Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Ragwort Alert!

I mentioned Ragwort in my Poisonous Plants blog a few weeks ago but as it is so common and widespread I felt that it was worth a blog of its own!  Now is the time to start looking for the rosettes, before the flowers appear.  If you find flowering plants dig them up as quickly as possible, once they set seed you will have years of plants ahead of you.

Ragwort is poisonous to horses and causes liver damage when eaten. If your horse eats small amounts over a long period of time the toxic effects can build up causing the same effects as if he ate a large quantity all at once.  Unfortunately there are often no signs that anything is wrong until it is too late to help. The only option is euthanasia.

Signs of Liver damage (Ragwort poisoning)
Horses become lethargic and behave abnormally. They may become photosensitive (pink skin becomes inflamed when exposed to sunlight – like sunburn). They often lose weight even when still eating well. As the liver failure progresses horses may go blind, fight to breathe, wander or stagger. Often symptoms can progress so quickly that the first an owner knows of the problem is finding their horse dead. The best way to prevent this is to remove all traces of the Ragwort from your horses reach.

The Plant
Ragwort has an unpleasant taste, and most horses won’t eat it – but this is not a safe assumption to make. Young plants are less bitter and as it dies Ragwort loses this unpleasant taste. Therefore using a weed killer is not a safe option. It is equally important to check your hay or haylage before feeding it to your horse. 

  1. Ragwort rosettes can be found from early spring onwards.
  2. Mature plants flower from May to October and can reach up to two metres in height.
  3. After flowering, most of the plants die and the seeds germinate in the area where the mature plant had been.
  4. Each of the plants will produce thousands of seeds which will be dispersed by the wind, you or your animals. 

Dealing with Ragwort
Ragwort is also harmful to humans. Make sure you wear protective gloves and cover your arms and legs when handling it. If you do touch the plant then thoroughly wash the area with warm soapy water.

The best way to remove the plant is to pull the whole plant including the roots. It is best to do this at the seedling or rosette stage. Pulling (or digging) the plant after rainfall is also preferable because the ground will be softer. As Ragwort can regenerate from any root fragment it is essential to remove as much of the root as possible. There are special forks available to help remove the roots.  If possible remove the Ragwort before it flowers, if not use a face mask to avoid inhaling the pollen.

Specialist sprays are now available for attacking a widespread infestation. Fields must then be rested for the recommended time. DON’T FORGET that the dead plant is still poisonous, so you must remove all traces before putting your horses back out.

Disposal of the Ragwort is again critical, the best and most effective way is to burn the plant.

Key Points: 

  • Ragwort remains toxic when sprayed, cut, dug or pulled
  • Once cut the flower can still set seed and these are still viable
  • In its fresh (just cut) state it is difficult to burn
  • Can only be composted in controlled conditions
  • Should only be transported in sealed bags or containers

Ragwort control is an ongoing process. The seeds can remain in the ground for many years before they germinate, this means you are likely to find that you will have plants to remove year after year.

If ragwort seed is spreading onto your land from the surrounding area, contact Defra for advice. For ragwort enquiries in Scotland, please contact the Scottish Government.

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Until next time!

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