 3% of the world's plants. It is only a problem in hay, or in cases of cruel starvation.

Then we have this piece of bizarre misinformation.

Just two pounds of ragwort is enough to kill a horse and the poison, which attacks the liver, is cumulative, untreatable and invariably fatal, leading to an agonising death for affected animals.
All the scientific papers I have seen in over a decade of detailed  study of this issue quote figures in percentages of body weight for toxicity which for a horse is a lot more than two pounds. The breakdown products that cause the toxicity, can react harmlessly with lots of things in the liver and it appears can even be detoxified by water. So they are only cumulative in action if each dose goes over the threshold set by these detoxification routes. It is certainly not invariably fatal since there are examples of recovery in  the literature, which of course implies that there is at least some element of treatability.

Then we have this exaggeration:-

Seeds produced from the profuse flower heads on stems up to 5ft high can be spread over a wide area to lie dormant for up to 20 years before germinating another deadly harvest.
The seeds do not spread over a wide area, they have parachutes, not wings and fall within a few metres of the parent plant. Quite a lot of them never even leave the plant. The 20 years figure is an estimate of possibility in unusual soil conditions where the germination rate would fall to 1%

You'll see on the Ragwort Myths page that it appears that the British Horse Society were circulating false information that after 20 years 70% percent would germinate. You see what I mean by them being a bad source?

We have ecological damage in a national park as a result of bad information being circulated and people getting hysterical about ragwort.
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Friday, 9 August 2013

Matthew Parris's Rubbish Ragwort Article in The Times

I used to like Matthew Parris, but alas no more.  He is a national figure, regularly on television and a well-known journalist. He sounded as if he was worth listening to. Now, I shall not be able to think about him without the image of a "loverly jubberly", dirty yellow, three-wheeled, Reliant van popping into my head.  I will never be able to think of him without a connection to the Peckham Plonkers of Only Fools and Horses comedy fame.

I usually treat people who make errors about ragwort with the benefit of doubt. You would expect ordinary people who have been mislead, to understandably have wrong ideas. Matthew Parris is different. He is  a well-known national figure and a former MP. He has a first class law degree from Cambridge and has also studied at Yale. You might actually think he would have some critical thinking skills, be able to find the facts of the law, and check his facts first before committing to print. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

Matthew Parris, wrote an article in The Times, that was nothing less than appalling. It stank. It stank of horse manure.The main thrust of the article seemed to be that ragwort was some kind of dangerous angry triffid marching across the landscape.

He said,
  "The seed is spreading on the wind like wildfire"

This is NOT true. We have proper studies of this and they only fall within a few metres of the parent plant.
Decent critical thinking skills should tell you this anyway,as the seeds, which are heavier than air, have no motive force only parachutes. Of course there are going to be exceptional dispersal events but simple physics tells you the seeds cannot spread like wildfire.

Then he repeats a well-known myth about the law.

"Landowners are under a legal duty to remove it."
This is NOT true. There are a set of weeds which you may be ordered to remove under a legal order, but landowners do not have a general legal duty to remove it. What is more the guidance from government tells people not to remove it everywhere. For a Cambridge law graduate Parris doesn't half  seem to make a hash of explaining it!

He then says
"UKIP  will doubtless claim, like some country folk,
 that the plant has been introduced by foreigners,
 probably from the EU."
Common Ragwort is a native plant, he does go on to mention it being here in the 19th Century, but, quite dreadfully, he never makes it clear that it is native.

He mentions that he thinks, without offering, evidence, that one of his llamas may have died of ragwort poisoning. Well if it did it may be a first. Contrary to all the nonsense to the contrary we know that ragwort poisoning is rare. The often repeated statistics seem to be very badly derived and come from what seems to be an unreliable source.

Parris is, it would seem no stranger to making foolish remarks. He caused outrage  amongst  cyclists when he said. 
"A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists."
As a joke it was seen in really bad taste, and there is even evidence that someone may have followed his advice.

The really annoying thing is that all of these myths are easily researched. Just google ragwort law and you  will find half a dozen sites explaining it on the first page. The lesson for Matthew Parris is check your facts.
I think that no horse would believe his stuff and only fools would. Unfortunately, as I regularly show with this blog there are plenty of fools out there.
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Saturday, 3 August 2013

Another misleading ragwort article in Horse and Hound

Another  misleading story has appeared in Horse and Hound magazine, which unfortunately has a long history of printing misleading stories on ragwort. Like this one last year and this one later on. I am currently compiling a list and timeline of misinformation for my main website and they feature prominently 

This time it appears to be a  seriously misleading story. They are apparently claiming falsely that a legal case forces people to remove ragwort from their land. They say, with the emphasis on their website preserved, :-.

