Wednesday, 28 December 2011

It is even getting into the textbooks now!

It is bad enough when things appear in the newspapers that are incorrect. There is at least an opportunity to write a letter correcting it but when things get into textbooks there is a real problem. Any bad information tends to be believed even more strongly. A case in point is the textbook Practical Horse Law - A Guide For Owners and Riders by Brenda Gilligan which makes the following incorrect statement.
"Under the Weeds Act 1959, ragwort is an 'injurious weed' and one that on agricultural land must be controlled."
This is not the case. The Weeds Act does NOT say that ragwort must be controlled on agricultural land. It gives powers, that were apparently never used until the current hysteria, to order ragwort control where it is thought necessary. This is a completely different matter and the current guidance issued after the publication of the book says that ragwort should not be controlled everywhere. You can hardly blame the author for getting it wrong. This is a common myth that has been put out repeatedly by the anti-ragwort campaign. The British Horse Society had one of their leaflets stopped by the advertising standards authority for saying just this kind of thing and even after this they carried on saying it on one of their websites!
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Monday, 19 December 2011

East Sussex Council distributing false information

East Sussex Council is distributing false information about ragwort on the internet
In their Document on highway responsibilities they make this FALSE STATEMENT.

It is also an offence to allow certain weeds to spread from your land onto the highway verge, including ragwort and certain types of thistles and docks.

This is NOT true.

There is no such offence in UK law. The council, like many, has not checked its facts.
For a full briefing on the law see Ragwort Law
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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Badshot Lea Equestrian Centre WRONG on ragwort

It has been a little while since I blogged here. It isn't for want of material.

The latest little story comes from the Badshot Lea Equestrian Centre's blog
Where it says.

Make sure you wear gloves when touching ragwort. We don't let kids handle it at all. It can give you flu like symptoms and make you feel quite grotty.

The story about ragwort poisoning you through the skin has been thoroughly debunked. There is no evidence to support it.

You can read this article on ragwort absorption throught the skin which is co-authored by a man with a Phd on ragwort.

But in this case it the usual story has been embellished with the story of flu like symptoms. These are not usual for the alkaloids in Ragwort, but this is of course how it happens on the internet. One person says it and it is repeated uncritically by others and suddenly like a lot of the ragwort scare stories a lot of people believe in it, even though there is no evidence to support it.

It probably is a good idea to wear gloves when handling ragwort as some people can get a rash from handling members of the daisy family. This however has nothing to do with ragwort causing the rare animal deaths that it does. It is caused by a different set of chemicals.
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Sunday, 14 August 2011

BBC biased and inaccurate again.

Oh dear the BBC does it again. This is a long post and I am repeating much of what has been said before but it is necessary so that if the journalists themselves read it they will know where they went wrong. It seems that BBC local radio stations will put anything out as news if given a convincing enough press release.

This example isn't as bad as the really disgustingly biased piece from Radio Lancashire earlier in the week but it is still wrong.

This was on Radio Cornwall on Friday between 12 noon and 3pm and it contained factual inaccuracies and exaggerations.

Before I start on this it is important to be rational and look at the evidence. So let us assume we are working with a blank slate and that we know nothing of the current hysteria which is so dominant.

What do we really know about the horse and cattle deaths. Well we look at the EVIDENCE
There is a really detailed analysis here.

The claim is made that ragwort is a serious issue for horses and cattle and that specifically with horses it is killing thousands of them a year. This claim is behind all the stuff that we see and hear in the media. IT DOES NOT STAND UP TO INVESTIGATION.

Recently as I blogged the Advertising Standards Authority acted on this and several companies had to stop using these claims to sell their products. The ASA are not environmentalists. They just look at the facts. Unfortunately these false statements have had their effect and are still being repeated.

So why do so many people believe it? Perhaps the clue is in what was written by William James a famous philosopher who is regarded as the father of modern psychology
"There's nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it."

It has been said so many times that it becomes what people regard as common knowledge.

It doesn't make it true. Only evidence does. As I repeat here time and time again. There are many causes of liver damage. Far more cattle suffer liver damage and die from parasites than from ragwort. We have the statistics to show that! The statistics also appear to show that more horses are recorded dying from Equine Grass Sickness than ragwort poisoning. Grass Sickness is a peculiar malady where horses die and it rarely affects horses fed only hay.

One knowledgeable on-line commenter wrote this recently and it is basically true.

There are two ways for horses to die from ragwort. If their owners don't pay enough to get a large enough paddock with good grazing or if their owners buy cheap hay that hasn't been produced from fields free of ragwort.
There is a relevant point here from Ireland which has not been subject to campaigning with incorrect information. It was made On June 5th 2005 by the Irish Minister for Agriculture and Food

" "There are no official figures available in Ireland for deaths of horses due to ragwort poisoning. Unofficial estimates indicate that the level is very low and does not warrant any special attention or investigation."

Also there has been a survey running in the Netherlands that ensures that any horse that is suspected of dying of ragwort poisoning gets a proper post mortem to check that it isn't a commoner cause of liver damage. That particular survey has had no reported cases of horses dying of ragwort poisoning since 2007.

Now let's deal with that broadcast. It is difficult to comment on all of it. I could spend all day, but let's take a set of statements made near the beginning.
“One head can produce something like a quarter of a million spores.”

First of all this is a flowering plant and it produces seeds not spores and this quarter of a million spores is another example of the hysteria. These stories grow like the size of a fisherman's prized catch. This might be possible in highly extreme cases just like men can grow to nearly nine foot tall but it is certainly not a reasonable statement to make on air.

These are figures for real counts for typical ragwort plants at a number of sites in England which have been published in the scientific literature

So we can see that a quarter of a million is nowhere near typical and quite often it is just a few thousand.

Then this particular comment by the presenter continues.
And it can blow in the wind and it can go everywhere.

This is not what the EVIDENCE says. They studies show that the majority of ragwort seeds fall a the base of the plant and the rest are almost entirely deposited within a few metres and this is in accord with the published papers on the aerodynamics of seed spread.
A detailed analysis is available here.

So again people have been mislead

And then this set of comments is topped with these inaccurate statements.
It is illegal to grow it or allow it to be grown

This is most emphatically not true. It was changed towards the end of the programme and it even seems that Natural England didn't get it right.

Here is the law and what it says.
"(1) Where the minister of Agriculture fish and food (in this act referred to as ' the Minister') is satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this act applies growing upon any land he may serve upon the occupier of the land a notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading.
(2)This act applies to the following injurious that is to say-
spear thistle
creeping or field thistle
broad leaved dock

It is a piece of legislation that provides for AN ORDER to be made. There is nothing that says that you automatically MUST eliminate this plant from land. They were simply wrong on that broadcast.
It is completely wrong for our national public broadcaster paid for out of the licence fee to broadcast incorrect information about the laws that govern us.

There are serious problems with that broadcast. It is very seriously misleading people.

You can listen to the relevant clips of the broadcast including a news item which completely failed to provide balance Talking about “the spread of ragwort” implying an increase when the EVIDENCE says that in may actually be decreasing.

The radio clips are on this link

You can comment on the BBC's official on-line form here,

As ever these sites provide accurate supporting information to what I say. Ragwort Facts and Ragwort, myths and facts. The latter site is produced by a horse owner who used to belong to a ragwort extermination group and believe all the stuff that I am debunking, until she asked the technical experts who became her site's co-authors for help and discovered it was all nonsense.

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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

BBC biased item now on web.

Yesterday I blogged an example of the BBC broadcasting biased and inaccurate information well today I discover that the same misleading material is on their website.

Away from the riots, there was news of a potential ragwort's a plant which is harmful to horses, livestock and dogs - so best treated with care

There is no epidemic. If anything the evidence shows ragwort to be declining.
It is not of any real risk to dogs either and the risks to horses and livestock are overplayed see yesterday's blog for details and clips of their dreadful broadcast. which was described by one twitter commentator as "twaddle".
BBC broadcasts biased items on ragwort
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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

BBC broadcasts biased items on ragwort

This morning on BBC Radio Lancashire's breakfast programme there was the most dreadful set of comments on ragwort. Amongst the most badly informed, biased and incorrect that I have ever come across. The presenter obviously badly misinformed by his guests carried on making similar comments during the programme.

