Saturday, 20 October 2012

Richard Benyon's Bioperversity

Ruchard Benyon is the minister in the UK government who is responsible for biodiversity. One may be forgiven for thinking his title is something from George Orwell's famous book 1984 where The Ministry of Truth dealt with lying about the past, the Ministry of Love  dealt with torture and the Ministry of Peace dealt with waging war. In the same perverse way this minister seems to be doing a great deal of harm to biodiversity.

Firstly, in  his attitude to ragwort and secondly, as we have discovered recently his facilitation of the poisoning of our lovely birds of prey.

To deal with the ragwort to start with. He  got himself into hot water a while ago when he posted this message on his facebook page.

"I hate ragwort. It may not be the issue of the moment but I am on the warpath for those who let this vile weed spread. Chief target at the moment is the Highways Agency,"
This is not the kind of knowledgeable response one would hope for from a minister of the crown in charge of looking after biodiversity.

Ragwort isn't spreading and roadside verges are not significant sources of seed in most cases. The seeds do not spread far. There is clear research that shows that they only normally spread a few metres.

Benyon's ignorance was spotted by some knowledgeable people and quite soon he found himself rebuked.
This is  an extract from how the Guardian's John Vidal reported it:

Within hours of the post about the "vile weed", more than 30 people had complained that he was ecologically illiterate, plain wrong or perpetuating myths put out about the plant by herbicide companies.

"Minister of the natural environment!!!! You don't even seem to know Defra's [the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] guidance - get your facts straight - livestock are generally only harmed if they eat the dried plants in hay!", wrote Dusty Gedge, a leading urban ecologist and designer of green roofs. They attacked his science: "There is very very clear science on meta-population dynamics that shows that habitat loss with in a patchwork of habitats has a very severe effect. There is a chapter on ragwort in one of the standard textbooks," wrote another.

The Guardian article continued later:

Benyon struck back, saying his critics were being "unnecessarily aggressive", and that he wasn't advocating ethnic cleansing of ragwort but that he wanted to deal with "a severe infestation of a poisonous plant".

That only infuriated people more. "There is a campaign against ragwort. We are told that it kills hundreds or thousands of animals a year. We are told it is dangerous to touch it or it can give you cancer if you do. We are told it is a danger to dogs. None of this is true", said one. "Actually there is not a severe infestation of ragwort at the moment. There is a great deal of increase in the hysteria but the last government countryside survey actually shows a decrease. Ask your civil servants to check it for you."

It was all too much for Benyon, who retired from the debate and, shortly afterwards, deleted the thread on his Facebook wall.

Richard Benyon said: "I'm very well aware of ragwort's great importance to biodiversity, but what many people don't realise it that its presence can be extremely dangerous to livestock, especially horses. People should be made aware of the dangers as well as the benefits and take action to protect their animals if they're at risk."

The problem for the minister was of course  the fact , that unlike a lot of the stuff on the web, the media nonsense, and commercially' motivated inaccuracies that the  Advertising Standards Authority dealt with last year, Facebook is open for people to comment. Knowledgeable people, who know that the nonsense about ragwort is made up, can reply to him.  We know this stuff is false.  I have blogged before about it being invented. He didn't and looked rather foolish in the face of the experts.

It really isn't as extremely dangerous as he thinks it is.

However it does seem that Benyon's attitude to ragwort is somewhat hypocritical as the recent news shows that he is quite prepared to ignore really dangerous things when they threaten biodiversity.
Witness the row over his failure to ban the dangerous chemical carbofuran. As publicised in The Independent .
This is an extract:

The Wildlife minister, Richard Benyon, has been accused of being "the gamekeeper's friend" by refusing to outlaw a poison used by some to kill protected birds of prey on shooting estates.

Mr Benyon, a millionaire landowner who is strongly associated with shooting interests and owns both a pheasant shoot in Berkshire and a Scottish grouse moor, has declined a request from senior MPs to make possession of the poison, carbofuran, a criminal offence – as is the case in Scotland.

The effect of his refusal is to make a substance which is particularly deadly to birds of prey, despite it being a banned chemical with no legitimate use whatsoever, still available to any gamekeepers who wish to get rid of raptors illegally when they are perceived to be predating on gamebirds.

His stance, which is only the latest controversy arising from Mr Benyon's personal involvement with game shooting policy, met with fierce criticism yesterday. "The minister's shocking refusal to outlaw the possession of a poison used only by rogue gamekeepers to illegally kill birds of prey would be inexplicable were it not for his own cosy links to the shooting lobby," said the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas.

"Instead of protecting the interests of his friends on the shooting estates and undermining the wellbeing of British wildlife, the minister should be following the ad vice of MPs and the Scottish precedent by making carbofuran possession a criminal offence."

 One does wonder if Public School (A British term for a posh private school.) educated Benyon suffers from the problem that often results from such  treatment, i.e having too much confidence and not enough talent.  He is confident enough to want to wage war on ragwort, where the evidence says that there isn't a problem and then won't put controls on carbofuran where the evidence says that there is!.

This sounds rather like "bioperversity" to me.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Another peculiar reaction

As I say I could blog every single day about incorrect or misleading things being said about ragwort.
The fuss over it goes beyond all reason.It is portrayed as some deadly creeping triffid that kills all in its wake.
We are told a whole host of falsehoods. It is dangerous to dogs (see ragwort and dogs) kids,etc. It kills thousands of horses every year. None of these things is true at all. They have been comprehensively debunked. Yes there is a problem with hay, but it is a small one. Ragwort poisoning is rare.

Then we get this. Someone is watching a film and they see ragwort and feel disgusted.  As is shown in this  example from Twitter.

Nick Gaven ‏@NickGaven

So much ragwort on Saving Private Ryan. Makes me sick.
Well all I can say to this person  is this.. You are wrong. Look at all the stuff that has been made up.
Like this in Your horse magazine and if you are capable of rational thought and have good powers of critical thinking you will see you are wrong .
Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Admission of criminal activity on forum

Recently I blogged about the silly ignorance on a horsey forum, where a whole load of hysterical myths were being disseminated because they were angry at a very good letter from Buglife in The Times..
As one person put it to me,  "It is so stupid it becomes funny."

The latest from there is this apparent admission.

ive(sic) been seen pulling it out of the local verges so it doesnt(sic) spread further. NIMBY
 This is rather a silly thing to say publicly. It is a criminal offence under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act to pull up any wildflower unless you are a properly authorised person, basically the landowner , occupier or certain public officials.

Ragwort growing in verges poses little problem as the seeds actually don't normally spread far at all . Most fall at the base of the plant and the rest within a few metres.

Unfortunately the hysteria  and misinformation in the horsey press continues to promote what is essentially habitat vandalism.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Predictable silly ignorance

This week I blogged about the rather excellent letter by Matt Shardlow in The Times.
Rather predictably, there has been a burst of angry ignorance in the horsey community. This beautifully illustrates why it is I do this blog.

The fuss about ragwort, is as I have blogged before, largely made up. The plant is only a risk if it is put in hay and all the evidence internationally shows that poisoning is rare. However, there is so much nonsense in circulation that some people refuse to accept the scientific facts even when they are given them.

Today's great example of this phenomenon comes from the Dalesfans Message board where some horsey people have displayed a marvellous degree of ignorance.  Ignorance is, as I have said before, no crime as the word simply comes from the Latin for not knowing and we are all ignorant of many things. Ignorance abounds about ragwort hence my blogging. It is very irritating.

The first piece is probably an ignorant near malapropism which made me laugh. OK not everyone has studied classical languages but I thought it funny.

Someone who was annoyed with Matt Shardlow's fine letter and disbelieved it through apparent ignorance wrote.

