Ragwort

Redwings continues to try and help horse owners and land owners understand the serious risks ragwort presents to equines. With more than 1,000 acres of our own land, Redwings knows how tenacious this plant is and that it can and will spring up anywhere. The key is to know what to look for and deal with it quickly using the correct tools.

You can download our ragwort factsheet here.


What is the problem with ragwort?

Ragwort contains highly toxic pyrrolizidene alkaloids which permanently damage the liver of many animals. Equines are particularly susceptible to ragwort toxins and in the worst cases ragwort poisoning can lead to total liver failure and an unpleasant death.

The liver damage caused by ragwort is often permanent and incurable. Although the liver is very resilient and can function even after two thirds of the organ has been destroyed without any apparent symptoms, the more liver has been damaged through a horse's life, the less reserve there is left. Damage to more than 65% of the liver will bring on the symptoms of serious disease, often very suddenly, and by this time there is often little that can be done to prevent the fatal consequences of liver failure.

The symptoms of ragwort poisoning can occur anywhere between a few weeks to years after ingestion. They include: odd behaviour, loss of co-ordination, and photosensitization. Photosensitization is where the liver cannot filter out harmful substances in plants, which then accumulate in the skin and react with sunlight. The horse is left with painful sores and blisters. 

 
Amigo was found abandoned suffering the effects of photosensitization 

•    Unlike many poisonous plants, ragwort toxins are not killed during the drying process of haymaking. In fact, because the plant loses its bitter taste and becomes more palatable as it dries, ragwort can be even more dangerous if it is fed to animals in this way.

•    The number of ragwort plants in the UK currently increases by a huge percentage each year. This is not surprising when you consider that each ragwort plant can produce between 4,760 and 150,000 seeds. Each seed has a 70% chance of germinating. The seeds can also survive dormant in the soil for up to 20 years.

•    Research has shown that the early seedling stage of the ragwort plant is also extremely dangerous to livestock. This is because the single leaf produced by the seedling is easily taken in and ingested with a mouthful of grass. Once the plant has reached the rosette stage, the number of leaves makes it more identifiable, and animals will be more likely to spit it out owing to its bitter taste. However, broken or discarded pieces of the plant can then die and become much less bitter, meaning horses can easily re-eat them again as they graze the area. 

 
A ragwort seedling lurks amongst grass and clover.

•    Vet Derek Knottenbelt at Leverhulme Veterinary Hospital in Liverpool is a leading figure in the campaign to take ragwort and its devastating effects seriously. He is at the forefront of research into developing a reliable test to link liver damage specifically to ragwort toxins, which at the moment is impossible to distinguish from other causes of liver disease in the living animal. If you ever have the chance to see Derek Knottenbelt speak on the subject, don't miss it! 
 


The bright yellow flowers of ragwort in bloom are deceptively cheerful. Roadsides are often covered with them.

•    In 2004 the laws protecting farm livestock from ragwort poisoning were updated to include horses and ponies. Although it is an individual’s responsibility in the first instance to request that a landowner controls ragwort which affects their animals, you can easily make a formal complaint to Defra.

•    Ragwort can also be toxic to humans, albeit to a lesser extent. We would advise extreme caution when dealing with the plant. Wear sturdy waterproof gloves whenever dealing with the plant and keep your arms and legs covered. A facemask is also recommended to avoid inhalation of the ragwort pollen. Skin which comes into contact with ragwort should be thoroughly washed with warm soapy water, rinsed and dried.

What do I look for?
The best time to look for and deal with ragwort on your land is the Spring. Rosettes appear which are quite distinctive. It is vital that ragwort is dealt with before it flowers to prevent seeds being distributed, which will ensure you and your horse have a much bigger ragwort problem in the coming years.
 

It is important not to simply bend down and try and pull up the ragwort rosette with bare hands when you spot it. Not only is the plant toxic to humans as well and can be taken in through the skin, but the roots are very tough and will re-grow if left behind. Read on to find safer, more effective means of dealing with ragwort.

How should I deal with ragwort?
Good pasture management is key to preventing ragwort growth. Ragwort thrives on poorly managed land. Do not overgraze land, or allow it to become poached. Regularly clearing up droppings from paddocks helps to keep pasture in good condition. 

Defra have produced a Code of Practice on Preventing the Spread of Ragwort under the Ragwort Control Act 2003. You can download it here.

To deal with individual ragwort plants, by far the best tool is the specially designed ragwort fork (that has central tines, which will help ensure that all the root can be removed. To make life easier, try and use the fork when the ground is relatively soft, after a spell of rain for example. This will also help encourage all the root to come up, rather than getting broken off and left behind. Always, always wear thick gardening gloves to handle the plant.

Spot spraying can be quick and effective for lots of plants that are springing up in a small paddock. Check the operating instructions thoroughly and use whatever protective equipment is advised. Also check details of the spray you use very carefully and make sure you can keep animals away from the area for the necessary period after treatment.

Even after ragwort has died, it is still toxic, so it is essential to dispose of plants properly after digging them up. Don't ever put them in a compost heap! The best means of disposal is to let them dry out a little somewhere safe and then burn them.

Larger scale problems
Where ragwort has really taken hold of a piece of land, digging up individual plants can be an daunting task. Some horse owners organise an annual ragwort party, where friends and family get together to get digging and are rewarded with food and drink at the end of it!

Professional spraying is the only other really practical option and it can be simpler and just as cost effective to ask a professional company to spray the land for you. Many of the companies that offer this service have small tractors and special spraying equipment that mean they can cover large areas surprisingly quickly.

Many of the companies are so confident in the effectiveness of their treatment that they will offer to re-spray for free if any ragwort does start to grow back after their visit. The internet is a good way to look for companies that offer this service, as are notice boards in agricultural and equestrian supply outlets. Local councils should also have details of contractors as they are responsible for clearing large areas of their own land from ragwort. It may also be worth asking local farmers whether they know of local people who offer a spraying service.

What if I don't do anything?
There are laws in place to protect equines from ragwort poisoning. This means that not only are landowners who have horses grazing on their land obliged to keep ragwort under control, but so are neighbouring landowners. If someone is working hard to protect equines by clearing ragwort but seeds are constantly blowing across from the next field, they can do something about it. The first step would naturally be to talk to the neighbour about ragwort and ask politely if they could treat the ragwort on their land. If these channels of communication do not lead to action, you can make a formal complaint to Natural England who work on behalf of Defra under the Weeds Act 1959. You can download a complaint form and find contact details here

The Animal Welfare Act (2006) also helps protect equines through new legal clauses which make it easier to remove equines from a situation where they are likely to suffer, rather than having to wait until suffering has taken place, which was the case under previous legislation. This means that an equine left in a ragwort infested field, with little to eat apart from the toxic plant, has the potential to be dealt with by welfare agencies and leaves the owner open to prosecution.

Download our ragwort factsheet here.

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