Rural: Nature Note

Not before time, landowners in the Midlands have launched a mass attack on that noxious weed ragwort, which grows strongly on poor soil, and most noticeably on motorway embankments. While alive it is not much of a threat; it has a rather harsh smell, and is not attractive to herbivores. But once it is cut and wilting it becomes both palatable and highly toxic to cattle, sheep and horses, causing irreversible liver damage in any animal that eats a few pounds of it.

Ragwort has taken such a grip in Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire that members of the Country Landowners' Association have started a campaign against it under the slogan "Rout Ragwort '98", supported by the Highways Agency, English Nature and various county councils. The weed is by no means easy to eradicate, for a single plant can produce 150,000 seeds, which are distributed by the wind and can lie dormant in the soil for up to 20 years before they germinate.

Young plants can be knocked out with herbicides, but spraying is liable to exterminate desirable wild flowers as well, and fields treated with weedkillers cannot be used for grazing for several weeks. Cutting is useless, because the ragwort's roots just grow again more strongly. The best answer is the most laborious - to pull or dig plants out one by one, roots and all, and then to burn every scrap.

Duff Hart-Davis