Perhaps we could concoct a reply? 
I read it as meaning "compose a reply" but concoct has a subtly different meaning coming from the Latin "cook together or "cook up".
The massive multi-tomed Oxford English dictionary, which is accepted as the definitive guide to the English language, has the following:-

To make up, devise, or plan by concert, or by artificial combination; to put together, make up, or fabricate (a story, project, fraud, etc.).
The problem is that most of the panic about ragwort has been concocted in this sense! People, often with a  financial interest, have cooked up a load of misinformation and diseminated it.

Another silly misinformed and incorrect comment about Matt Sharlow is:-

What a fool
I'm sure I've read a report about how even a small amount of skin contact (pulling up a few plants) with ragwort and the toxins can be found in our liver
I know Matt Shardlow. He is no fool! The Independent newspaper described him in 2008 as :-

The environmentalist with the most conspicuous rising reputation in Britain.

Of course the clincher is that his critic here has been rather foolish and repeated the nonsensical skin absorption myth which  have blogged about before
To briefly recap it has been looked at by experts including one with a PhD in ragwort and it isn't right!

 But it gets worse! With comments like this!

Everyone should be doing their part to get rid of it. They won't actually mobilize fully until a kid drops dead from the stuff.
This is laughable nonsense. The plant is nowhere near that toxic. There are many plants which contain the same toxins which are all over the place. My local public park has plenty. Of one of them is a close relative of ragwort  and it is no danger. Tomatoes , potatoes, runner beans etc all have poisonous parts, more poisonous probably, but it doesn't stop people growing them.

Then we have this ridiculously inaccurate gem:-

I don't believe this plant should be described as native. Its(sic) not indigenous to these shores. Some Victorian collector brought it back from Asia to somewhere like Kew I think. Can't remember exactly but it was on a gardening programme a few years ago.
I am probably the last person to recommend listening to experts solely as a way of getting information but when a leading nature expert writes to The Times newspaper and says something about nature, as Matt Shardlow did when he wrote, it should at least raise the doubt in any sensible person's mind that he might be right.

Of course this is nonsense. Common ragwort is well-known by any botanist to be a native plant.

This is a classic example of what happens all the time. People having read nonsense in the press, repeat it over and over again, until it is believed.


Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Excellent letter from Buglife

There was a short but rather excellent letter in today's edition of The Times  It was from Matt Shardlow the Chief Executive of Buglife the Invertebrate  Conservation Trust.  They are an excellent conservation organisation that is well worth joining.

There was one of the usual letters in the paper earlier this week repeating the usual nonsense that I blog about. People believe this because of dodgy publicity put out by people with a vested interest and it spreads around. (Ragwort is, as I frequently say, shown to be decreasing in official surveys.)
However, this letter succinctly puts the other side.

    The claim by G. Smithers (Letter 8th Oct) that the public and grazing  animals  are being let down by councils and landowners  who are indifferent to the spread of common ragwort was typical of the  hyperbole surrounding this native flower  The Ragwort Control Act 0f 2003 does not force landowners to control the spread of ragwort, this can only be done via a specific  order served on a landowner. Ragwort is only dangerously toxic if eaten in large quantities. We are unaware of any properly confirmed  livestock death  from ragwort in  the  past decade. A few plants of this native  species along public rights of way  cause no harm  and help to support our declining populations of other pollinators.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Another vet posts bad info?

From time to time I point out how even vets get taken in by the misinformation about ragwort and today it seems we might have another example.

Today we have  this from twitter

 Dr. Anna Russau ‏@WarrentonHWorks 
What do you know about Ragwort?

and this is how Dr Russau describes herself on twitter

Dr. Anna Russau
Warrenton Horse Works, PLC is owned by Dr. Anna L. Russau, DVM, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Virginia ·
It is rather ambiguous as to whether she actually believes the stuff on the website, but I would assume that she wouldn't post it like this if she didn't.

The problem that I have is that the website concerned is very familiar to me and I as someone who has studied ragwort in detail for many years believe that some of the things that it says are as nutty as squirrel droppings.

It exaggerates the risk. It posts nonsense about animals breathing in seeds. It uses exaggerated statistics.
It claims that ragwort seeds are spread widely on the wind when we know from the data and the mathematics that they don't and oh yes, it gets things wrong about UK law too.

Regular readers will be familiar with this site. Someone at Edinburgh University mentioned it before on twitter.
So for full details look at my previous posting. I described it then as "bonkers" and "tripe".

Perhaps Dr Russau would care to correct any false impressions she may have made?

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries
Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Monday, 8 October 2012

Horse and Hound prints more ragwort nonsense

Horse and Hound is a frequent source of nonsense on ragwort. I blogged on this earlier this year. They have now done it again with more inaccurate and unscientific material.

We are told that ragwort is worse than ever. Why? Because of the weather. You know, ragwort must be the oddest plant on earth. According to the press any kind of weather causes it to grow more luxuriantly.

As I blogged last year,  Horse and Hound were saying it was cold weather and the Western Daily Press had been saying it was hot summer weather. Now we have a cold summer and that is causing it to grow more.
It is a miracle! And apparently you can use to to change water into wine, cure lepers and raise the dead too. :-) (Please note the smiley. I don't want another set of myths going around!)

The facts are that when the research is done properly by an official government survey ragwort is actually shown to be decreasing. It doesn't stop these silly articles though.

Apparently they justify it because , due to the mounting publicity people have sent more replies to the British Horse Societies "Ragwort" ( or rather yellow flowered plants) survey.  This is the same society whose publicity material  led to the Advertising Standards Authority stopping  adverts because they were wrong or had no evidence to support them.

Worse that this the story is being passed, as true, around websites. It got repeated  on the MRCVS.couk site. On the site of and tweeted by many people.
It seems that critical thinking skills are not always in good supply out there.

Oh and while we are at it there is a classic example in the article of the misunderstanding of terminology. It comes about because of the lack of teaching of Latin in our schools. We noticed   that even an Eton educated patrician toff like the Prime Minister didn't know what Magna Carta meant when asked recently on US television. Fortunately,  even plebs like me can study Latin and I hope to spend some time this evening working on a book on Latin poetry that I am supposed to be writing.

This example is the use of the word "injurious" which  appears as "injurious weeds"  in the  Weeds Act 1959.
The article has a  Mrs Claire Harding-Brown saying :-
It’s an injurious weed and it’s by my horses.
Injurious does not mean poisonous in this context. It derives from the same roots as Justice and Jury. It means harmful to the interests of something. In this case agriculture. Most of the listed weeds are not poisonous. The link in this sentence leads to a briefing  on the meaning of Injurious Weeds with full details.
Remember, as I have blogged before most of the scarey stuff about ragwort has been made up.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Silly story There is no dog poisoning risk

Today's silly story on ragwort comes from the Skegness Standard where a story starts as follows:-

A CONCERNED resident is urging dog walkers, children and passers-by to be mindful of potentially harmful ‘ragwort weed’ which is alleged to be growing in nearby Skegness fields.
The implication being that the plant is of great danger. Of course as regular readers will know the stories about ragwort are largely made up and there is no serious risk. This is one of a regular stream of stories that occur, frightening people about their children and their dogs.

As I regularly say Ragwort is poisonous to both dogs and to dolphins but as neither species eats it and a considerable amount has to be eaten to kill it is not a serious risk.

A while ago I blogged about the well-known author Dr Germaine Grier commenting about this.

Unfortunately common sense and basic biological knowledge do not abound in the press and we see these silly stories appearing all the time.

See this for a briefing on ragwort and dogs.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The insidious skin myth.

One of the examples of how nasty the campaign against ragwort has been is the effect of the skin absorption myth. This is the false story that you can be poisoned by handling ragwort. You can get an allergic reaction from it, like many members of the daisy family, but the toxins that damage the liver are in the wrong form to cause problems.

