Pontifications on Poison
Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.
Monday 15th August 2011
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.
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
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.