It starts with an item in the car park with a representative from the NFU making very ill-informed comments. He talks nonsense about the seeds lasting 50 years in the ground. The resident "Environmental Expert" then makes a series of remarks about protective clothing and how dangerous it is to the touch and to people generally, that it accumulates in the liver and that it is even dangerous to dogs.
We learn in this clip that there is ragwort growing out of a wall in the BBC car park. The wall is in a dangerous state so it has been cordoned off.

Later in the programme the presenter says that it is the ragwort that has been cordoned off!

The dangerous to the touch thing isn't true.The chemicals in Ragwort have to undergo a number of decomposition steps in the body before they become
poisonous.They are poorly absorbed through the skin and the first
decomposition step to make them poisonous happens in the gut. So they
have to be eaten to be poisonous.

This web link leads to a short article co-authored by Dr Pieter Pelser
a New Zealand based Dutch scientist who is a leading world authority on
ragwort. He actually did his Phd on it. It gives you more details about
this myth and debunks it.

Animals have to eat the plant to be poisonous. Even if it were not true that the alkaloids could be absorbed in poisonous form through the skin they lethal doses are so high that they are usually measured as percentages of body weight. To scare people that it is dangerous to dogs is unacceptable.

Ragwort poisoning through skin absorption fact or fiction?

The seeds according to the research die off quite rapidly at first and small amounts survive longer. They certainly do not last fifty years. It appears that in most soils they are all gone after about sixteen years and in sandy soils a small number are still around at sixteen years.

You can listen to the extracted short clips from the programme here.

As ever scientifically researched material is available at the Ragwort Facts and the
Ragwort, Myths and facts sites.

The BBC complaints form is here
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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Ragwort no risk to humans

One of the commonest myths that circulates the internet is that ragwort poses a serious risk to human health. It does not.

This scare story is often used by the "horsteria" lobby to persuade people to control ragwort out of fear.

Yes ragwort is poisonous, but people don't eat it so it isn't a risk!

There is also the skin absorption myth that you can be poisoned by handling the plant.

Rather than write an extensive essay on the subject I will refer you to two articles on the internet.
Ragwort the science why it is no risk to people

and this
Ragwort poisoning through skin fact or fiction?

The first article quotes the second which is co-authored by a leading world authority on ragwort Dr Pieter Pelser whose Phd is specifically on ragwort.

Having looked carefully at the evidence, he concludes there is no evidence to support the skin absorption story.
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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

New good ragwort website

A new version of one of the best ragwort websites in the world is now available.

The Ragwort, myths and facts site is produced by leading Dutch expert, Esther Hegt.

A keen horse owner Esther originally belonged to a ragwort extermination group after ragwort hysteria spread there from the UK, but being highly intelligent and possessed of a keen analytical mind, she researched the subject contacting an impressive array of specialists around the globe. She discovered that the panic was unfounded.

Many of her web articles are co-authored with the specialist international scientists she recruited.

She set up her website in order to properly inform people. This is a new version of the English language copy of her site and is available at
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Monday, 1 August 2011

Hilarious example from the Netherlands

I got this one passed to me this morning. It is really funny or rather it would be if it were not for the environmental damage being done as a result of the hysteria.
It comes from a Dutch language website. Ragwort hysteria started in the UK but many people have been reading the hysteria from and it has spread.
The website says:
Omdat het jakobskruiskruid zeer giftige stoffen bevat, zoals strychnine, heroïne, cocaïne en morfine, zullen zoogdieren er niet van eten

which translates as
Because the Ragwort contains highly toxic substances such as strychnine, heroin, cocaine and morphine, mammals will not eat it.

It never ceases to amaze me how often people will put stuff out without checking it . This is utter nonsense . None of these substances are found in ragwort.
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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Advertising Standards Story Spreads to the Netherlands

A while ago the big story of how the British Horse Society had one of their leaflets stopped and several companies repeating their dodgy had been the subject of action by the Advertising Standards Authority hit the news

Now it the story has hit the Dutch language press with a story in one of their newspapers. Ragwort hysteria has spread to the Netherlands with many people repeating the same false stories that have been the subject of action here.
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Friday, 29 July 2011

Countrylife gets it wrong

Today's entry in the everlasting list of errors about ragwort that occur on the internet comes from the website of Countrylife Magazine

It states.
Ragwort kills livestock and there is a law demanding that it is pulled up-surely a useful job for young offenders.

It is true that ragwort in hay occasionally kills livestock. It is much exaggerated though, but the site repeats the well known legal myth that was perpetuated for years by the British Horse Society and which led to the action against on of their leaflets by the Advertising Standards authority.
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Thursday, 28 July 2011

Daily Mail Repeats ragwort myth

Today's Daily Mail carries a scare story about hemlock. It is deadly and is "invading" our roadsides. Well not quite. Yes it is really poisonous. On of the most poisonous around but it isn't invading anywhere. It has always been there.
Perhaps being the Daily Mail they think it is an asylum seeker. :-)

Rather predictably, as often happens with Ragwort they have a photo of Hemlock Water Dropwort on the article another poisonous plant

However it goes on to repeat a myth about ragwort.

Ragwort, another deadly weed for humans and animals, has been on the rise in recent years.

There is no serious risk to people from Ragwort as you would have to eat it in some quantity to be poisoned .It is nowhere near in the same league as hemlock!
Also it is NOT increasing. This is a regular claim from the anti-ragwort brigade but there is no evidence to support it and good evidence to say it is decreasing.
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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The skin absorption myth

There is a myth around that ragwort poses a serious risk to human health.
Rumour abounds. This latest posting is stimulated by a statement made on Twitter.

Lovespoon Lovespoon Gelato
@fedupfarmer @hastillonlyme Re ragwort:a woman DIED last summer,having cleared her horse's field of it without wearing gloves.Hideous stuff.

The poster was challenged and could not provide the evidence. Various stories like this have been circulating the internet for years but there is never any evidence. A few years ago the government rejected a petition from the petitions website that made unfounded claims of several deaths. It is also significant that the poster made the error of thinking that ragwort is a notifiable weed. It was stories like that that led to the complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority recently.

What does the science tell us? There is a very good report on this on the internet written by Dutch ragwort expert Esther Hegt and Dr Pieter Pelser. Dr Pelser is a world authority on ragwort and actually has a Phd on the plant.

This is what they have to say on the matter:

2) Report on the internet by Dr. Knottenbelt (Liverpool University). This veterinarian is quoted on the internet quite a lot, because he stated, during a debate in the House of Commons, that the toxic substance in ragwort can almost certainly be absorbed through the skin (6). In response to this we contacted Dr. Knottenbelt. Through an email he informed us that there is no scientific proof for his statements. He writes that he himself has suffered liver damage after manually removing ragwort plants. The results of this ‘experiment’ have not been published and, according to us, are not obtained through a good scientific trial.

Through our research about the sources of the reports on the danger of touching ragwort, we conclude that there is no substantial evidence that there is a health risk for people. The amount of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that might be absorbed through the skin is very low and there is no proof that these alkaloids are being changed into a toxic form. Ragwort can cause an allergic skin reaction upon contact; compositae dermatitis (7). This allergy can appear after touching or eating the plant. This allergy is not caused by the pyrrolizidine alkaloids but by other substances that are common in many of the members of the Sunflower family (sesquiterpene lactones)(8).

So basically it is a non-story. There is no evidence that this ever happens.
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Friday, 22 July 2011

The Royal Horticultural Society gets it wrong.

The Royal Horticultural Society has also succumbed to the misinformation about ragwort.
This is a statement on its website.

The Weeds Act specifies five injurious weeds: common ragwort, spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, broad-leaved dock and curled dock. The Ragwort Control Act 2003 (which amends the Weeds Act 1959), imposes a duty of responsibility on landowners to effectively control Senecio jacobaea, preventing its spread onto grazing land.

This is wrong.

The Ragwort Control Act imposes no duties on anyone. It merely says
(1) The Minister may make a code of practice for the purpose of providing guidance on how to prevent the spread of ragwort (senecio jacobaea L.).

Of course the problem is there have been people going around campaigning against this ecologically valuable weed which has then led to trouble. Like the problems in the British Horse Society / Advertising Standards Authority affair.