This is someone being really worried by this myth on  a Gardening Forum

Hello there,
We have just got ourselves an allotment and are in the process of clearing it of weeds. Unfortunately, both of us have had a severe reaction to the weeds which we now realise is ragwort. After reading about the dangers of ragwort we are very worried as one listed danger was damage to the liver.
Can anybody reassure us that we will be okay?! At the moment we are covered in sore blistered spots. My daughter has had a particularly nasty reaction on her neck which is causing her severe pain. She is taking antibiotics for this at the moment as the doctor suspected it was a bad insect bite!
What bad luck! Someone please tell us we will be alright!
Thank you.
Well yes I can reassure you. The toxins are poorly absorbed, it takes a lot to poison you, and they are in the wrong form. I blogged about this before in detail. and they have already been given some details by someone else on the forum.
This is one of the really irritating things about this myth as people being scared and hurt by these insidious false stories. It can be really worrying to think you have been poisoned. You can hardly blame people, the story is all over the web and even in government publications, but  those of us  who have studied the science in detail know it isn't true.

It is pretty clear that this is an allergy.  What is important I think to these people is that they get the skin problems sorted and take care in future handling plants of the daisy family.
Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

University of Edinburgh and dodgy information

One indication of how bad the hysteria over ragwort has got is how people and organisations who one would expect to know better get things wrong.

Today's example comes from twitter. and the account Equine Science ‏@eqscied which carries the following text in its profile.
Find out more about our exciting online distance learning programme at the University of Edinburgh!
This is followed in the profile by a link to the equine science course. You might expect something with the word "science" it its title to be distributing good information but my issue today is with this following rather truncated tweet.

CONTROLLING RAGWORT Cutting ragwort down will not kill the plant - it may even encourage more growth! However, as.
 My problem is not so much with the text of the tweet but the link that follows it. It goes to what I think, on the basis of the evidence, is rather a dodgy website full of poor information.

These are just some of the issues I have with the site. It says:-

When ragwort appears on agricultural or equestrian property the landowner is legally required to treat and clear it.
 This is incorrect. There is no automatic legal requirement to treat and clear ragwort. I keep saying this so rather than repeat myself. Here is a briefing on ragwort law

Then it makes several highly misleading statements

  • Each ragwort plant can produce about 150,000 seeds
  • The seeds have a 70% germination rate.
  • Seeds can remain dormant for up to 20 years.
  • Seeds are spread widely by the wind.

150,000 would be highly exceptional.  70% germination rate is a lab figure that bears no relation to what happens in nature. 20 years is an exceptional time for a tiny number of seeds to survive.

 (Subsequent to the writing of this entry an leaflet from an equine charity was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for making the false claim that every plant produced 150,000 seeds)

Finally the seeds are NOT normally spread widely by the wind, we know this both from the mathematics of  aerodynamics and gravity. They have parachutes not powered flight and the studies that have been done show that they normally only go a matter of metres. Here is a  briefing on ragwort seed dispersal.

 I am editing this blog entry to add one of the most egregious pieces of real nonsense as it has just been pointed out that I failed to comment on it.

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 blogged about this before with a detailed analysis As I said then 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.


There are a lot of scare stories about ragwort and as I proviously blogged the evidence shows quite clearly that a lot of things are just made up.
The Advertising Standards Authority has even become involved

I think the University of Edinburgh should take more care!
Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Monday, 13 August 2012

The CLA Only Fools and Horses?

I got started on this issue really as I found the hysteria around ragwort intellectually offensive. The cluelessness of the people spreading it and the nonsense and irrationality offended my sense of reason. Sometimes though it seems to become almost comic, where bungling opponents seem to open their mouths and put both feet firmly inside. Seemingly making such complete and utter fools of themselves through getting basic facts wrong. Such seems the case with the Country Land and Business Association . Try as I might, I cannot remove the image from my mind of their people travelling around in scruffy yellow "loverly jubberly", yellow, three wheeled, Reliant Robin vans. ( Actually Reliant Regal would be more accurate.) This really seems to be an only fools and horses scenario, The cluelessness seems so obviously apparent.

They recently put out a series of stories covering the usual panic about ragwort.
As a result we had several of the usual unchecked stories being broadcast by the BBC.

On the Aleena Naylor show on BBC Radio Derby they put out the story that ragwort was spreading.
There is a proper government survey done on very scientific lines and it actually shows very clearly that ragwort is declining.
 Donna Traveller the CLA's representative appeared to make a right fool of herself by not knowing a simple elementary fact about the law. She said when asked about the 1959 Weeds Act
Under the 1959 act people have to make an effort to stop the spread of ragwort.
This is not correct. The act places no responsibility on anyone to do anything unless they receive an official order to do so and what is more there is guidance that says that it shouldn't always be controlled. It seems quite clear that it doesn't say what she claimed it does. Here is a briefing on ragwort law.

On the Breakfast show on BBC Shropshire the story was also covered as coming from the CLA. They interviewed two anti-ragwort people and in a really atrocious piece claimed, against the research  that ragwort  is

"becoming more and more prolific"
The interviewer said that it was " a bit like a dock leaf" and got the answer "a little bit yes"

This seems to be a typical example of atrocious ignorance. To me they are not the slightest bit alike other than that they are both leaves. Ragwort leaves are quite ragged as its name suggests and dock has an entire leaf without any significant indentations at all. Goodness knows what people will be pulling up if they think these plants are similar.

Furthermore the woman quite astoundingly said
 "Landowners would be great if they could clear the verges that but onto their own land."
That's right! It seems she told people to go onto land that they don't own on the verges and remove plants. This seems utterly shocking to me that  we have an item on the BBC that suggests this.

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 just go around uprooting plants. More details can be found here.
Oh and what does the CLA think.  Well after tweeting :-

Help rout the annual menace of ragwort, urges CLA via @sharethis
They tweeted :-

Excellent informative piece on #ragwort on BBC #Shropshire breakfast show this morning. 

Excellent? Informative? Poor information on the distribution   and apparent suggestions to break the law. If they think that is excellent SHAME ON THEM!

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Silly Olympic panic!

Oh dear. I was working on a longer more complicated post, which I may post later in the day, but my eye has just been caught by some really really stupid hysteria on twitter. People are complaining that they can see some ragwort by one of the Olympic cycle tracks.

I see some rather hysterical seeming person is so convinced by all the misinformation has just suggested I might be a "troll"on Twitter. I am not. I have spent years studying the science on ragwort and I am offended by the nonsense that is regularly in the horsey and other press. It is a characteristic of scientific minded people like me not to like unscientific nonsense.

 Sally Scheffers ‏@thursleyfarmer

#MTBHadleigh the course looks great but couldn't someone have pulled the mass of ragwort. The roadsides are bad enough but an Olympic venue?

Sondes Place Farm Sondes Place Farm ‏@Sondesplacefarm

@LouNfu @BakersofHP I tweeted this rough pic of the tv the other day showing a bbc LDN journo with ragwort behind !

 Graham Campbell Graham Campbell ‏@gc_skye

Watching women's mountain biking at Olympics. Great viewing, but the ragwort at side of track & in fields very distracting for a crofter!
from Highland, Highland

 VinceNoirElectroStar VinceNoirElectroStar ‏@MightyBooshBoo

@221B_Gemma what is ragwort?

 Tim Thomas Tim Thomas ‏@timofnewbury

the deep yellow of ragwort flowering appears alongside the Women's cross country #MTB cycling course #London2012 #Olympics

 N M Fencing N M Fencing ‏@NM_Fencing

Someone needs to get out and pull some of the ragwort at #HadleighFarm #mountainBiking

Rachael Rachael ‏@B_R_I_L

Lovely great swathes of ragwort at the #Olympics2012 #cycling circuit!! I see they don't know it should be pulled up!!

 Gemma Alonso Holmes Gemma Alonso Holmes ‏@221B_Gemma

The amount of ragwort in the background of the mountain biking is making me want to cry.

 The Lavender Lady The Lavender Lady ‏@LavenderLadyUK

Can't concentrate on the cycling #olympics because I'm mesmerised by all the ragwort #toxic
This just shows the level of hysteria. The plant is not dangerous to people. It is very important ecologically and there isn't even that much risk to livestock.

