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.
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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.

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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".,

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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