Oh and in case anyone is wondering the Weeds Act doesn't impose any automatic duty on anyone to get rid of ragwort either!
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Thursday, 21 July 2011

letter replying in telegraph

A few days ago I blogged about a really silly letter in the Daily Telegraph. It contained perhaps only one correct sentence saying that there was a lot of ignorance about ragwort. It was given great prominence which was particularly bad considering how much poor information it contained.

Recent revelations about the corrupting influence of the press serve to highlight the power of the internet in getting the point across. The original letter gave thousands of people incorrect information about the laws of the land, which two minutes checking would have proved false.

Incorrect and unchecked press articles are part of the reason that I see that it is necessary to blog like this.

Now a letter has appeared in reply from several conservation organisations.

This is what was printed.

SIR - Ragwort (Letters, July 15) does not poison people who inhale its seeds, and it is not illegal to grow ragwort, although in exceptional circumstances someone could be ordered to control its spread.

It is a plant upon which at least 30 insect species, many rare, entirely rely. Ragwort is also an important nectar and pollen source for hundreds of species of butterflies, bees, moths, beetles and flies, helping to maintain what remains of our wildlife.

Nicola Hutchinson
Matt Shardlow
Martin Warren
Butterfly Conservation
Neil Jones
Swansea Friends of the Earth
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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Nantwich Vet group gone from Twitter.

Yesterday I blogged about the Nantwich Vet Group getting their facts badly wrong about ragwort.I looked this morning to see if there were any responses. Their twitter account is gone. Presumably they removed it themselves.

If only more people were suitably embarrassed at getting things wrong then there would be no need for this blog or for people to do things like complain about the British Horse Society / Advertising standards affair
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Monday, 18 July 2011

Nantwich vet group wrong on ragwort

I have mentioned before that vets frequently get it wrong about Ragwort. This is a classic example from twitter today. Someone from the Nantwitch Vet Group has been tweeting poor information . Here are the tweets. It demonstrates how pervasive the misinformation about ragwort is.

TheEquineVets Nantwich Equine Vets
If you find Ragwort you MUST contact either the Landowner, Highways Agency or your Local Council.They are required by law to treat/remove it
Nantwich Equine Vets

Nantwich Equine Vets
TheEquineVets Nantwich Equine Vets
Some really great advice and information here about Ragwort - Please read this -

First of all they are wrong about the law. Landowners may be ordered to control certain plants including ragwort but they are not automatically required to do so.
This was the basis of several complaints to and consequent actions by the Advertising Standards Authority

The real problem is the website they are recommending. It is full of bad information. Firstly it,by implication, repeats the myth that ragwort seeds usually blow long distances. We know both from measurements and aerodynamics that they do not.
It repeats the legal myth. but worse it says this:

A horse can get ragwort poisoning without actually having any plants in their paddock! Seeds/spores from plants in neighboring fields can blow over and contaminate a paddock apparently free from plants. A horse can eat or inhale these - and cumulative poisoning can begin.

Let's start with simple biology. Flowering plants like ragwort have seeds but they do not have spores. It may be that they mean pollen grains but this hardly demonstrates proper knowledge of biology on the part of the webmaster. Improper knowledge on the part of a webmaster should warn against recommending a site.

I wrote about this before when this myth occurred somewhere else so I shall just basically repeat what I said then.

Firstly, whilst it is true that ragwort poisoning can be cumulative. The lethal dose is so high that it is often measured in percentages of body weight. The dose is minuscule!

Secondly, if you look at the biochemistry you can see the impossibility of this kind of poisoning. The toxins in ragwort are not actually poisonous in themselves. They have to undergo a conversion process. Some are destroyed in the digestive process. Some will be excreted unchanged. If they get through this then, and only then, they are converted into the breakdown products are they toxic and then those breakdown products are so reactive that they will react with almost anything in the cell. It is only those that reach the DNA in the cell nucleus that have a toxic effect and then if the damage is minor which it certainly would be, there are DNA repair mechanisms which would likely nullify any damage.

As ever good information on ragwort may be obtained from these sites.
Ragwort facts
Ragwort myths and facts
Ragwort the sense and the nonsense.
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Thursday, 14 July 2011

British Horse Society Farcical Ragwort Facebook page

The story of the British Horse Society's promotion of Ragwort Awareness Week is rapidly becoming really farcical. Earlier in the week I blogged how their page on facebook was full of nonsense and even confessions of criminal breaches of wildlife law induced by the hysteria over ragwort. Then there was that daft letter full of errors that someone who seemed well connected with them had written that was in the Daily Telegraph.

Well now there is more.

Their promotion page for Ragwort Awareness Week has someone posting a link to a website full of the daftest inaccuracies. It repeats the silly story about animals being poisoned by breathing in "spores" and seeds of ragwort and tells people that the law means you have to control it. ( Which of course it doesn't)

I blogged some time ago about this breathing seeds business which was again in that awful letter to the Telegraph. I called it tripe and it is.
It is hardly surprising that their supporters think that ragwort has to be controlled by law, because the BHS was telling them that this was the case for years!

They recently had a leaflet stopped. You can read here about the story of the British Horse Society / Advertising Standards Authority. In addition after the ASA acted to stop the leaflet several companies had to stop repeating the crazy exaggerated figures of horse deaths that the BHS had been using.

Let me define what I mean by the word ignorant before I use it. I am using it in its simple original sense. It comes from a form of the present participle of the Latin word Ignorare which means "to not know". So it simply means lacking of knowledge of something. This is no crime. We are all ignorant of far more things than which we know. but this is the problem with the BHS. They are nice people I am sure. Caring about animals is a good thing. I actually care about all the tiny invertebrate animals that are being harmed by the pointless eradication of ragwort and anything else that might resemble it from roadside verges etc..
But what they have constantly shown is that over the years people preparing their statistics, vetting their facebook fora and the members supporters supposedly surveying do not have much idea of the science or even what ragwort looks like. They are too ignorant to do this.
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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Ragwort Awareness Week : More false information on British Horse Society Facebook page

It is happening again. A few days ago I blogged about misinformation, hysteria and even admissions of criminal acts on a Facebook page which is run by the British Horse Society.

Today we have another person saying incorrect things this time on the main British Horse Society Facebook page.

All councils now seem to be neglecting the ragwort problem on grass verges which I understood to be illegal.

Roadside verges are not a significant problem. Ragwort seeds do not disperse long distances to any significant degree. We know from measurement studies that most of them fall at the base of the plant and that the rest fall within a few metres. We also know this from studies of the physics of the seed dispersal.

But of course the real problem is that this is repeating the myth that ragwort is illegal. This is nonsense. There is a previous posting about ragwort law here.

This is no surprise that people associated with the BHS misunderstand the law because this Registered Charity has been misinforming people about the law for years. One of their leaflets was stopped by the Advertising Standards Authority for doing just this.
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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Ragwort Awareness Week : Bonkers letter in Daily Telegraph

This is another prime example of hysteria. Today's Daily Telegraph prints a letter from Zandra Powell in Thorpe Malsor, Northamptonshire that is full of inaccuracies and misinformation. In fact even trying to be dispassionate I feel the proper word to describe this letter is BONKERS!

It starts:

SIR – Ragwort, an illegal, poisonous, non-indigenous plant, is flowering in profusion along our highways and roundabouts.

This is incorrect. Ragwort is not illegal and it is most certainly an indigenous plant. It is one that is very valuable to biodiversity too.

The letter carries on:

Seeds blow everywhere and can be inhaled by humans and animals.

There has been quite a bit of research on the seeds of ragwort. The studies show that most of them fall at the base of the plant and that the remainder almost entirely fall within a few meters. So they certainly don't blow everywhere.

The really crazy thing though is the claim that people and animals can inhale the seeds. This is a really well-known urban myth. It is sheer nonsense. Try inhaling anything the size of ragwort seeds and see the coughing fit you will have!

A little googling shows that there is someone with the same highly unusual name living in the same village who is the Lord of the Manor of Rothwell and who has written or illustrated books with the British Horse Society.

This is the same British Horse Society that is currently running a Ragwort Awareness Week. I blogged yesterday about similar nonsense and even admissions of criminal activity on one of their forums and they recently had a leaflet stopped by the Advertising Standards Authority because of false claims about the law. It is the same British Horse Society that has itself been saying that it is illegal to allow ragwort to spread, which is false.

