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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 15th August 2011

Senecio jacobaea, ragwort

Senecio jacobaea, ragwort

Senecio jacobaea, ragwort

The hysteria about ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, rolls on so I’ve returned to it even though I’ve written about it three times before. Here, here and here. I started out thinking I would make this a photo blog with just a little new information but it hasn’t worked out like that. Still, the pictures, all taken today on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, are to show that ragwort is a magnet for a wide range of insects and, although I’m not a bug man, I can recognise bees, wasps, hover flies and even a common green bottle fly.

There’s a saying, I’m not sure who coined it, perhaps, it was me, which goes something like ‘You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts’. By this, it means you can say that you think anything you like but that doesn’t mean that what you think is factual. And, furthermore, you can’t invent facts to support your opinion.

Robin Page is a farmer who writes about ‘country matters’ for the Daily Telegraph. Last week, he wrote a column entitled ‘The March of the Ragwort Ravers’. In it, he expressed his opinion that ragwort should be removed wherever it occurred and spoke of ‘ragwort groupees’ who make claims about the plant without understanding the harm it does. So far, just his opinion.


But then he said that it is illegal to grow it, which is absolutely untrue. I pointed it out in the comments and, when another commenter said I didn’t know what I was talking about I quoted the Code of Practice to show that it is not illegal to have ragwort growing.

I would give a link but, the Telegraph has removed it, and all reference to it, from its website. It would be nice if newspapers had the integrity to leave their errors in place with a note pointing out that they were wrong but, the Telegraph is not alone in deleting content and pretending it never existed.

But, one very good thing came out of the online discussion following the article because I got to know a remarkable Dutch woman called Esther Hegt who runs a website about ragwort. Obviously, her main site is in Dutch but there is quite a lot of information on her English site.  What makes Esther remarkable, to me, is that she is a horse owner who read things about ragwort and became very concerned about the health of her horses.

Senecio jacobaea, ragwort

Senecio jacobaea, ragwort

Senecio jacobaea, ragwort

But, something didn’t seem right. The stories about how ragwort spreads and how many animals die as a result of eating it didn’t seem to line up with her own experience and what had happened to her and other friends who had horses. So, she began looking into the subject in more detail and she wasn’t afraid to go to scientists and ask them for their information.

The result is a website brimming with facts. Not Esther’s own facts, just facts all of which can be verified by referring to the source material. Esther’s opinion is that it is up to horse owners to learn the facts about ragwort and then apply those to pasture management and the provision of feed at times when grazing is not available.

In the Netherlands, it seems, Esther has become a sort of ragwort celebrity and people contact her via her site and send her plant samples to check if they are Senecio jacobaea. (Note that her site uses the synonym Jacobaea vulgaris which is the preferred name, nowadays.) She tells me that a lot of the plants she is sent are not Senecio jacobaea and many of them are not even in the genus.

And, she points out, this makes the British Horse Society survey, which does not ask for any evidence for identification, completely unreliable as people can report any yellow flower mistakenly assuming it is ragwort.  

Here’s her Dutch site  and the online translators seem to do a pretty good job with turning it into English, though, as above, much of the material is on the English site. Online translation might be helpful, however, when it comes to the picture gallery  containing a lot of photos of plants that do contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids plus many photos of completely innocent plants that get mistaken for ragwort. And a good selection of pictures of a wide variety of insects on ragwort that debunks assertions this week that talk of ragwort being attractive to insects is wrong.

I bow in appreciation of Esther’s determination not just to accept what she was told but to find out the truth for herself. Now, if only we can get more people to do that when it comes to ricin we might remove another irrational fear.