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Beware of yellow peril

By Wells Journal  |  Posted: September 06, 2012

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At the foot of the Mendips, a dense bank of National Trust ragwort threatens to invade farmland just over the fence, while the weed engulfs a nearby public bridleway.

Light the blue touch paper and retire immediately was the cautionary message which used to appear on fireworks – which it still might, I suppose, although my days of wanting to buy such incendiary devices are long gone.

However a similar warning seems to be needed after a recent column in which I mentioned that insidious weed, ragwort.

While some readers apparently can tolerate it, many more are ready to explode when they consider how this toxic weed is spreading like a dense yellow peril across many areas of Somerset.

So it is with just a little trepidation that I revisit the plant which to the eye appears most attractive – indeed, it does play host to various insects – but which to livestock can cause serious illness and even death while a human pulling it from the ground without gloves can suffer a nasty reaction.

One reader told me in an e-mail that he read with interest my words on ragwort, which he agreed was a perennial problem as well as a perennial weed, and that I had highlighted a massive problem this bumper year.

However he thought I was "a bit harsh" on the National Trust when I criticised the organisation for allowing it to spread like wildfire across Mendip land which it owns – after all, he said, they relied to a great extent on volunteers to carry out various projects.

They had cleared several areas on their Crooks Peak estate, including a 40-metre width on the west side of Wavering Down, and were also concentrating efforts to remove the weed from parts next to neighbouring farmland, especially where prevailing winds were most likely to blow seeds.

Unfortunately, though, as my pictures show there are some vital sections which still have to be cleared in an operation which would be a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted since already clouds of seeds have been carried on the wind onto neighbouring fields which so far are uncontaminated.

Perhaps the NT should take a lead from Sedgemoor council, whose ecologist has adopted the advice of Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to control ragwort within 100 metres of grazing fields although in one park – the Apex at Highbridge – some patches are being left for its bio-diversity value.

Somerset highways authority is also well into a two-month campaign to eradicate both it and Japanese knotweed from roadside verges.

Meanwhile a reader from Street tells me in a letter that he used to earn pocket money by pulling ragwort on farmland. "That was 65 years ago, it was a pest then and still is today so what has changed in the ensuing years? Nothing."

Many folk were completely ignorant of the fact that it could be so poisonous to livestock, he commented, and 100 metres was nothing once ragwort seed was airborne – "when that happens you can no more control it than you can control the wind."

Another reader put it rather more bluntly: "This stuff makes me b****y mad," she said. Couldn't have put it better myself.

On a lighter note, I pass on a conversation overheard at a drinks party a few days ago: "I just don't know – grannies aren't what they were in our younger days. Then THEY sat back and expected the rest of the family to wait on them. But now, the rest of the family expects US to wait on them!"

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  • tpoisongarden  |  September 07 2012, 8:41AM

    '100 metres was nothing once ragwort seed was airborne' There has been a lot of debate, recently, about whether there is a difference between being a journalist and being a fact-checker. Certainly, the author of this piece has done no fact-checking. If they did, they would find that proper scientific research has shown that ragwort seeds are not easily dispersed. Very few get more than a few metres away from the plant. It might also have been useful to investigate the actual number of animals who exhibit ragwort poisoning rather than rely on 'CAN cause serious illness'. Then it might be a good idea to think through what is being put in the story. The correspondent who wrote about clearing ragwort 65 years ago and said 'what has changed in the ensuing years? Nothing."' is right. In spite of all the claims, ragwort has not, in the past 65 years, caused a huge number of animal deaths. The reason people have an hysterical reaction to the plant is because journalists prefer myth to fact.