As ever you can find more sensible information on the Ragwort Facts website and a list of myths, including the ones in this letter, properly debunked on the Ragwort Myths page
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Monday, 11 July 2011

Ragwort Awareness Week British Horse Society forum hysteria and crime

The British Horse Society organises a Ragwort Awareness Week forum on Facebook that is full of nonsense, misinformation, hysteria and even admissions of criminal activity.

First of all the British Horse Society make a claim that ragwort is increasing. In in fact the official figures suggest that if anything the opposite is happening.

Then we get a series of misunderstandings and myths.

Sorry, I consider Weedkiller (Blaster) the only possible nemesis for Oxford Rag weed (sic)(why does Oxford Botanic garden not pick up the tab for it's release....countries are appologising (sic) for wars 200 years ago, why not this?

Oxford Ragwort is a different plant. A plant of waste ground and cracks that doesn't grow in pastures. Common Ragwort is a native plant.

What gets me is that this plant is a notifiable plant and carries a hefty fine if found on your land, yet the biggest culprets (sic) are the can they get away with it

There is no such thing as a "notifiable plant" and it having ragwort on your land is legal. There is no hefty fine if it is found on your land. You may be ordered, in extreme circumstances to control it, but just having it on your land is not a crime in any way.

It is significant that the British Horse Society recently had one of their leaflets stopped by the Advertising Standards Authority for saying incorrect things about the law, and in spite the coverage in the national press and subsequently being told publicly that it is wrong, they STILL have the incorrect information on one of their websites.

This is more or less the point of the group I believe - to encourage people to proactively pull ragwort, tell other horse owners who may be ignorant of it, and lobby their council to control it - as they are legally obliged to remove it from their land.
Councils are not legally obliged to control ragwort or to remove it from their land.

These comments are however much more serious as they show that people may be engaged in criminal breaches of wildlife law.
Pull it up whenever i see it!
As such I have a personal vendetta against ragwort and every yard I have ever worked on has been a ragwort-free zone - I kill it wherever I see it, even in people's gardens - every one I uproot is one less set of seeds to spread, I HATE it, and am very good at spotting it even in just "rosette" stage (before it gets flowers) I cannot walk past a ragwort plant and leave it standing - it has to die.
As I don't know where it is I'll attend in principle, I'm always ripping it up around the village, hate it.

The wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states.

if any person—.
(a)intentionally picks, uproots or destroys any wild plant included in Schedule 8; or.
(b)not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant not included in that Schedule,.
he shall be guilty of an offence.

If you are not the landowner or a similarly authorised person you cannot legally go around uprooting plants. There are many examples where people have pulled up the wrong plant too.

People tend to follow by example. Other people may be encouraged to follow suit and break the law if they see this stuff. It is acceptable for a Registered Charity to allow such material to be disseminated on a facebook forum that it is running?

There is more information here on this aspect of Ragwort Awareness Week
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Sunday, 10 July 2011

British Horse Society issuing false information about ragwort.

The British Horse Society are still spreading misinformation about ragwort even after one of their leaflets saying a similar thing was stopped by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The British Horse Society's Scottish website contains a false claim about the law.

Ragwort is classified as an injurious weed under the Weeds Act 1959. This means it is an offence to allow ragwort to spread on any land.

This is not true! It is most clearly not an offence to allow ragwort to spread on any land. You may be ordered to control it but in he absence of an order no offence is committed. This is not the first time that the British Horse Society have issued questionable information. There were many complaints to the ASA about companies who were repeating the dodgy figures the BHS had been issuing on horse deaths. The companies had to remove those statistics from their websites as they could not substantiate the claims.

What is more the BHS were informed of this problem on their website rather publicly several days ago and haven't changed it

This matter is also commented on here in this webpage about Ragwort Awareness Week.
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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

British Horse Society rapped by Advertising Standards Authority

This is the really big story about ragwort. A major source of the hysteria has had its knuckles rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The British Horse Society had a leaflet prepared with a local council and they were making false statements that the law forced all landowners to prevent ragwort from spreading. The ASA contacted the council and told them to stop using the leaflet.
Also a set of other companies changed their adverts after pressure from the ASA.

It has been in the national press today.
The Daily Mirror Horse group told to tone down ragwort campaign And the Daily Telegraph. Toxic weed or an essential part of British ecology?

You can read chapter and verse from Swansea Friends of the Earth who made the complaints. There is also a press release from Buglife.

What is more a lot of companies had to take down statements from websites that were suspect and some of them came originally from publicity by the British Horse Society.

These are from the press over the years.
"The British Horse Society believes up to 6,500 horses die every year from ragwort poisoning." Hull Daily Mail - Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"The British Horse Society recently said it believes that up to 6,500 horses die every year from Ragwort poisoning."
- Mid Devon Star Monday, August 13, 2007

"The British Horse Society and the British Equestrian Veterinary Association say that more than 6,500 horses a year die from eating the weed." Daily Mail Friday July 25, 2003

The story is widespread and believed. That figure isn't credible. It is based on extreme extrapolation. You can find an analysis here. This morning on Radio 4 a BHS spokesman was saying that there were a "couple of hundred" but admitting that there were no figures.
All the data I have seen suggest much lower figures. Government figures are hard to come by but data from 2005 say just thirteen were identified by the necessary laboratory analysis.

The real story is this, the ASA take downs featured companies who repeated these dodgy figures and who, when challenged by the ASA for proof , chose to remove the statements from the adverts rather than try to provide any. The proof of course is non-existent.

Is it acceptable for a Registered Charity like the BHS, notwithstanding their use of false statements on the law on a leaflet, to use these figures to promote its ideas, campaigns, profile and ultimately at least some fundraising from that profile? Is it acceptable when those figures cannot be justified by companies using them when challenged by the advertising regulator?

And while you are thinking about it. Here are some clips of Buglife's Chief Executive on the radio this morning talking about the hysteria.

If you are a fan you can click on this link to join them.
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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Classic ragwort hysteria

A classic example of the hysteria and misinformation about ragwort has just appeared on this blog



I spend hundreds of hours driving through this pleasant & green land. One can’t help but see & feel the beauty of this Agricultural (industrial) landscape that is rural Great Britain.
However over summer this beautiful landscape is ruined by the disgusting sight of “out of control” Ragwort on the Motorways, public roads, the rail network & even in the towns & cities.
It makes me feel sick inside. It seems nobody gives a damn!
Ragwort is a noxious weed. Who is responsible?????
Common Ragwort used to be rarely seen because farmers would not tolerate it. Even the Daily Telegraph reported
“The change from rarity to infestation (….of Ragwort) reflects a fundamental change in Britain: from a society with a strong rural culture and understanding to a country dominated by urban values”

Let's get it straight. Ragwort is not out of control.
There is no evidence at all that ragwort is increasing or that it has increased. In fact there is evidence from a proper government survey that it has decreased.

It is not a good idea to quote a newspaper as evidence for a scientific fact. It is what is known as "Argument from false authority".

Before all the current fuss people didn't notice ragwort. They notice it more because it has been brought to their attention.
Ragwort can be highly dangerous to grazing animals including cattle. Every Ragwort plant has up to 150,000 seeds which can remain viable for up to 20 years. Seeds can be blown in the wind up to 100m.

This is wrong, and lacking in knowledge of the plant. The evidence, in the form of statistics from both the UK and internationally show that ragwort poisoning of grazing animals is rare. There are many other plants which contain the same problem chemicals, three percent of the plants in the world in fact, and we never heaer panic about any of them. 150,000 seeds for a ragwort plant is like a man growing to 7 ft, possible but unlikely and we notice the word "upto" again with the seed viability. This is an extreme and most seeds die well before this.
The evidence on seeds being blown shows that they fall out of the air well before they reach 100m. We know this from practical tests and from the mathematical studies on the properties of the seeds. Of course there will be some which could go further in extreme winds but these are not of any consequence. It is the nature of the land on which they fall which determines whether they grow.

The Ragwort Control Act 2003 defines an infestation as being of high risk when it is present and flowering or seeding within 50m of land used for grazing by horses and other animals or land used for feed or forage production. At 50-100m distance the infestation would be classed as of medium risk, and of low risk when at a distance greater than 100m.

