Poison or pollinator? | Farm Tales

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Ragwort is a menace to all animal owners, says Andrew Livingston – but he suspects his passion for picking the poisonous plant isn’t popular with conservation groups

“They’re like f**kin’ trees!” Martin, our farmhand, once exclaimed after a day of picking ragwort out in the fields. Every summer as the weather dries up, these weeds explode like a plague over the grass.
Having the most beautiful views of Dorset has its downside; the gradient on our land means that we are unable to spray our fields to control the perennial weed (it also goes by the name stinking willie).
The reason we pick ragwort is that it is poisonous to many species of animal, especially the horses and cattle that roam our 60 acres. Each individual plant can create 50,000 to 60,000 seeds – if you leave it too long, when next year comes around you have a seriously escalating problem on your hands.

Conservationists hate me
It’s a never-ending job. Having spent a whole day clearing just one field, you will come back the next day to find more that you’ve missed or which have sprouted overnight.
Despite spending hours walking up and down our own hills turfing them out of the ground, if I ever see others elsewhere while walking my dogs, I pull them out, too. I simply see it as my civic duty.
I know the pain that farmers go through to rid their land of this plant. I know that many conservation groups will hate me for declaring it a civic duty – although poisonous to cattle, the plants with their bright yellow heads are brilliant pollinators for bees. Moths and butterflies also use the vegetation for feeding.
Unfortunately, I just can’t bring myself to leave them when they spread like wildfire. Poisons in the flowers can cause liver failure, disease and ultimately death.
So if an equine friend stinks of vegetation, she probably hasn’t been rolling around with the stable boy in the fields – she’s been pulling ragwort!
The weed is now even loved by gardeners, as the three-foot-tall yellow plant stands out beautifully in flower beds. However, the Weeds Act of 1959 imposes a duty on gardeners and landowners to prevent the weed from spreading.
A prison sentence
Last year the owner of a horse named Diamond was jailed after her horse was found dead in a field. The mare, which was believed to have died of hypothermia, was neglected and left with no additional feed – and with no vegetation in the field, she resorted to eating the ragwort which contributed to her deterioration and then eventual death.
For her crime, the woman was sentenced to 20 weeks in jail, fined £878 and banned from keeping animals for life.
I won’t lie – it’s a horrible job. But picking ragwort is just one of the many tasks we, as custodians and carers of animals, do to ensure their wellbeing.
I don’t mind pulling out a few hundred ‘f**kin trees’ if it keeps our cattle and horses safe.

Sponsored by Trethowans – Law as it should be

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