This all started it seems based on silly and highly exaggerated claims of animal deaths. Yes the plant is poisonous but the problem has been exaggerated. The silly figures were supposedly based on recorded deaths of horses at an animal hospital. I have checked with them and they recorded no cases at all for the five years for which figures were available 2006-2010.

It might just be clear to people because I have a blog on the subject that I might know something about it, but just let me make it clear. I have been studying ragwort and the reaction to it for years. I have other experts from across the world who help me research and support what I am saying.

The Advertising Standards Authority, who are independent and just look at the facts, stopped a whole batch of adverts that were passing on the usual nonsense last year..

These people are panicking over nothing.

It isn't against the law. It isn't a problem there at the Olympics and NO it should not be pulled up.

See this posting for more information

And finally to those tweeting. A future or current employer might judge you by your tweets so please be sensible. It is also AGAINST THE LAW To just pull it up on someone else's land.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Friday, 27 July 2012

Lady Bathhurst wrong again

A few days ago I blogged about  Lady Bathurst getting the law on ragwort wrong on Twitter. My blog and tweet resulted in a flurry of responses which I am addressing in today's posting.
 Interesting - as a classified Noxious Plant, it should be. Up there with squirrels..
I make no apology for hating the stuff. How about silage/hay? The potential damage
to livestock is enormous.
There is a problem in hay. It is the only problem, but the evidence shows it is a rare problem. There are many  things which shouldn't be in hay so hayfield should be properly managed and we know from the research that seed spread isn't the issue. It is land management.

 It actually takes an awful lot of ragwort to poison an animal and we know from the biochemistry that small amounts will likely have no effect at all. There is actually a scientific paper written in French where animals were deliberately poisoned because it was thought, incorrectly, that ragwort might be different in France because of the paucity of poisoning records.
 It is not 'hysteria' it's fact. Try the owner of a horse,
or animal that's died in agony due to ragwort poisoning - & accuse them of being..
 'hysterical' & I'd imagine you'd get a pretty direct reply 

Actually I do refer people to the owner of  horse for serious scientific information which debunks the nonsense. The ragwort myths and facts  website is written by Esther Hegt a horse owner who originally believed that ragwort was as bad as Lady Bathurst thinks until she studied the science and discovered the fuss really is hysteria.
Japanese Knotweed is  another culprit. Agreed, all part of the wider tapestry of wildlife - but allowed to take over & there's a problem.

Ragwort is a native plant.  It is not taking over. There has been a proper scientific government survey. It is actually decreasing.
One plant can reseed 100s of new. Youll never persuade me otherwise. Sorry!

This is normal for plants but on average from the data we know that each ragwort plant produces  less than 1 new plant  as offspring in the UK. The seed spread has been measured  and they do not travel far from the plant.
One last thing. Ragwort has been connected with liver damage in humans.

Oh dear. This old chestnut again. It is a myth. I blogged about this here.

And finally she digs out the Defra guidance  and says this.
Worth a 15 minute read. Learnt a great deal. But can confirm it IS regarded as a 'noxious weed'.
Well I must congratulate Lady Bathurst for at least trying to find a good source of information.
Noxious for example just comes from the Latin word for poisonous. So yes is is on rare occasions poisonous Unfortunately in science arguing from authority like this, is one of the worst possible things to do. The problem is that Defra gets things wrong.

The Defra guidance does contain some good information but it is rather unreliable. The civil servants putting these things together plainly aren't experts, because they get a number of things wrong. They give credence to the skin poisoning myth and believe that it is credible to believe the poor information that is circulated that Liverpool University records lots of cases of poisoning. In fact they should have checked. The latest data from 2006-2010, a five year period shows no horse deaths at all recorded.

Incidentally , public servants getting things wrong is extremely common. I blog about this on a regular basis.
Scottish equivalent of Defra made a real howler of an error. It is documented in this list of ragwort myths and really shows that they knew almost nothing about ragwort toxicology.
Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Ragwort Awareness Week the silly survey again

Fellow blogger John Robertson runs a blog called The Poison Garden. As a man who is highly knowledgeable about plants and their poisons he is quite naturally critical of the British Horse Society's latest silly survey of yellow plants that may or may not be ragwort . He points out some interesting things about the survey

I’ll try not to repeat too much of what I’ve written before but, today, I want to concentrate on how a number becomes a statistic. The BHS press release announcing RAW says that its survey found that 75% of respondents reported seeing animals grazing in fields with the plant present or nearby. That’s fine, it is a perfectly easy to calculate number, assuming you have access to the full survey results as the BHS does.
The problem is that the BHS tries to present that number as evidence of the spread of common ragwort and hopes to use it to build its campaign for further action against the plant. And that is when it becomes a statistic.
The introduction to the RAW survey says;
if you spot any ragwort (emphasis added) close to or in fields grazed by horses, cattle or sheep during Ragwort Awareness Week (22 - 29 July) do take a couple of minutes to report it to us using this survey.’
It specifically asks you to complete the survey only if you have seen what you think was ragwort. If people completed the survey as instructed, then 100% of respondents would have seen a yellow plant in or near fields with grazing animals. That only 75% did doesn’t actually mean anything, because the survey doesn’t mean anything, but, from the BHS’s spinpoint, it means ragwort is not the problem the BHS is trying to make it out to be.
This is a very good point. It this is correct, then an awful lot of people are not even reporting the presence of ragwort. As I wrote in my posting  about  the silly BHS  survey earlier this week, it appears  that the BHS use statistics in the manner of a drunk using a lamppost, for support rather than illumination.

He then goes on to describe a typical case of how the media treat ragwort poisoning. It is worth also pointing out that since there are many other sources of the problem chemicals in ragwort (They are found in 3% of the world's plants) even if you get an animal showing clinical signs of ragwort poisoning there is no way to certainly attribute ragwort as the cause of death.

I saw a local newspaper report about RAW including quotes from a local equestrian facility. These said that ragwort was a serious problem requiring annual control activities and that, ‘last year’ a horse at the facility had died from liver failure resulting from the ingestion of ragwort.

I am genuinely interested to hear about specific cases of liver failure in horses especially if it can be attributed to animals grazing on living plants. For that reason, I tracked down the centre concerned and ask for more information about the case. The reply I received said that they were certain that the animal had not ingested ragwort on their property but had displayed symptoms of liver failure shortly after arriving from elsewhere. In other words, they did not know whether the animal had grazed on Jacobaea vulgaris or been fed dead plant material in poorly produced conserved forage whilst in someone else’s care.

More interestingly, they also said that this incident happened ‘a few years’ ago and not last year as claimed by the newspaper.

They went on to volunteer the information that the business had been operating for 27 years, that ragwort had needed to be removed every one of those years and that they had only lost two horses to liver disease in all that time. They were adamant that neither animal had ingested living ragwort whilst in their care.

There are, I would add, many causes of liver failure in horses, and we know for example that over the five years 2006 to 2010 Liverpool University's Animal hospital treated about  18 cases of liver disease not one single case was recorded as being attributable to ragwort-like effects.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Kirklees Council misleads people

Today's blog posting is about Kirklees Council putting out a bad story about ragwort.
It starts :-

Twenty-two employees volunteered their time to pull this invasive plant on one of Kirklees’ top visitor attractions.
This is highly misleading. Most people with any knowledge of nature will read "invasive plant" as a problematic plant from abroad that is foreign to our ecology and as a result is causing problems. Indeed, I was contacted by one of my regular correspondents who had also picked up on the story because they also felt it was misleading for the same reason.  Ragwort is an ecologically valuable native plant.

The story goes on and prints another falsehood :-

Under the Weeds Act 1959 the occupier of land has to take action to prevent the spread of common ragwort.
This is WRONG . The Act, which was never used until the current bout of hysteria, allows for orders to be made for control. Without an order there is no responsibility on anyone to do anything. This is not affected by any of the subsequent legislation. Here is a full briefing on ragwort law.

