Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Messages From A Disappearing Countryside Ragwort Nonsense From Robin Page

Messages From A Disappearing  Countryside is a recent book by Robin Page. It contains a chapter, "The March of the Ragwort Ravers", which is based on an article which he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

I have decided to mark New Years Day by making a blog entry to describe my honest opinion of this chapter of the book. To put it succinctly , it is lousy and it could be used as a masterclass in how not to make an argument.

He starts like this:-

It was kind of Gill Ling of Suffolk to suggest in the Correspondence columns of The Daily Telegraph that I should become a 'ragwort-eradication champion.' Lulu spotted her letter. It is sad that the march of this highly toxic, noxious weed is so rapid that it will take more than me to eradicate it.
It is a constant theme of the article that ragwort is increasing, in fact all the evidence including a properly conducted government survey is that this is not the case. The survey actually shows a marked decrease.

He continues with this piece of rather abusive name calling.

At the same time the advance of ragwort has become accompanied by the growth of what can only be described as 'ragwort groupies', ragwort worshippers who give the plant a conservation importance it does not have. They describe the proven toxicity of ragwort as being 'myth' and `scaremongering'.
This is a classic example of a well-known bad argument called a "Strawman argument". You misrepresent your opponent's argument and then debunk the misrepresentation. The reality is that no-one that I know on this side of the debate denies that ragwort is toxic. The myths and scaremongering are really very evident. They misrepresent the toxicity and tell falsehoods about the plant. Page himself is guilty of telling one of the common myths; a falsehood which makes the plant look worse as I will cover below. The evidence shows that the claims of it killing thousands of animals and being a serious danger are clearly false.

The reason of course that there is a reaction is that rational people who know the science and who are keen on conservation are appalled by the bad arguments, such as Page's, and react against it. This blog is one example of that.

Later in the chapter he says:-
"All my life I have tilted at windmills. Nearly all the out windmills have been much bigger than me and they have  usually won. "

Does he not realise what educated readers will make of this statement? The concept of tilting at windmills comes from Cervantes classic novel Don Quixote where Don Quixote is portrayed as  insanely attacking an imaginary enemy in the form of windmills which he deludedly thinks are giants. It would seem that Page's ragwort ravers are , in the form that he sees them, an imaginary enemy too.

He continues with another really bad argument:-

I do like the myth that countless insects love to visit the flowering heads of ragwort. In my last chapter I mentioned the National Trust's wonderful Collard Hill with its wild-flowers and butterflies. When I was there with Lulu, we specifically looked at the flowering ragwort, (Note to the National Trust: there was far too much of it.) Sorry, ragwort groupies. The large number of nectaring butterflies and other insects were choosing the red clover, flowering bramble, pyramidal orchids and so on. The ragwort was deserted.
This another lousy argument that is putting anecdote over evidence. It may be that he didn't notice many insects on ragwort on that occasion but that does not negate the mountain of evidence that insects do use it.  Collard Hill is a nature reserve with lots of nectar sources. Ragwort often grows in places where few other wildflowers occur.
To quote Buglife (and indirectly English Nature) who ARE the experts on this matter.(I know this to be true also from over a decade of personal reseach.)

At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare.

Ragwort is also an important nectar source for over one hundred species (117, says English Nature) of butterflies (Small copper is just one), bees, moths, flies and other invertebrates, helping to maintain insect populations generally in the UK countryside.
Yet another ignorant statement follows :-

 Yes — the ragwort plant is the foodplant of the attractive Cinnabar moth — but the Cinnabar moth managed before ragwort was allowed to get out of control.
Ragwort hasn't of course increased as we know from the evidence I stated above and again the Cinnabar Moth isn't the main issue again as I state above. In fact the evidence shows the Cinnabar Moth has declined severely. A recent study shows that  decreased by 67% over a forty year period.