The Ragwort Control Act 2003 makes no such definitions. There are various sets of guidance which may but these are not part of the act.

The problem with this inaccurate stuff is that like the stuff that is wrong in The Telegraph someone else will read it and repeat it as fact when it isn't and we have a whole other set of upset people panicking and overreacting.(Actually it is a telegraph columnist not a regular journalist that wrote the incorrect information.)
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Friday, 24 June 2011

Germaine Greer on ragwort hysteria

For the choice of bad information based on the hysteria today. I chose a comment made today in the comments made by the public below a Telegraph article by Germaine Greer.
This leads on to Dr Greer's, previous articles on the subject.

The comment is
"The biggest drawback of not cutting verges is the growth of ragwort, the pretty yellow flower that seeds, the seeds blow for miles in the wind and recolonise elsewhere.
For the uninitiated, ragwort is a killer, it is toxic to equines.
It can also bring out a very nasty rash in humans. "

It is quite true that ragwort in common with many members of the daisy family can cause a rash in sensitive individuals but it is certainly unlikely that ragwort is going to spread for miles on the wind. In fact it has been studied and we know both from the physics and from real life studies that most seeds fall at the base of the plant and the rest almost entirely fall to the ground just a few yards away.
See Ragwort - How far do the seeds disperse?

Here is Dr Greer's previous article which shows an admirable level of rationality. She is obviously no slouch mentally. Back in 2002 she wrote this as a result of a torrent of abuse received because she mentioned ragwort's positive qualities. This is not uncommon. If you try to tell some of these people the facts they just get emotional and attack you with bad evidence.
I previously documented an example where leading European ragwort expert Esther Hegt tried to comment in an on line forum only to be met with ignorance and bigotry.

If the first torrent of letters to the Weekend editor had betrayed careless reading, the succeeding waves gave no sign whatsoever of first-hand acquaintance with my column. Though I said that I was well aware that Senecio jacobaea is a serious threat to the health of horses, she was asked in the testiest tones whether the silly woman (in other words me) knew that hundreds of horses and even dogs died of ragwort poisoning every year.

Oh dear! We have the "it poisons dogs" myth again. It is poisonous to dolphins too. They don't eat it either!

As a matter of fact I don't know this, and I doubt whether anyone else does. Any attempt to discover actual numbers of beasts dead of liver damage caused by ingestion of ragwort is doomed to founder. In Scotland the incidence is monitored by the Scottish Agricultural Disease Surveillance Centres, which recorded zero deaths in the year 2000 up to July, and three in 1999, all cattle. Cases are commoner than these figures suggest, but they are not so common that vets treating sick horses will immediately suspect ragwort poisoning, nor, if they suspect it, can they verify it, because there is no reliable clinical test.

We have more UK figures since this and they confirm ragwort poisoning is rare.As do the international figures. Dr Greer is quite right to use them.

Without an autopsy, ragwort poisoning cannot be securely identified as the cause of death, which might explain why people anxious to assure me that senecio species are a plague can say only that "up to 500" horses - that is something between zero and 500 - are killed by ragwort each year.

In over a decade of study I have seen no evidence for that 500 figure. It gives every appearance of being conjured out of thin air. Within a short time the same sources were saying 6,500. I will have more to say about this in a few days time.
It will be exposed for the nonsense that it is.

What we do know is that only horses that have eaten everything else in their fields will eat live ragwort, and if dried ragwort were not included in hay and silage there would be no problem. Yet some of my correspondents believe that "inhaling seed or spores" of live ragwort will begin the poisoning process. How has this ragwort hysteria taken hold?

Spot on Dr Greer BRAVO! Ragwort is a flowering plant it has seeds not spores. It is hysteria.
I recently blogged on this nonsense about inhaling seeds which is still in circulation.
I called it tripe and it is
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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Hysteria and misinformation makes people campaign

As ever I have a choice of things to blog about today, but this caught my eye.
It was on the website of the campaign group 38 Degrees buried in the comments rather far down but google spotted it for me.

It was in the section about what 38 Degrees should do next and it is a prime example of the hysteria that causes people to campaign against ragwort.
It is full of nonsense. Here is the comment.

"RAGWORT a flowering plant that is on the dangerous weeds register. This non native plant is poisonous, having a cumilitive(sic) effect on the liver of any animal that eats it ( or children that pick the pretty flowers and anyone that handles the plant with bare hands). There is legislation about not allowing it to seed or grow on and near grazing land or fields used to grow hay. Unfortunately neither DEFRA or the County Councils seam willing to enforce the law. (perhaps because the councils and highways agency are among the worst offenders.
If the poison builds up in the livers of the animals that we eat are we in danger of becoming poisoned ourselves!!

First of all there is no such thing as "the dangerous weeds register". There is the weeds act but that does not automatically compel anyone to control ragwort and most of the weeds it lists are not poisonous. For the legal stuff see an earlier posting on ragwort law.

Second it is most definitely a NATIVE plant and it is very valuable ecologically.

Third there is no real risk to anyone that just picks the flowers. The alkaloids are very poorly absorbed through the skin and if you look at this article co-authored by a man with a Phd in ragwort you will see this.

Through our research about the sources of the reports on the danger of touching ragwort, we conclude that there is no substantial evidence that there is a health risk for people. The amount of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that might be absorbed through the skin is very low and there is no proof that these alkaloids are being changed into a toxic form.

Fourth the alkaloids do not accumulate in the liver. The damage can but the alkaloids are chemically changed in the process and destroyed. So the meat is no risk to people. Here is chapter and verse on ragwort and meat from the experts.

The worrying thing is three people said they liked the comment!
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Friday, 17 June 2011

Loads of errors on common article.

One of the motivations for this blog is to expose the large amount of rubbish about ragwort circulating on the internet. This gets repeated and repeated with nobody checking it. People see it so often that they assume it must be true. More of it gets posted on the internet and so on in a vicious circle.

One particularly bad page has just come into the searches over the last few days. I count no more than it only a short article of no more than about 350 words yet it contains SIX major falsehoods. A further piece of searching revealed that it actually comes from an articles site and is duplicated in a number of places which makes it even worse. I am going to the article source and commenting after I make this posting.

Falsehood one.

probably kills thousands of horses every year.

There is no proper evidence that this is true at all. It came onto the internet because someone did a particularly bad survey where they asked a lot of vets, got a tiny number of answers which were about suspected cases . ( You need a lab to tell you, usually at a post mortem.) They then multiplied this unreliable number as if everyone had replied! This is extremely bad statistical work. The published lab figures show a handful of deaths and are consistent with the data internationally.

Falsehood two.

An average plant produces more than 150,000 seeds.

This figure of 150,000 seeds started off as a maximum. It isn't impossible but it is very very high. It is like saying men can grow to seven feet. They can but don't very often, but in this article it has been set as a sort of minimum! The average is then said to be more than this! The overwhelming majority of ragwort plants do not produce anywhere like this number of seeds.

Falsehood three.

Every part of the plant is poisonous to your horse and even the smallest amount ingested will be converted into toxins

This is not true. Small doses will have no effect and may, they may be destroyed, they may not be absorbed and they may cause no damage or that damage will be repaired. I give this a proper treatment in the page about the nonsense about animals inhaling seeds.

Falsehood four
carried on from that sentence

which then multiply and spread

This is nonsense. Toxins are not alive they cannot multiply and spread like that. This is an error of the standard of very simple basic schoolboy or schoolgirl biology.

Falsehood five.

It is even advisable to wear a mask to prevent inhaling the tiny seeds.

Ragwort seeds are not tiny. They are a millimetre or two long at least. They are certainly not tiny enough to be inhaled by anyone accidentally in any quantity. If you inhaled one you would cough and cough until it came up.

Falsehood six

It is now illegal for landowners to allow ragwort to spread by failing to control it.

Here we go again. Hardly a day goes by without yet another example of this old chestnut appearing. There is no law in the UK that says this is the case. There is a posting on ragwort law which explains it all in more detail.

The article also talks about ragwort being poisonous to people. Which it is if you are daft enough to eat it and the author may be thinking of the skin absorption hysteria when she talks about the need to wear gloves, but I'll give here the benefit of the doubt. Ragwort can like many daisy type plants cause an allergic reaction from other chemicals that are in it. These are not the liver damaging ones.