If anyone from Kirklees Council is reading this they should know the following. Having studied the plant for many years and the hysteria generated often by people with   financial interest I can confidently say that there is no evidence that fresh ragwort poses a serious risk to livestock. In hay it can be a problem yes, but animals are shaped by nature to have an innate biological sense called taste that stops them eating poisons.
Those that didn't do this well didn't leave so many descendants so their genes were weeded out millions of years ago.  There is also little problem from seed spread. The seeds mostly drop at the base of the plant or fall within a few metres. The Defra guidance does not follow the science. It will have to change at some point. We now know that the main figures they quote as possible for the numbers of animals deaths come from a source that has actually recorded absolutely zero cases in a five year period!. The council  should not listen to the hysteria and not follow the cognitively deficient route of following authority rather than evidence.

The problem with ragwort is that people have made things up. That link on the previous sentence gives a page  with  two websites with proper scientific information from experts.

Printing this kind of misinformation makes the council look bad. It also encourages law breaking. They are repeating the kinds of myths which were stopped in  commercial adverts by the Advertising Standards Authority. Misleading customers is illegal under the latest European legislation. What irony it would be if their own Trading Standards Department were to find themselves up against someone who said."Well I got the information from your website".,

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Ragwort Awareness Week Donkey Sanctuary misleads people

Yesterday I blogged about  Ragwort Awareness Week and the British Horse Society's silly survey.
Today it is about the Donkey Sanctuary who have been encouraging people to do the silly survey and putting out their own poor and misleading information on ragwort.

For example they say.

Ragwort seeds can be dormant in the soil for up to 20 years.
Each plant can produce up to 150,000 seeds with a 70% germination rate.
The seeds would only rarely last that long in the seed bed  and that number of seeds is highly exceptional.
This is like saying that Mountains can be over 5 miles high because Mount Everest is about  that high.
What really betrays them as not understanding the science though, is their use of that  70% germination figure. This is perfectly normal for most plants. It is a a laboratory figure. It does not bear any relationship to how many plants that will grow. On average on plant will produce one new plant. In fact in the UK we know that it is less usually than that, because a properly constructed scientific government survey shows that it is decreasing.

Having earlier given a better description of the law they go on to say:-
Ask the occupier of the land, who is responsible under the Weeds Act 1959, to remove the ragwort.
This is again misleading. There is no automatic responsibility for landowners to control ragwort under the Weeds Act. In fact until the hysteria about ragwort came about the Weeds Act wasn't used and was even considered for repeal.
And finally seemingly as if to show they are being environmentally aware they say.
Cinnabar moth (Callimorpha jacobaea)
Ragwort is a source of food for the cinnabar moth black and yellow striped caterpillars.
The issue about ragwort isn't about the cinnabar moth. Dismissing the whole slate of egregious nonsense that offends the sense of reason of any rational minded person, the environmental issues are the destruction of habitats on roadsides and other sites where a yellow flower which may or may not be ragwort occurs.
The invertebrate interest is so great, covering many dozens of species, both as a primary food source and as one of the best sources of nectar that the Buglife have an entire section of their website devoted to explaining about and countering the nonsense about ragwort.

The real problem  is that these animal lovers in general are too nice. They are nice people who are ruled by their feelings rather than by rational thought. They get caught up in their emotions too much and are not good at distinguishing fact from fiction and thining about what is good information and what is not. We had what seems to have been a good example with a  spokesperson from the British Horse Society making Gaffes on the radio, (At least they are tremendous gaffes to me as I know the subject well.) where she didn't appear to even understand what a theory was.

As a result of this thinking problem , which is documented in research, we get poor science and poor information from many people involved in this issue.

The reality about ragwort is that it is an abuse and mistreatment issue. It is a problem in hay and a problem where animals are starved into desperately eating anything. Elsewhere it isn't a problem. The evidence internationally shows that ragwort poisoning is rare.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Monday, 23 July 2012

Ragwort Awareness Week British Horse Society's silly poor survey

Ragwort Awareness Week is the annual burst of hysteria we get from the British Horse Society.
This year they are running their silly survey again. This is the  "Yellow plant survey". The information given to people doesn't  seem to inform them how to be sure they have seen ragwort. Neither is there any apparent attempt to validate reports.

The BHS has a very poor history of using statistics. Last year a set of companies who were repeating information put out by the BHS had to stop using it in adverts after action by the Advertising Standards Authority. (ASA)

It is also worth pointing out that a leaflet bearing their own logo was actually stopped by the ASA as it got the law wrong. They were still repeating the false information on one of their websites weeks after the story had been in the national press.

Again this year they are equating reports of ragwort with prevalence and implying an increase. They appear to use statistics in the manner that a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination.

The properly done survey by the government using proper measurement methods actually has shown that ragwort is decreasing.

Oh and then there is the fact that they have changed the date of the survey. Last year they wrote.

‘While the results of this survey are important (see below), it’s not enough. By carrying out the survey in the same week annually  (my emphasis), we are hoping to gain an insight into trends in ragwort proliferation and to strengthen the argument to control it.’

It seems that they are more interested in campaigning than the accuracy of the information.. One does wonder if they are moving it into the school holidays to encourage more recording and that next year we will hear again some bad argument that ragwort is increasing.

Only a few months ago I blogged about one of their own spokespeople seemingly making herself look a complete fool in a BBC interview.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Sunday, 22 July 2012

You are wrong Lady Bathurst

Today's blog post concerns a posting made by Lady Bathurst on Twitter. She says.:-
The Glos CC DO need to deal with the ragwort problem.. Noxious weed - its the law to eradicate it 

Ragwort is poisonous but it is only one of many poisonous plants. The toxins in it actually occur in 3% of the world's flowering plants including many here in the UK but we do not hear about these. We know from the scientific literature that ragwort poisoning is rare, but often the perception is different. This is because ragwort has been the subject of a campaign of misinformation. It is incorrect to say that it is the law to eradicate ragwort. The official guidance from Defra actually says the following:-

This code does not seek to eradicate ragwort. Ragwort, as a native plant, is very important for wildlife in the UK. It supports a wide variety of invertebrates and is a major nectar source for many insects.
You may, in extreme circumstances be ordered to control ragwort but in the absence of an order there is  no obligation on anyone to do anything.

In fact the Advertising Standards Authority banned a  British Horse Society leaflet for making that false statement about the law. They also stopped a number of adverts promoting the ludicrously high figures for animal deaths. Here is a briefing on ragwort law.

Most of the fuss about ragwort as I blogged previously is based on things that have, in effect just been made up.

Ragwort is one of the most important plants for nature conservation. The charity Buglife have a section on ragwort on their website

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Saturday, 21 July 2012

David Fursdon's unnecessary worry

The  prime reason I blog about this issue is because all the unnecessary fuss about ragwort offends my sense of reason. I have been studying this plant and the overreaction for many years. I know and understand the science and how to apply good critical thinking skills to data. For anyone who understands the scientific method and lives a rational life the nonsense about ragwort sticks out like a sore thumb. In fact it is very obvious to me that the fuss about ragwort is unnecessary and as I blogged about before in reference to the fuss  they made it all up.

That is , as I said, quite a charge to make, but it is supported by the evidence and when the Advertising Standards Authority, who are independent and look at the evidence, judged the things that I blog about they agreed with me.

The topic for today are the comments made by David Fursdon on twitter. He shows a flower of ragwort and says the following :-

Do you think the staff in St James Park think it's a flower? Luckily cavalry horses are in barracks.
A little googling shows a bit about David Fursdon's background and it is perhaps understandable why he is concerned. There has been a constant barrage of misinformation about ragwort. There have been lurid stories and many websites including official ones contain incorrect information.