Then there is this piece of really bad writing:-

It should be illegal for landowners to have ragwort on their land, but the obvious facts show that local councils, the Highway Agency and Network Rail couldn't care less, and nothing is done about them. In my view the police, Defra and Trading Standards should implement the law fully. If I failed to pay my council tax I would be prosecuted. If those councils that take my tax do not abide by laws affecting them, why are they not prosecuted?
His first sentence makes it clear that ragwort ISN'T an illegal plant by the use of the word "should" but then he acts as if it actually IS illegal. The reason it seems
is that  his original article in the Daily Telegraph said :-

It is illegal for landowners to have ragwort on their land but certain local councils, the Highways Agency and Network Rail are often in flagrant breach of the law Nothing is done about it but, in my view the police, Defra and Trading Standards should enforce the law.

There were complaints about the  article and Page was forced to print a retraction.It contains a falsehood. It is not illegal for landowners to have ragwort on their land. and just imagine the consequences of classifying a  common wildflower as illegal. Would little old ladies be under threat of prosecution for having overgrown gardens?
The idea is preposterous.


The poor information continues :-
  
Professor Derek Knottenbelt of Liverpool University, the country's leading authority on the toxicity of  ragwort, will not eat honey from areas infested with ragwort, neither will his family, which immediately takes Scottish   honey off their menu. It is astonishing that the Food Standards Agency has little information on the subject, although  the incidence of liver complaints is rising steadily.
Students of logic and rational thinking will know that it is rarely a good idea to make an argument from authority. Any authority may not have the correct evidence
In my honest opinion Professor Knottenbelt could not be accurately described as a leading  authority on the toxicity of ragwort. He is without doubt a veterinary expert but it seems to me that every time he says something about the plant there are problems with his claims. Such as when Professor Knottenbelt wrote a letter to the Yorkshire Post. claiming among other things that ragwort was a big problem in South Africa. I  checked this and the experts there say that there is no evidence that the plant even grows there.

Subsequent to the original writing of this original blog entry, I discovered a hilariously bonkers quote from the Professor claiming that the cinnabar moth was being poisoned by its natural and essential foodplant and blogged about it.


In fact the issue of honey and ragwort was looked at some years ago, and the conclusions were that it was not a problem. The rise in liver complaints has a far better explanation, in the form of  the rise in binge drinking.

 And yet again Page repeats  myths:-

 If the build-up in cattle is slow, young, fattened beef animals will arrive , on our dinner tables before ragwort kills them; however,   their livers could already contain an accumulation of ragwort  toxins. Again there appears to be little research being   undertaken on the possible threat.
The toxins in ragwort are broken down in the process of exerting their toxicity so they do not accumulate in animals livers. The problem was studied years ago. There is plenty of research. It is not a problem
See this article on ragwort and meat.

All in all my honest opinion is that Page's chapter on ragwort and the almost identical article in the Daily Telegraph are a disgrace, showing poor research, poor logic and poor understanding of the issue.
Page self-publishes his books, being unable to find a publisher. Seeing this and other articles I think I can see why!





At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare.
Ragwort is also an important nectar source for over one hundred species (117, says English Nature) of butterflies (Small copper is just one), bees, moths, flies and other invertebrates, helping to maintain insect populations generally in the UK countryside.
- See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.1hXnykrB.dpuf
At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare.
Ragwort is also an important nectar source for over one hundred species (117, says English Nature) of butterflies (Small copper is just one), bees, moths, flies and other invertebrates, helping to maintain insect populations generally in the UK countryside.
- See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.1hXnykrB.dpuf
At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare. - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.AMK8FP6o.dpuf

At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare. - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.AMK8FP6o.dpuf

At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare. - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.AMK8FP6o.dpuf

At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare. - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.AMK8FP6o.dpuf

At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare. - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.AMK8FP6o.dpuf
At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare. - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.AMK8FP6o.dpuf
At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare. - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work/campaigns/ragwort-weed-or-wildflower#sthash.AMK8FP6o.dpuf





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