As a whole the article epitomises the problem with ragwort hysteria. You get people all over the place believing the nonsense and spreading it further.
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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A video gets the law on ragwort wrong.

A wildlife enthusiast has drawn my attention to this youtube video.
It is a good video in general about a wildflower meadow being grown in an orchard.

However, at around 7 minutes 53 seconds there is this statement.

We don't want ragwort. That's poisonous. Strictly speaking it is against the law to have it on your land, because it can kill horses.

This is incorrect.

There is a previous blog entry on ragwort law, but it is most definitely not against the law to have ragwort on your land.

This is yet another example of how the propaganda on ragwort has affected people and caused them to believe false ideas.Ragwort is a valuable plant ecologically as is documented by Buglife's piece on ragwort

The problems with horses are much exaggerated.
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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Oh Nay! It's Emus now!

Regular followers will know that, on the basis of detailed study of the evidence, we know that ragwort poisoning of horses, cattle etc. is rare. Or to qualify that all the reliable figures that are available say it is rare. The figures around saying the contrary have no proper basis. To properly determine if ragwort causes poisoning you need to do a post mortem.

They will also know that the press, the internet etc. are full of people panicking wildly. If they so much as touch it will kill people, horses, cattle, your pet cats and dogs and even tortoises. It is nonsense of course.

If you go into any of the forums and someone starts talking about any kind of sickness with a horse, someone else will very often suggest ragwort is to blame.
If an expert goes into the forum they get shouted down and abused. Like this example of Esther Hegt the noted expert from the Netherlands.

Well the latest one made me laugh. There is now panic over emus!

OK perhaps I shouldn't laugh. Someone is only trying to be helpful and they have I have been told lost their precious much loved pets. People loosing their animal companions is no joke, but the hysteria around ragwort is.

I should also explain that people being hurt is part of my motivation for writing this blog. It isn't just ecology. People are being ripped off by people collecting money or selling dodgy cures and treatments. There is also the serious potential problem of vets getting things wrong, and there are more examples than those which I have at present written about. This leads to more animal suffering through misdiagnosis. It also makes people panic and worry about their pets when there is no need. This is harmful. The hysteria needs to be exposed for the laughable nonsense that it is.

A rather sensibly sceptical person has asked how much ragwort would kill an emu?

It seems a friend is blaming a bit of ragwort that has fallen into a water trough for killing emus. It is extremely unlikely that ragwort is the cause. I don't know how often vets do this and therefore how much information is likely to be available for comparison but the answer is to do a post mortem on the emus.

There is no simple answer to the question. I cannot find any example in the literature of an emu being poisoned by ragwort. The alkaloids in ragwort are extremely common, however since they occur in 3% of all plants. (We never hear panic about the others.) We so find, therefore, that there are records of birds being poisoned by contaminated feed from other plants.

However, we come back to the basic point. Animals of all kinds are exposed to these substances in a variety of plants and it always takes quite a bit to poison for a variety of reasons related to the way in which this works. We know from the biochemistry that a lot of the alkaloids react in ways that cause no harm so small doses will have no effect.
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Saturday, 4 June 2011

Stirling council misleading and damaging habitats?

You never know when an advertised example of ragwort control may be necessary. It some times is, but there are times then it is advertised and you read things and you know clearly that the people doing it should not be saying what they say.

This is the case in this example with Stirling Council who advertise a work party for the public with these words.

Doune Action Day

Ragwort flowers and Himalayan Balsam can be great for wildlife but are very invasive. Help the Rangers to pull up the plants before they seed.

If enough volunteers sign up there's plenty more work to be done.

Booking essential.

As ever the problem centres around the word "invasive" to an ecologist this is a problem non-native plant. Himalayan Balsam fits clearly in that category
Ragwort does not. It is a native plant.

It is quite likely, because other councils have done this, that the council actually thinks that ragwort, which is a valuable plant for biodiversity, isn't native either. They are certainly misleading the public on this and encouraging habitat loss by making other people think ragwort is "invasive", the word used for a foreign plant.
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Friday, 3 June 2011

Another nature site being damaged

Ignorance on ragwort is rife. I would not be able to blog on this on nearly a daily basis if it were not so. It helps relieve my frustration with the nonsense and of course serves to debunk the nonsense to a wide audience.

This entry is about yet another important wildlife site being damaged.

Little Wormwood Scrubs is a piece of parkland and wilder habitat in the middle of London. It is managed by Kensington and Chelsea Council. They have a nice management plan that seems very good. It is full of excellent stuff for improving biodiversity, new hedges, wildflower meadows, everything you would expect. Then you come across this little piece.

Japanese knotweed is an invasive exotic tall herb which is present in the north
eastern corner of the site. It is recommended that this plant be eradicated before it spreads further in accordance with DEFRA advice.

Ragwort should be pulled before it sets seed and removed from site, bagged and
sent to landfill. Ragwort removal should be carried out in accordance with DEFRA
advice. Ragwort is the larval food for the Cinnebar(sic) moth, therefore allowing to grow but not set seed ensures this food source is maintained.

The terms "invasive weed" and "invasive plant" are used by ecologists to describe plants that a foreign to a country's ecology and that cause problems by spreading and replacing native vegetation. This certainly applies to Japanese Knotweed. It is a nasty pernicious invader.

Ragwort is a native plant.
It has a valuable ecological role, not just for the Cinnabar Moth. It is the food of a large number of invertebrates and a nectar source for even more of them.

There is also a real piece of baffling ignorance here.
Ragwort is the larval food for the Cinnebar(sic) moth, therefore allowing to grow but not set seed ensures this food source is maintained.

You cannot maintain the plant if you do not allow it ever to set seed. It will die out! Also what about all the other invertebrates that eat it.

It may be yet another example of ignorance where council officers don't know their botany and think that ragwort is a problem invader. There is no problem with ragwort here even with the poor Defra guidelines. There are no grazing animals nor is there hay being made. There are no references in the document to this and you would not expect it in central London. ( It is only in hay that ragwort is a problem.)

There is of course the other problem. Every time this sort of misinformation is repeated more people are likely to believe it and it becomes even more prevalent.

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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Conservation Organisations Again

The idea for this blog post originated on Twitter. The character limit there does not help communication.

There are as I have said before a problem with UK conservation organisations being taken in by the hysterical talk. You can't really blame them. There is so much bad stuff from people like Defra and the Welsh Assembly ( who were actually issuing blatant a falsehood in a press release recently.)

In this particular exchange it was the good folks at the at a particular conservation organisation , who I have decided not to name here. They were clearing up ragwort and announced it on twitter.
Now there can be very good reasons for doing this, but there is a spate in general of conservation organisations issuing problematic information. The totality of the available evidence is that Ragwort is a problem in hay ONLY!

In this case I saw this on their website.

Ragwort pulling on this meadow Site of Importance for Nature Conservation. The meadow is in the grounds of the demolished Clifton Hostital (Sic). Ragwort is one of five injurious weeds covered by the provisions of The Weeds Act 1959. Using 'Lazy Dogs' we are going to be pulling up the ragwort before it has a chance to set seed ans (sic) spread further.

First of all, why mention the Weeds Act? I have a problem with this because you can bet the average person being told this is going to assume the Weeds Act prohibits ragwort or means you have to control it. It does not.
(It is not unheard of for conservation organisations to get this wrong.)

Mentioning the Weeds Act does not help us conservationists get our point across that the evidence says that ragwort is not the problem it has been made out to be.
(There is a posting about ragwort law here which has extra resources linked.)

Then we have the statement "before it has a chance to seed and spread further".

I have made this point before. Ragwort seed spread is not significant. We know from the research that it is normally only a few yards. If a plant grows somewhere the significant ecological factor is that the site is suitable not that the seeds arrive there. If it were then we might have ragwort growing out of the middle of undamaged paving stones, to pick and illustrative but extreme example. If the site isn't suitable the plant won't grow there.

It is maybe a little unfair just to pick on them. They may have quite honestly been mistaken.

The real problem is the poorness of the response of the conservation movement to this issue. Remember if affects lots more plants than ragwort and it has much wider effects than just a few invertebrates, as I have shown previously.