As someone else has pointed out ragwort is of course a flower, but I think we can take it that in this context and working within Twitter's character limit he meant a cultivated flower. Here is another point, the alkaloids in ragwort occur in many plants. 3% of all flowering plants in fact and more googleing shows that there are many places in London where plants like Brachyglottis grayii are growing. These used to be in the genus Senecio like ragwort used to be, and are commonly planted ornamental plants, and yes they do contain the same alkaloids. In fact there are some in a park a stones throw from where I am sitting. They pose no risk.

David Fursdon goes on to say:-

It is just in front of Buckingham palace but down below. Not sure how little a horse has to eat to do it damage.

This page on ragwort toxicity will provide the detail. In fact for a horse it is 5% to 25% of body weight and we know from the biochemistry that small doses will have no effect. There are many things which can prevent the alkaloids from harming the liver and there are actually repair mechanisms which can completely undo the harm.

We know very very clearly from the biochemistry, evolution and genetics of taste, that animals are beautifully constructed to avoid eating poisons. Horses are no exception. The only risk comes from hay or animals cruelly deprived of food and starved into eating anything.

There  is as I said a  barrage of lurid nonsense that we regularly see in the horsey press, like this stuff in Horse and Hound or this bunkum from Your Horse Magazine, However, the international data and scientific literature all show that ragwort poisoning is rare. For example, at Liverpool University's veterinary hospital between in the five years between s 2006 and 2010 there was not one single recorded case of ragwort poisoning.

And lest the usual argument be made about isn't it better to be safe and not let any danger be present, I should point this out. David Fursdon's picture contains another plant that the available statistics seem to show is associated with the deaths of  far more horses. Equine Grass Sickness, a malady which research suggests is a form of botulism and which is associated with grass fed horses appears far commoner than ragwort poisoning. This may seem bizarre to some , but this is only because of the hyperbole and nonsense in circulation with regards to ragwort.

As I frequently mention good information on ragwort based on scientific data is available from these websites.

Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts

The second of these sites is written by someone who initially believed the nonsense until she studied the science. She then gathered an international cast of experts to help her write the site.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

More excellent new material from Buglife

As I reported in my last posting buglife has posted some excellent new material on its website.
The site not only contains an good general main page, Ragwort: Noxious weed or precious wildflower?
and a page debunking the nonsense claims of large numbers of horse deaths, Ragwort and Horses
 and  a piece about Ragwort Control and the Law
In amongst these jewels there is also a lovely new document about all the invertebrates with a relationship to ragwort. An awful lot of people think it is just the Cinnabar Moth and that is simply not true.
This is called Ragwort-insect fauna in detail

Bravo Buglife on some excellent work.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Monday, 9 July 2012

Buglife publishes good new information

It is pleasing to see that Buglife- The Invertebrate Conservation Society have revised some existing material and published some new material on ragwort.

Their  page Ragwort: Noxious weed or precious wildflower? is as informative as ever and there is an interesting newer page on Ragwort and Horses  This debunks some of the nonsense figures that are circulating around about the number of horse deaths.

Buglife are an excellent charity and their work on this issue should be highly commended.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Friday, 6 July 2012

City of London gets it wrong on ragwort

The latest piece of misinformation being distributed on ragwort comes from The City of London who have put out a newsletter on Farthing Downs, Coulsdon & Kenley, Commons and Riddlesdown.

It contains a number of interesting points.

We started pulling plants on the Woodplace Farm Fields, on the west side the Downs, where cattle have grazed the grass down so that the ragwort plants stand proud so are more easy to spot.
Well, you know why those plants were standing proud don't you? Because the animals know instinctively not to eat them. Ragwort is only one of many many plants that animals don't eat because they taste bad. There is actually one paper published in France, where, rather cruelly, researchers deliberately fed ragwort to animals.
Why? because there was nothing in the literature to indicate that French ragwort killed animals so they wanted to see if there was something different about it. (There wasn't.)

 Why are we doing this? Ragwort is a poisonous plant to livestock and horses, although cattle and horses ignore it when it’s growing if there’s something else for them to eat.
That's exactly it! Animals don't eat it fresh unless they are being cruelly starved into eating anything in desperation. They go on.

But if ragwort is cut and dried and fed to animals in hay they can’t tell it’s harmful and can be poisoned.
 Correct. That is the only other time it is a problem. This land isn't used for hay though!

Ragwort produces lots of seed that’s blown about by the wind so it spreads easily.
This is where the ignorance and myth starts coming in. Ragwort seeds are only blown short distances by the wind. We have the studies on Ragwort seed dispersal to show this. Furthermore, they will only grow into plants if the conditions are right. It is a plain fact that, on average,  only one seed per plant will grow into a new one and since the most recent government survey shows that ragwort is decreasing, it will be on average less than this. These commons and downs are no serious  risk to animals and no serious risk to hay fields.

As part of our Stewardship Agreement with Natural England for the conservation
management of the Commons we’re obliged to control it
 Shame on Natural England then for imposing a condition which is not supported by the scientific evidence.
I have recently been shown some interesting stuff from Natural England which may be the subject of a further posting. Once I am in full possession of the facts on it, It would appear that at least some of their staff are rather ignorant about ragwort, but shame on them for damaging nature conservation interests for no reason.
and it’s a notifiable agricultural weed.
 Here we go again! This is a myth There is no such thing as a notifiable agricultural weed in UK law.
This is a serious myth because it makes people report the weed as dangerous because they thing it is "notifiable" when it is not. It is all part of the hysteria which is generated over this plant and it is really unacceptable for official bodies to repeat this nonsense.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Monday, 18 June 2012

Mob mentality of True Believers

There is a discussion on the Horse and Hound forum, where ragwort expert Esther Hegt has tried valiantly to explain to them about the hysteria and myths  surrounding the plant.She gets many responses that are just  full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Esther, a keen horsewoman, is known to people working on ragwort for her towering intellect. She has written a magnificent website with the help of quite a stellar cast of experts. If you want to know anything about the plant Esther will have a reference or a scientific  paper to hand.

Unfortunately, this intelligent woman is casting pearls before swine on that forum. There are  some there who are  "True Believers" in the hysteria and who dismiss her out of hand. I know the regular scientific readers of this blog will be holding their heads  in horror as a time after time one   ignoramus after another  repeats the endless ragwort myths and uses poor cognitive skills to do so. Ignoramus is the word all right. It comes from a the name of a  character in a play and means "we don't know" in Latin.

It is perhaps understandable that some people.think that reading things on-line or in newspapers or magazines is the correct way to get information and there has been some really bad information in the horsey press. Like this stuff from your horse magazine a few years ago

The reality of course is that  the international consensus is that ragwort poisoning  is quite  rare.
The only significant problems being caused by hay and starvation. Liverpool University, for example, tells me that despite having records of treating a number of horses with liver damage at their  animal hospital, they have no record of any case of diagnosed ragwort poisoning at all for the five year period 2006-2010.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Friday, 15 June 2012

RSPCA frighten people with hysteria and misinformation

Yesterday I blogged about the RSPCA campaign in Eastern England which was scaring people with poor information. Today I am blogging about a pretty egregious example of frightening people. Th4y are not giving out the false story that children are at risk.

An article in the Ashbourne News contains much of the poor stuff from yesterday but it also contains these quotes.
“We are certain that if the animals’ owners were aware of the dangers, then they would remove this weed immediately"
 Actually this is the kind of certainty that is often the problem. The certainty of ignorance. There is as I have mentioned before a phenomenon called the Dunning Kruger Effect where people lacking in knowledge are overconfident about things. Owners who are knowledgeable about biology may well realise quickly that animals are designed by nature and evolution to avoid eating poisons.

“We hope to raise awareness across the region of the dangers and will be posting leaflets in all local vets and drawing it to the attention of landowners.” While ragwort should be dug up and burnt in late June, once the weed starts to flower, some farmers have admitted they are “unconcerned” about the effects of the plant and refuse to dedicate time to removing it, despite it’s potentially harmful effects on their livestock and young children."
Farmers may actually know what they are talking about. They may actually spot hysteria when they see it.