"A prosecution has highlighted the importance of clearing ragwort from your land.
Not only can ragwort be fatal to horses, owners may face fines and even imprisonment if it is allowed to grow on grazing areas.
In a recent case, a traveller was convicted at Guildford Crown Court for offences under the Animal Welfare Act, after 2 ponies died from ragwort poisoning."
 But we are fortunate to be able to look at a court transcript relating to the case which says:-

"The case has come before the court in rather unusual circumstances. At the end of July 2010, RSPCA inspectors found three ponies owned by the interested party, Mr William Brazil, a traveler and a horse dealer, to have been subject to ill treatment. They were in a large field in Witley near Godalming in Surrey with very little forage and a large area of cut ragwort."

So according to the court transcript it appears that it has nothing to do with live ragwort not being cleared. It is abuse by starvation and dead ragwort.
We have to wonder if even the hysteria about ragwort is part of the problem. There is a lot of  confusion around. Why was the ragwort cut? Was it because of the false story that it is illegal to grow it?

You see we know from pretty basic biology that there are very good reasons why horses don't eat fresh ragwort. There are also good reasons why small doses probably have no effect and this probably explains why, for example, Liverpool University tell me they didn't record a single case of ragwort poisoning over a five year period.
I am currently working on a set of proper web pages about this. It has taken a lot of research. There are some real hoots coming. I have been getting people laughing a lot recently when I tell them things like the claims that our ragwort is a menace in South Africa and that it may have caused cancer in people there. The South African National Botanic Gardens tell me they have no record of the plant growing there!! It really scares people though, like a lot of the falsehoods.

 The evidence shows that ragwort is not the problem portrayed contrary to the scary stories put about, often in magazines like Horse and Hound, which led to the adverts  being stopped after action by the Advertising Standards Authority. They are after all an independent body who just look at the evidence.

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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Ragwort is actually decreasing in the UK.

There has been a lot of activity recently on twitter and this tweet is rather typical.

Believe me it is no different in the Midlands. Ragwort everywhere, increases every year!
Well actually we know that ragwort is DECREASING in the UK. How do we know that?
Well there has been a survey and contrary to the propaganda we see regularly in the press it shows a decrease. This is a proper government survey  using proper methods to ensure accuracy.

One of the problems is that people have been making things up about ragwort  these have been drawing attention to ragwort unnecessarily. This then leads to a well known phenomenon in psychology sometimes called the "Recency effect" or the "Baader Meinhoff phenomenon" ( after a researcher noticed it happening with research on the terrorist group). This phenomenon is where something is drawn to your attention that was there all along, but you think it is commoner because you now notice it.

I myself have noticed this. There is a plant called Brachyglottis grayi. It is a close relative to ragwort and contains the same alkaloids. It is planted commonly as a shrubby flower all over the place. It never causes any problems despite it containing those alkaloids that cause such panic when described in lurid terms in the press.
I didn't notice it for years until I noticed how similar the flowers are to ragwort and looked it up.
Now it seems to be common everywhere. I know I have been missing it because it has been in several places that I visit regularly and being a shrub it doesn't grow up overnight. On the way to a local library that I visit most weeks and in a planter outside a local supermarket where I buy food several times a week. Indeed I have been eating snacks outside on a bench right next to a large shrubby plant for several years, without realising.

I also want to say that I have really good proof ( and I mean proof) that Defra's advice contains serious mathematical flaws and the advice they give out is really poor.  To put it briefly, and I will have more to say, they are extrapolating from an unrepresentative sample for poisoning statistics (and a seemingly unreliable source anyway) so they have their maths wrong and because this is mathematics is one of the few areas where you can be absolutely black and white about it.

We have the science now to show that they have been taking advice from rather suspect sources. Any serious scientist knows anyway that you should get your information from evidence not from government departments.

A lot of this is being prepared for the web.It is fairly clear from the first principles of science but being methodical about ragwort  I have spent many hours firing off emails to experts around the world and pouring over scientific papers on psychology, evolutionary biology, enzymeology , statistical methods and  toxicology to ensure accuracy and it will be on-line soon.

In one case Defra have accepted evidence without checking from a source who has also claimed that Ragwort is a problem in South Africa. The experts there tell me they have no evidence that our ragwort grows there!

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Thursday, 18 July 2013

Telling the truth about ragwort.

There are several of postings on twitter again and as I often do I reply on this blog.
Twitter is very good at short pithy messages , but you cannot get longer messages across easily.
It is almost the epitome of the phenomenon described centuries ago by the Roman writer Horace.
"Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio." ( I labour to be brief, I become obscure.)

There are a several tweets by Guy Gagen like this one.