A far worse example is Dorset Wildlife Trust with this very public statement with the BBC about a very well known important invertebrate site where ragwort is an important nectar source. Even after they have been taken to task

Poisonous ragwort has to be removed as grazing is also required to maintain the open downland conditions.

Now again there may be issues with graziers who have fallen for the hysteria, but this is not what they have said. It seems that they have encouraged people to believe that if you graze an animal where ragwort grows it will be poisoned.
The evidence, and the basic biology, says that this is not the case.

I am of course aware of the Defra guidelines but from a scientific perspective, based on the evidence , they don't make sense. If you are really concerned about the welfare of animals to this degree then you would never put them outdoors.
Why? Because the level of risk of ragwort poisoning is so minuscule according to the published statistics that it is similar to that for lightning strike!

(Actually I can't find proper lightning strike statistics but there are press reports that I have researched and they show a bigger problem. It is clear that lightning strike may therefore even exceed documented ragwort poisoning. Ragwort poisoning is rare. The good statistics and the information published around the world say that.)

Isn't it about time that someone told Defra not to listen to all the daft things that are being said and be rational. I would like to see some more conservation organisations studying the science and actually doing something about the hysteria.

The good guys in this of course are Buglife who have done some excellent work on ragwort

Finally just to address a point made on twitter that there is a debate to be had.
Well if there is any debate at all. It is between those that spend time looking at the scientific journals and form their opinions that way, and those that spread false stories, either for financial gain, or because they don't think critically about things.

As a perfect example of this is someone who is now one of the best experts on ragwort in Europe, Esther Hegt, a highly intelligent horse owner who was originally a member of a ragwort extermination group. She sought out the experts who told her the hysteria spreading from the UK was rubbish and then created one of the world's finest websites on the subject. Ragwort, Myths and Facts One of the experts who has a Phd on ragwort is a major co-author.

In later postings I will cover the false information and campaigning that led to the bad guidance from Defra and the devolved equivalents.
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Saturday, 28 May 2011

Ragwort conservation ecology

First of all in this posting. Just to recap, ragwort is a problem in hay, but as is explained in this posting about a piece of real ragwort nonsense, they avoid it elsewhere. Animals are designed by nature to avoid poisons, and the poisons in ragwort are present in 3% of all plants most of which we never hear about. We don't have all the campaigning, the commercial outfits making false claims and the accompanying hysteria about the others. We know that ragwort poisoning is rare. We know this because of the research.

The purpose of this blog entry is to deal with the latest piece of misinformation that has appeared on a facebook discussion group. It repeats a couple of falsehoods. Firstly you get this comment from one user

You have to report it

This is most certainly NOT the case.

It is dealt with on this blog entry and chapter and verse is given from the mouth of a government minister on this entry about "Notifiable weeds " ( There is no such thing in the UK.)

The second claim made on that forum is more complicated, but the answer is just as clear.

Most entymolologist (sic) probably wouldn't view the loss of ragwort habitat due to grazing land management as detrimental.

If an entomologist were at all knowledgeable about ecology and population dynamics then he or she would be very concerned.

First of all before I explain the science you have to realise that this goes much wider than ragwort. The unnecessary panic about ragwort means that, as has been documented, plants get misidentified and targeted and also the general spraying, ploughing and general agricultural intensification it causes affects all wild flowers and the wildlife dependent on them.

The central concept here is calles by some wonderfully technical words "Metapopulation dynamics." Metapopulation is one of those words that we wildlife specialists like to come up with. It is half Greek and half Latin, but the general idea is quite simple.

Wildlife of all kinds tends to exist in patches of habitat and the survival of any of the species depends on how close these patches are to each other and how many of them are close to each other.

So we have this patchwork. If you start taking pieces out of the patchwork you start destabilising them. Losing chunks of habitat has an effect beyond just losing those chunks. The loss effects all the habitat in the surrounding area too. A central feature of this is that an organism can be extinct before all the habitat is gone.

I am simplifying things a bit but this is the essence of the issue here. You can read up further if you like. One of the standard textbooks actually has a whole chapter on an aspect of ragwort metapopulations but be warned it has been used as a textbook on a course for a Masters level degree. It is the sort of thing that wildlife nerds like me take to bed. (Actually I am really a sociable extrovert, but I do like my science books!)

This is one of the reasons we are seeing massive declines in UK wildlife. We have lost a third of our moths since the later 1960s, we see declines in birds too and all because of the decline in habitat.

It is worth mentioning at this point that many rare insects live on common plants, this includes ragwort. They have complicated requirements. Ecology is like that. The presence of a species may depend on many factors, site dryness, wetness, sunshine ,shade, the absence of food for other species that are affected by the same parasites or predators etc. etc.

Now to recap and explain. The loss of any habitat, including that on grazing land has a detrimental effect. We know this for certain because of all the research that has been done. We know this because of central tenets of modern biology.
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Thursday, 26 May 2011

What utter tripe!

I picked this up from a posting on facebook page put out by a Cumbrian horse group. It is a prime example of how hysteria about ragwort spreads.
The site starts with:-

Ragwort poisoning is one of the most common causes of plant poisoning in equines.

Anyone who can use proper critical thinking skills should stop and ask a few questions at this point. The first is how common is poisoning in general in animals?
Well actually it is extremely difficult to know. The reason being is it is rare.

This is one of the things that started me looking at this in the first place all those years ago when told that lots of animals were dying I immediately thought of the science and immediately thought there is something wrong with that claim.

You see we have known for the last hundred and fifty odd years that animals that do silly things like eat poison do not have as many offspring as those that don't. Since offspring resemble their parents any animal will have been shaped by nature in such a way that it becomes part of their nature to avoid eating poison.

Even to us human animals ragwort tastes nasty. Our taste systems have developed in such away that we detect the poisons as nasty. This is hardly surprising since the poisons in ragwort actually present in 3% of all plants. You may well ask why we never hear about all the others?

It sounds a simple idea, but it is one of the fundamental principles of modern science. So much so that the man who came up with the idea is so idolised that if you are British you are probably carrying his picture in your wallet!
The idea was developed by Charles Darwin whose picture is on the Bank of England Ten Pound Note.

What we do know is that ragwort is only a problem in hay and that ragwort poisoning is rare. When you look at proper studies and not hysterical claims of thousands of deaths you see that this is true. As an example, ragwort hysteria spread to the Netherlands, there has been a survey running there that has not had one single confirmed case of ragwort poisoning in a horse since 2007. This is in agreement with what we might expect from other studies.

The real piece of hogwash on this website however, is this:-

A horse or pony can be poisoned by ragwort without even having any plants in their grazing area. Seeds from ragwort plants in neighbouring paddocks and fields can be blown across and contaminate an area apparently free from ragwort. A horse or pony can inhale or eat these seeds and become affected by cumulative poisoning.

I try to write this blog with a dispassionate style as reflects the proper nature of the science behind it, but on this occasion this piece of prose deserves to be described properly.


When you have been studying the subject for a long time these things become really obvious. The person writing this appears to have no understanding of the biochemistry involved at all.

Firstly, whilst it is true that ragwort poisoning can be cumulative. The lethal dose is so high that it is often measured in percentages of body weight. The dose is minuscule!

Secondly, if you look at the biochemistry you can see the impossibility of this kind of poisoning. The toxins in ragwort are not actually poisonous in themselves. They have to undergo a conversion process. Some are destroyed in the digestive process. Some will be excreted unchanged. If they get through this then, and only then, they are converted into the breakdown products are they toxic and then those breakdown products are so reactive that they will react with anything ion the cell. It is only those that reach the DNA in the cell nucleus that have a toxic effect and then if the damage is minor which it certainly would be, there are DNA repair mechanisms which would likely nullify any damage.

Oh and of course there is the third point, unlike the claim on the website that they are dispersed widely by the wind. Ragwort seeds don't blow very far. Most sit at the base of the plant and the rest are almost without exception deposited within a few yards.

There is then the obvious fourth point. Horses inhaling seeds? How often do you as a human animal inhale any old seed that is wafting around? Well If you did you would soon cough it up. This is just hysterical hyperbole.

Of course now it has been posted on this horsey facebook page more people will be frightened and more hysteria will be generated. To be fair this is rather a common claim on websites and it seems that critical thinking on this issue is very much in short supply.
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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Is this wildlife trust damaging a nature reserve?