Now this is a really bad example of spreading hysteria. Now they are telling people that their children are potentially at risk  This is really questionable for a supposedly respected charity to do this. There is no evidence at all that children are put at risk in anyway from the presence of ragwort. There probably are far more dangerous things in every house than ragwort.

This is another classic example of the problem of people repeating things that they feel should be true on the basis of flimsy evidence. Feeling type people tend, some of the psychological theories tell us, not to be good at the rational thinking needed for a good understanding of what constitutes a rationally establishable scientific fact.
Oh yes, and to top it all the picture on the website isn't correct. It isn't Common Ragwort, the plant in question, but Oxford Ragwort a plant of waste ground, and cracks in the pavement!

As ever there are pages of good information at
Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts
The second site is written by top class  European ragwort expert Esther Hegt who has gathered a stellar cast of international experts to help her explain the science.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Thursday, 14 June 2012

RSPCA distributes poor information on ragwort

All over the press in Eastern England over the last few days  there has been a poor and misleading story about ragwort which is the result of publicity by the RSPCA. I will be distributing this post to the press so in case anyone wonders I am not just some guy with a blog saying things. I have been studying this plant and the hysteria around it for over a decade and I can back up everything I am saying with solid reference to the scientific literature and statistics.
Last year I got a load of ragwort adverts stopped by the Advertising Standards Authority who backed me rather than the adverts which basically derived from the kind of hysteria which is being put out in these articles. If you are from the press and want to know more Buglife - The Invertebrate Conservation Society
took press released this. Advertising Standards Authority crack down on misleading information about Ragwort - a British wildflower

The articles are all very similar so this gives us a good idea what the press release looks like.They create panic where none is needed.

For example let's take the one in the Louth Leader

This creates an entirely misleading impression.

Just a small intake of ragwort over a long period of time can be just as damaging as a large intake on a single occasion
What we know from the biochemistry here is that this is not necessarily  true at all. The stuff in the plants actually isn't toxic, it has to be converted into a toxic product via processes in the gut and the liver. There are a whole series of mechanisms which reduce the amount of actual toxins formed. Then there are also repair mechanisms which sort the problem. I blogged about it some time ago. At some point I really need to write this up in technical detail for my main website but for now look at this previous blog entry for a bit more detail

Branch chairman Sally Phillips said: “It is heartbreaking when we see fields covered with this potentially lethal plant and it is growing next to where horses or livestock are happily grazing.
This creates a real impression of urgent danger. Horses, like all other animals have evolved to avoid poisons.
Ragwort poisoning is rare. The only real problem is if it is in hay, when it loses its taste or if animals are starved into eating absolutely anything out of desperation.

There are claims that hundreds or thousands or horses die every year and these are really at the route of the problem here. The RSPCA should as a proper charity check their facts. I have, using Freedom of Information requests and other techniques I get the actual statistics. These have no basis in establishable facts.

I blogged about this in this blog entry recently.They made it up you know!

This is what appears in another newspaper

Ragwort plants can produce up to 150,000 seeds which can remain dormant in the soil for up to 20 years.
Th is is real exaggeration after 20 years there are unlikely to be many seeds that survive. and the seeds figure is like saying men can grow up to 8 foot tall.  It is possible but rare.
These are some real figures from the research for normal plants at 8 different sites

Horse and livestock owners that find ragwort on their land are urged to move the animal to another area immediately.

This is real hysteria. As I said this isn't how poisoning occurs. The animals know instinctively to avoid it.
 To put this in context, both problems are rare, but it would appear from the available statistics that Equine Grass Sickness, which has complicated origins but which associated with grazing on grass rather than using hay, causes more horse deaths. Therefore it seems that the grass in those fields poses a greater risk

Let's not forget that ragwort is an important plant for much wildlife and that there are animals that rely on it entirely for survival. The RSPCA should be thinking about them too and if the newspaper articles correctly reflect what they say should take more care to check its facts.

It is also important to realise that despite being a common plant ( althought the evidence does actually show a decline in its abundance) there are a whole range of wild animals that rely on ragwort as a food and nectar source and we know from key elements of modern ecological science that loosing any habitat patch from within a group of habitat patches or loosing connectivity between habitat patches can have a wide ranging effect on a species beyond just the local damage. Indeed, one of  the standard textbooks on this branch of modern science actually has an entire chapter on the interactions of ragwort. As ever there are pages of good information at
Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts
The second site is written by top class  European ragwort expert Esther Hegt who has gathered a stellar cast of international experts to help her explain the science.

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Cancer scare debunked

In this morning's routine trawl for items on ragwort. I came across this posting on a discussion on breast cancer.
Some poor sufferers were wondering if years of pulling ragwort had caused their cancers.
This is another example of one of the pernicious rumours that cause me to blog about this subject. I could blog every single day in the summer about something or other that is incorrect that is being said about ragwort.

As regular followers of this blog will know whilst ragwort can be poisonous, much of the fuss about ragwort is made up and the Advertising Standards Authority has forced the removal of false claims from adverts.

I have every genuine sympathy with those poor ladies on that forum. Breast cancer is awful. It killed my grandmother so I do not criticise them for wondering.  The problem is certain people campaigning and promoting their products which causes people to worry unnecessarily.

I covered the ragwort skin absorption myth in another posting some time ago. It is one of the most popular postings on this entire blog according to the logs. So people must be worried about the myth.

That blog entry covers the origin of the myth and its debunking by Esther Hegt  a horse enthusiast and a leading European ragwort expert and  Dr Pieter Pelser, a world authority on ragwort with a PhD on the plant.

Basically it is like this. Ragwort's alkaloids are very poorly absorbed through the skin. If they are they are not in a toxic form and will be filtered out and excreted. The alkaloids only get changed into a toxic form if they pass through the gut after being eaten.
Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Double Dutch Nonsense About Ragwort

As I have mentioned before because the people of The Netherlands speak such good English that they have picked British hysteria up from the internet  and have repeated it. The following are translations of an item from the Dutch website .Paardnatuurlijk and it is full of the usual nonsense.

It says about the toxins in ragwort

There is no "safe level" within which an animal can get, the poison (Glycosides) is permanently stored in the liver and brings enormous damage. Every intake, however small, is included by the liver and "so it counts."
There is one howler of an error which jumps out clearly. The chemicals are alkaloids not glycosides. This is a pretty clear indication that the person writing the information hasn't studied the subject well.

These chemicals are not stored in the liver. It is possible for damage to be cumulative but only if each individual dose is sufficient. So it isn't true that every intake, however small counts. There are a whole range and factors involved which can destroy the alkaloids, which are actually non-toxic until they are converted inside the animal. I blogged in a bit more detail about this last year when a vet group were directing people to a daft website. ( Yes, a vet group. Vets can and do get things wrong about ragwort!)

The leaflet continues

2002: In England  6500 horses died from  consumption of  Ragwort.
This is of course balderdash!  It is based on junk science although the British Horse Society were pushing it for years  Last year several companies had to remove the claim from their websites in the UK because of action by the Advertising Standards Authority.

One last irritating point, it wasn't "England" anyway, but the UK. There is a difference which people from outside the UK often don't understand. The UK ( The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is made up of four constituent nations. England is but one of them, the others are Scotland., Northern Ireland and Wales. The latter nation is from where I am blogging.  In Wales we even have our own distinct Celtic language which is totally incomprehensible to English speakers, Yr iaith Gymraeg. ( The Welsh language.)


Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

Thursday, 17 May 2012

They made it all up you know!

Notice to the reader : There are some people who attack me personally about this blog . Please see the notes at the end of the article after you have read it  which explain why you should trust what I am saying.

Subsequently to writing this blog entry I have become someone who is sufficiently respected as an expert that he is allowed to sign letters to the press on behalf of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. ( Scotland has an independent organisation.)

