Hazel, willow, beef and storytelling from Bedfordshire


Ragwort, Senecio jacobaea

Ragwort, Senecio jacobaea

My Dad was fond of telling me that he had never been bored in his life and was always critical of me when, in my teens, I regularly complained of being bored . Either he had never done a boring job or he had a poor memory. Some dull jobs are better than others of course. The worst are those that require a little concentration;  not enough to be interesting, just enough to require your brain to be present.

Pulling ragwort isn’t that kind of task. It’s dull and requires no mental effort – not bad really, but it is certainly hard. Tough on your back and hands and usually uncomfortably hot. This year’s different. The cool and damp has been perfect. No fear of being cooked and the soaked soil allows lots of roots to come away, which not only makes for easier work but also means the job’s much more worthwhile since roots left in the ground can lead to a new set of plants next year.

Ragwort’s a pretty plant of the composite family. It’s yellow clusters of dainty flowers decorate many a road verge at this time of year and would be enjoyed by all if it wasn’t for the worries about the toxins it contains. There’s no doubt that the plant is poisonous; it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which sound pretty bad, but there seems to be significant debate about just how dangerous it is. Some suggest that the merest whiff of ragwort will fell a full-grown horse, but it does seem that to kill a horse or cow would require the animal to eat prodigious quantities. There’s loads of stuff on the net – I quite like this site although its anonymity makes me slightly suspicious. The mystery author quotes research by Professor M.J. Crawley FRS, at Imperial College, that suggests that spraying and pulling makes things worse and that leaving the plant to seed actually kills it and that it’s poor pasture management that leads to its success in colonisation of fresh areas.

There’s sense here. But I guess that Prof. Crawley isn’t someone who manages pasture himself. He perhaps hasn’t ever had to live with a golden field, slowly changing colour through July, as clouds of seed escape on the breeze. The social pressure, however misplaced is pretty strong to do ‘something about that ragwort’. Also his criticism of poor pasture management that leads to ragwort’s establishment is pretty harsh; who amongst pasture managers hasn’t had soil exposed through poaching by animals’ feet, especially in a very wet summer like this one?

Anyway, whatever the facts, we can, after several years of pulling, report that our one really bad field is looking much better. There are small areas that have produced masses of small plants – perhaps these were pulled when the soil was dry, leaving large bits of root intact. We may have to spray these areas, but otherwise, pulling seems to be doing the trick.

And to cope with the lack of excitement, I’ve found myself trying to remember song lyrics, composing blog posts, remarking on a human’s ability t0 spot the odd yellow flower in a field of ten thousand other yellow flowers. Don’t think Dad ever pulled ragwort.

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