When doing the regular research for this blog it is often necessary to dig a bit after finding the initial information. One of the problems you discover is that the hysteria over ragwort has even infected conservation organisations who should know better and you find them saying things that are incorrect. This causes more damage to biodiversity because people believe what they hear and act accordingly. It becomes a vicious circle, breaking which is one of the aims of this blog.

This was the case with a Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust blog which says

"I have been planning how to tackle the ragwort growth, it is not going to be easy as it is further ahead than usual and so many areas cannot be done as there are still nesting birds. Of course there are those that say it should be left as a nectar source and it is true that is it a valuable nectar plant. However it is toxic to stock when dry, although they avoid it when growing as a rule. We have to try and stop it spreading onto our neighbours land and it can also become very dominant on the dry disturbed soils around the old gravel pits, which is undesirable for other reasons."

Now much of this sounds reasonable, but the seasoned expert will notice this line
"We have to try and stop it spreading onto our neighbours (sic) land"

It is difficult to be sure but that sounds like a repeat of the old chestnut of a falsehood that the law on ragwort requires you to prevent the spread of ragwort. Even if it wasn't intended, this loose use of language would only serve to reinforce this common misconception. This then encourages loss of biodiversity on other sites, as people believe they need to comply with non-existent legislation. Like this example.

The thing that is really bad about it though, is that it encourages people to think that ragwort spreads easily. It most certainly does not. The research is very very clear. Most of the seeds fall at the base of the plants and the remainder in all practical terms only go a few yards. See ragwort- how far do the seeds disperse?

The digging around for information only confirms the fear that this Wildlife trust may be being mislead into damaging its own nature reserve. It turns out that they are carrying out ragwort control in a number of places on this massive 500 acre site. It may be necessary and reasonable but what is unnecessary is to harm other people's conservation work by suggesting falsely that ragwort spreads easily.

Perhaps if you are a member of the trust and are reading this you would like to raise it with them? Chapter and verse debunking the myths and providing the science is available on the Ragwort Facts site.
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An example of misinformation countered

A few weeks ago a story appeared in a local newspaper

A NEW menace has sprung up at Apex Park in Highbridge - ragwort.

The Friends of Apex Park have taken action against the growth, which has affected the wild flower meadow.

A sub-group, under the leadership of Patrick Stokes, has been using organic sprays on the ragwort, which can be dangerous to horses and cattle.

This is a nature reserve and the matter was mentioned on an on-line discussion group.
One of the members contacted the local council who it turned out misunderstood the law on ragwort and the guidance ( which is pretty badly done anyway) and they realised that they did not need to control the ragwort. Unfortunately before this information was countered more people would have been mislead by the article in the newspaper. It is the constant stream of poor stories in the press, often put there by vested interests, and the repeating of this on websites that leads to more unnecessary damage to biodiversity.
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Monday, 23 May 2011

Welsh Assembly did do it

This story was covered in a previous posting It turns out that the Welsh Assembly Government has been putting out false information on the law on ragwort.. They claimed that there is a statutory responsibility on landowners to control ragwort . This is simply untrue.

The story appeared in the Western Mail and prompted this letter on ragwort in response.
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Monday, 16 May 2011

A worrying story from Cornwall.

The errors are coming in thick and fast over the last few days.

David Breer's interesting blog The scientific study of plants

Also, I have a message from a gentlemen in Cornwall who has
found a poster in his post office to the effect that five species of
weeds must be destroyed if you have them on your land.

and he continues,

My Cornish correspondent is concerned because already the local churchyard has been sprayed, to the detriment of other species.

And the comments on the blog are even more worrying they are full of people who misunderstand the law on ragwort and who believe that it is far more dangerous than it should be.

Seriously worrying is the fact that now other plants which, like, thistles are valuable nectar sources. The Weeds Act 1959, which is really an anachronism that was never enforced until the campaigners generated hysteria, doesn't make controlling these plants automatic and compulsory. I cannot see how many churchyards would require controlling even under the poorly thought out guidance created by DEFRA.


After writing this blog entry I find that the blog I am quoting doesn't belong to David Breer at all. On attempting to dig out the author and follow up on the poster story I found that it is a site that very cleverly takes information from on-line discussions and converts them to look like blogs. In this case the discussion, although marked as recent, is in fact a discussion from a few years ago. The text I quote is quite genuine it just isn't recent.
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Scarborough Council unfair to ragwort and biodiversity

Are you going to Scarborough Fair? So go the words to a famous song.
Well perhaps there is no fair selling things there now but the local council
is certainly not being fair to the biodiversity supported by ragwort.One of their documents on-line contains the following piece of claptrap.

It is one of 5 species listed as a Noxious Weed in the 1949 Weeds Act and it is an offence to allow the plant to proliferate on your land and spread to adjacent property. The Ragwort Control Bill (2003) has recently been passed to strengthen this.

It is hard to know where to start with a statement like this. It is so full of inaccuracies. So I will take them in the order in which they occur.

First of all the term used in the Weeds Act is "injurious weeds". It means in this context weeds that are harmful to the interests of agriculture. Follow the link to find a proper explanation of the derivation from Latin of the word "injurious".

Then it is the Weeds Act 1959 not 1949. It is most definitely not an offence
under the weeds act to allow the plant to proliferate on your land!

Finally all the Ragwort Control Act ( Act is the correct word for bills that have passed!) only tells the government that it can produce some guidance.

There is an earlier blog entry explaining the law on ragwort.

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Sunday, 15 May 2011

It even crosses the Atlantic now

This is an entry from the blog Dog-Apparel which is from Florida

"The most poisonous plant in Britain to horses is Ragwort. Don’t know if this helps, it is now a "notifyable" (sic) plant and if you see it you are supposed to pull it up."

Ragwort is not a notifiable weed in the UK. There is no such thing in UK law. It is also questionable if it is the most poisonous plant. There are certainly plants that are far far more deadly.

Also you should not pull up ragwort where ever you see it, as this is a criminal offence under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, unless you have the
owner or occupier of the land's consent. See ragwort is sometimes protected for more details.

There is a common problem with people thinking they are doing good by pulling up ragwort. Living ragwort is ignored by livestock. Dead ragwort is a different matter. By pulling it up an leaving it you may be endangering animals. There is also the problem with other plants which are not ragwort, being misidentified

Ragwort is an ecologically important plant and there are cases where habitats on
nature reserves have been damaged by its removal by well-intentioned but
ignorant individuals, who, like the writer of the Dog-Apparel blog have read something incorrect somewhere and who have just repeated it.

This blog Eco Holidays and Adventures puts the whole thing very succinctly in regards to ragwort with the comment:

So, when you are out exploring the countryside – think of their trees as you would of your garden fence; their plants as you would of your rosebush; their gates as your own front door.

Would you want someone to leave your front door open, break down your fence and snap your rosebush in half?

I didn’t think so…….
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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Even vets can be wrong

"There's nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it."
So wrote William James the famed philosopher who is often regarded as the father of modern psychology.

This is an entry from the blog of vet Paul Proctor MRCVS

"Ragwort is a common weed that grows throughout the British Isles, and has always been a problem but recently it has become apparent that the weed may be getting out of control and potentially posing a real threat to the horse population."

The article is good in other respects and Mr Proctor seems to be a perfectly fine vet. However, on the basis of the FACTS, I have to disagree with that statement.

There is no evidence that Ragwort is "getting out of control". There is no evidence
that it is increasing. If anything the evidence from the government's
UK Countryside Survey is that Ragwort is decreasing. At least he has the good sense to use the words "may" and "potentially".

What there is a lot of evidence of, and the reason for this blog, is a concerted campaign of misinformation and falsehoods. These are often promoted quite innocently by people who just do not know the facts and who are unnecessarily frightened. Sometimes they are promoted by commercial companies with a product to promote. Sometimes by organisations who need to raise their profile, and who do so by putting scary stories into the media.

The story that ragwort is increasing is, in the face of the facts, absurd, but as William James said it is been repeated often enough that people will believe it.

The problem with vets believing that ragwort poisoning is common, rather than what the literature indicates, that it is rare, is that it manifests itself like any other type of liver damage that is from other causes.

There is a risk, if vets believe that ragwort poisoning is more likely than it is, that animals will suffer as a result of misdiagnoses.

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