I should say before I start this that ragwort is poisonous. No one denies that. It contains chemicals that are toxic and that are also found in 3 % of all flowering plants. It is a problem in hay and where animals are starved into eating it in desperation. This is not what a blog about. I blog about the hysteria that leads to environmental damage.

I should also before I start say quite clearly that none of this is about people lying. People often believe quite odd and incorrect things because they have been told them or they have misunderstood something . The usual cause is poor critical thinking skills often combined with a lack of knowledge of science.

There has been a need for a while for a posting that I could point people to which sums up why I blog on this subject. Ragwort is the subject of hysteria and is not the problem it is made out to be. The problem is essentially one that has been invented.

There is a well-known hoax about a substance called DHMO which is described as being present in cancer cells, used in nuclear power stations, killing hundreds of people a year, etc. This is actually a true description of the substance presented in an inaccurate way. DHMO is Di-Hydrogen MonOxide or water. Its true properties are overexaggerated and it has even led for some politicians to call for DHMO to be banned. It is very similar to the propaganda about ragwort as it is true it is poisonous . Poisoning is rare, however, and in the case of ragwort, they have even invented new things about it.

To say that the problem  of ragwort is invented sounds quite some charge to make . That people, organisations and public bodies have been making a fuss about an invented problem. It is however, supported by the evidence.

It is important to realise that anyone can make silly claims and publicise them. Debunking them however, is time consuming. A scientifically minded person has to have evidence for everything, and there are a lot of superficially plausible sounding myths out there. It has taken years of work for me to get through all of them Documenting every myth and error. I started with visits to the British Library. It is a magnificent world class source of information. It is a  national treasure, but even they failed me on occasions. One crucial paper on seed dispersal had apparently been discarded or something and wasn't available. Fortunately a foreign expert had a copy. It takes a lot of work to examine all of these data. The propagandists however, do not appear to have these scruples. Their literary muse is not fettered by such considerations as ensuring they have the correct facts.

It is also quite important for those who have not been following it to understand just how daft some of the claims are. We have been told that it kills hundreds or even thousands of horses a year. We are told it kills people. It is poisonous to the touch and can give you cancer if you do. We are told by the BBC no less that it is dangerous to dogs ( It is poisonous to dolphins as well as dogs but they don't eat it either!)

 These are just a few of the falsehoods that have been promoted. I can for a large part of the year find something on almost a daily basis that is being publicised about ragwort that is incorrect. Last year there was a letter in the Daily Telegraph that I blogged on. It was given pride of place as the only illustrated letter . It told us that this native plant was an illegal foreign invader,  and that it poisoned people who breathed in its seeds  etc.etc. I blogged about it as Bonkers letter in the Daily Telegraph. I really do try to avoid emotive language in discussing science but bonkers is absolutely correct. The only thing that seemed to be correct is that the author said there was a lot of ignorance about ragwort.

But surely you ask this couldn't extend to Parliament? Surely in our democracy we wouldn't create an Act of Parliament based on ignorance would we?

Let's look at some of the discussions about the Ragwort Control Act, which fortunately doesn't force the control of ragwort as was its original intent.
During this process Baroness Masham steered the bill through the House of Lords and boy did she say some silly things. She introduced herself  as a Vice-president of the British Horse Society. This is an organisation that has been central to dispersing incorrect information and their claims have fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority  code as I blogged about before.

These are some of the things she said.

 Ragwort has become a scourge in the countryside and has increased alarmingly in the past few years.
 Actually there has been a government survey. It shows ragwort decreasing

I am told that each plant can produce between 150,000 and 250,000 seeds that, once airborne, can travel up to 10 miles.
Even the 150,000 figure would be very exceptional let alone 250,000!
Also the Advertising Standards Authority, who are impartial and just look at the evidence, banned an advert making the claim of just 150,000 seeds being produced by each plant!

Let's look how crazy that 10 miles figure is. Ragwort seeds don't have wings they have little parachutes. This means that their general direction is downwards.  To travel 10 miles in the air they would have to have something propelling them upwards all along that distance. The wind does not in normal and typical circumstances blow up from the ground. While of course there are going to be exceptional dispersal events,  these are not significant for a quite common native plant whose seeds are going to be present in lots of places anyway. We do actually know how far ragwort seeds travel.  Most fall at the base of the plant the others travel just a few metres.

Again it doesn't matter really about seed dispersal because the plant will only grow where the conditions are right. If you don't want ragwort don't create the conditions for it to grow. The real problem here is that it causes miles of roadside to have every vaguely ragged plant or yellow flower exterminated for no sensible reason. I heard only this morning about someone wanting advice about her yellow ragwort flowers. They were actually buttercups!

It is estimated that about 500 equines die each year, but that number will rise unless something positive is done.
This is actually a figure with no basis whatsoever. There is no test that can confirm ragwort poisoning. The set of problem chemicals occur in many other British plants and 3% of plants globally. Then significantly the characteristic microscopic changes in the liver that are diagnostic have other causes including toxins from moulds that commonly grow on damp feedstuffs.

A freedom of information request to the ultimate source of this well-known myth shows that in the last 5 years for which data are available 2006-2010 they have recorded  precisely ZERO  possible cases. NOT ONE!!
This is a central part of what I mean by saying the problem has been made up! 

We also now know the statistical method under which this figure appears to have been generated. It seems to be fundamentally flawed and to break the rules of proper statistics. 

The same ultimate source has also claimed, in print, that our common ragwort is a serious problem in South Africa. The experts there tell me that they have no record of the plant even growing there!

 So we have someone getting an Act of Parliament passed with false or inaccurate information.

The same problems are repeated in DEFRA guidance, local council websites and so on ad nauseam, as I show regularly with this blog.

The misinformation continues. I blogged recently about the British Horse Society using a spokesperson who made a number of serious gaffes on radio.

You may ask well, surely even one case of an animal suffering should be avoided? This is a matter of where you concentrate your efforts. If you concentrate them on a really non-existent problem like ragwort then you neglect other problems that are worse. There is a malady called Equine Grass Sickness. It is an odd and unusual condition that kills horses that eat grass rather than hay. The available statistics show that it is much commoner than ragwort poisoning. It would seem from the evidence that grass is a worse problem than ragwort. (I should add at this point that Equine Grass Sickness is a complicated problem and that the research indicates that it may be more complicated rather than just grass in the diet, but there are other diet related problems that are much commoner and deserve more attention than all the moral panic about ragwort.)

As ever, good information can be found at these websites.

Ragwort Facts
Ragwort Myths and Facts
Ragwort the Sense and the Nonsense

The middle of these links goes to the site of Esther Hegt who was originally a member of a ragwort extermination group in the Netherlands where ragwort hysteria has spread from the UK. She is a really quite brilliantly intelligent person and she asked some experts and did her own research. Like everyone else who looks at them  properly she saw the hoaxes for what they were.

Finally, before my explanatory notes below ,here is a video with Matt Shardlow the Chief Executive of Buglife telling us all on the BBC about the hysteria. Buglife are an excellent organisation and have been  a lot of help.

The author frequently uses this blog entry to explain things about ragwort. Unfortunately there are people in social media circles who make clearly false accusations that the content of the posting is false, misleading or unbalanced. You frequently find, on researching it, that  they are members  of organisations criticised here. Often they may have the kind of cognitive or mental processing issues I mention above. The statements here are the product of over a decade of study helped by an international network of supporting scientific experts.
If you should have any doubts as to my integrity or honesty I would direct you to this page in the Daily Telegraph where the I am signatory to a letter. The three other signatories are leading figures in British conservation circles representing some of our foremost conservation organisations, with whom I work on this issue. These knowledgeable experts  evidently believe I have good judgement and integrity. (The letter was a response to the "bonkers letter" about which I write above.)

Ragwort Hysteria latest entries