The Future for Ragwort Munchers

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Cinnabar caterpillar consuming ragwort leaves

What’s the problem in letting ragwort grow unmolested in a field? Ragwort has gained a reputation, bordering on the extreme, as a killer of grazing animals. Is this reputation justified?  I think not! I’ve heard it said that ragwort will completely invade a field if left unchecked. Well…will it? Yes! In a field where the ground conditions are right, ragwort can flourish.

I like ragwort! I like that ragwort is a top ten nectar producing plant. I like its myriad of bright yellow, sunny, happy-faced flowers! Am I worried that ragwort might poison the marsh pedigree herd? Well, no! I’m not one for taking unnecessarily risks either. A grazing animal will not readily eat bitter-tasting, poisonous ragwort unless it is desperately hungry, and it would have to be very desperate to eat enough to kill it. Most humans know that drinking seawater exacerbates thirst. If a person drinks too much seawater, they will likely vomit. I’ve watched marsh calves nibble ragwort, and they very quickly spit it out and perform a short dance; they are quick learners. I don’t want to risk poisoning the marsh cattle with ragwort, and I don’t want to deprive cinnabar caterpillars of there essential food plant. I accept there is a danger that cattle might eat ragwort if there is absolutely nothing else to eat, but there would be much mooing, bellowing, and dissatisfaction within the herd before this happens. There is a risk that cattle might eat ragwort if it has been cut and dried: it might be less bitter then and still poisonous. So don’t cut and leave ragwort scattered over a field, and don’t feed ragwort riddled hay. From a conservation stand point, I view ragwort as a resource for reasons specified in an earlier post. Cattle have grazed amongst ragwort for millennia: it’s not a new phenomenon.

The trick is to control ragwort by pulling it just before it seeds. But then I’ve been told that pulling one ragwort plant will leave many small pieces of snapped root system in the soil which will regenerate and produce more ragwort plants the following year. Am I being presented with a no-win situation? I don’t think so. My experience is that pulling ragwort, and disposing of it properly, out of the reach of grazing animals, reduces the number of plants the following year. I’ve seen lots of examples of fields filled with ragwort nodding in the breeze, but is this because no action is taken to control the plant growing in ground conditions that are probably absolutely right for their proliferation? Highly likely, I think!

On Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve, calves can stay with their mothers for years, and will suckle for as long as mum lets them, or until mum is pregnant again, and even then they might sneak the odd suckle when the opportunity arises. It’s the mother that teaches the calves what to eat and what not to eat, and this is how it has been for as long as grazing animals have existed I suspect.

The speed at which voracious cinnapillars are devouring marsh ragwort at the moment, might result in some of the plants not requiring pulling as they won’t be able to produce viable seeds.

Cinnabar moths, now regarded as a vulnerable species, have declined by 83% during the last 35 years according to the “The State of Britain’s Larger Moths” report.

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11 Responses to The Future for Ragwort Munchers

  1. Anne says:

    You make a powerful case – very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Murtagh's Meadow says:

    I like ragworth too for all the reasons you outline. In my meadow, i manage the same way you do, by pulling some but not all of the plants before they drop seed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emily Scott says:

    Thanks for saying this, I enjoy looking at all the pollinators in a field of ragwort. And the flowers look so cheery.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jbcamera says:

    Very interesting and informative. I have at least two toxic plants which, which despite my best efforts, like to invade my pasture, but have never caused a problem for my well-fed horses. Let’s not be too quick to wage war on plants until we understand them better. I applaud your balanced approach.

    Like

  5. Pingback: Some Poisonous, Injurious and Invasive Plants of Wilden Marsh | The Wilden Marsh Blog

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