Guy Gagen @AgricPolicy
@OliverDowding I understand there is a highly active pro-ragwort campaign lobbying to down play the impact on agriculture
Actually this is not true at all. No one is playing down the impact on agriculture. People are using science, reason, evidence  and rational thought to tell the truth.

As well as being a science buff I am also interested in music. I come from a very musical family and I have a strong musical sense. Indeed as I am typing this I have some nice Bach playing in the background.
A while ago I was subjected to having to put up with the sound of someone singing off key for a long period. In the end I plugged the Classic FM radio station into my earphones to drown it out. The discordant off-key singing was intensely irritating . It is the same thing with the hysteria about ragwort. If you look at the research you will find that rational minded people are very irritated by irrational nonsense. It is the motivation of debunkers everywhere and this is what the people who tell the truth about ragwort are doing. They are using their rational senses to debunk nonsense.

This is another of his tweets which illustrates the problem.

Guy Gagen ‏@AgricPolicy
@ecology_digest @Buzz_dont_tweet not really sure that is a gd example of balanced argument on ragwort, ignores harm to agricultural animals

At this point I can honestly and rationally ask, "what harm to agricultural animals?"
What we have had is a constant stream of exaggerations and falsehoods. As I previously blogged there has been a lot of made up stuff on ragwort. Yes, the plant is poisonous and the properly collected figures and surveys show that occasionally, when it is in hay and when animals are abused by starving, ragwort is a problem, but it is really clear that there are far far worse problems which should be tackled first rather than what is, reason and science tells us, actually a tiny  problem.

It isn't just the stuff mentioned in that old posting. The Daily Mail told us, falsely, that ragwort is increasing by 10% per year. There have been motions in parliament with clear falsehoods. And what  I rationally described as a bonkers letter in the press, Politicians making false statements to get the law changed and so on ad nauseam. I am currently compiling a time line of the campaign. It takes a while because unlike the anti-ragwort lobby I care about the truth so I collate my evidence carefully.

If you want the confirmation that this stuff is false. The Advertising Standards Authority who are unbiased and simply have a rational code to guide them acted against a number of adverts repeating the hysteria last year.

Guy Gagen  also wrote

Guy Gagen ‏@AgricPolicy
@ecology_digest @NFUtweets @Buzz_dont_tweet all for supporting invert sp, but are you seriously suggesting there is a shortage of ragwort?
 I can honestly and rationally say yes to this. There are fewer wildflowers generally than there used to be. The recent State of Nature report shows that 60% of wildlife species are in decline. We know that ragwort has declined seriously in the UK. We know this not because of a daft,  "Them plants is yellow, like. They is ragwort. I seen more of it. It is increasin' ", survey that is run  but a proper survey run by the government on proper scientific lines.

If you really want an example of how the campaigning  exaggerates the risk with apparent  "Cargo Cult Science", stuff that looks scientific but isn't. You only have to look at the original stuff from the National Farmers Union which started the debate.
It is not the worst example,but ironically placed in a science and environment section it is rather ignorant of the facts.

Grazing land should be regularly inspected when animals are present and the plant should be pulled, removed and disposed of responsibly.
Ragwort poses a real risk to animal health with potentially fatal consequences if it is ingested by horses or livestock, either in its green or dried state

It is a problem in hay but we know that animals are extremely reluctant to eat the green plant unless they are starved into it,. It isn't so much that the plant tastes bitter but it is because of a basic, simple to understand, element of science. So simple and fundamental in fact that it is now to be taught to primary school children.
This primary school science says that animals that eat poison do not pass their genes on to their offspring and that nature creates a system that will prevent this happening. Nature's reaction to this is the sensation of intense bitterness when consuming the alkaloids in ragwort, which actually occur in 3% of all plants.
 The man who discovered this, Charles Darwin, is so revered in the UK that his picture appears on the Bank of England £10 note.

The NFU continue:-

 And left unchecked the problem is likely to become worse, as growth acts as a reservoir for seeds and spread.
Cut and pulled flowering ragwort plants may still set seed and ragwort has a 70% seed germination rate.
Here we go again. You know that this comes from the circulating propaganda when you see that 70% figure.
It is constantly trotted out, It may be about accurate but it doesn't paint a truthful  picture. It is high and scary  but normal figure for almost any flower. In using rational thought to determine what will grow it is irrelevant. On average in the UK , because ragwort is declining, each plant produces less than one offspring. Of course a high figure like 70% sounds scary. Who cares about being rational when you want to scare people into action.

The reality of the matter is that people fight against the anti-ragwort propaganda because it is characterised by a hideous web of falsehoods and lies. It damages the environment for no benefit to anyone and it preys on the cognitively deficient to spread itself. Anyone with proper critical thinking skills should see this clearly.
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