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Thursday, 15 April, 1999, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Killer weed faces onslaught
horse
Ragwort means a slow and painful death for grazing animals
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Several countryside groups have launched a campaign to try to rid Britain of a poisonous weed, the common ragwort.

The campaign includes the Country Landowners' Association, the British Horse Society and the Animal Health Trust.

They say ragwort - known in some areas, because of its smell, as Stinking Nanny - has been "multiplying dramatically" in recent years.

The plant is highly toxic to horses and cattle, and often to sheep, though some breeds can safely eat it early in the season.

One farmer reports having lost a bison to ragwort.

In most grazing animals it causes progressive and irreversible liver damage, which is invariably fatal.

Risk to human health

The poisoning may take years to kill an animal. Richard Jacobs, of the AHT, said: "The liver has an incredible capacity to use its reserves.

"An animal can go on for years without the owner realising anything is wrong.

"Then it may start being lethargic, going off its food, yawning a lot - and by then it's too late."

There is also a risk to humans, and the campaigners say anyone digging up ragwort should wear gloves, as the poison can penetrate the skin.

The other method they recommend is to spray young plants with a widely-used herbicide, 2,4-D.

The Pesticides Trust says there are "major data gaps" on 2,4-D's effects on human health and the aquatic environment.

Ragwort is prolific, with each plant producing more than 100,000 seeds.

Of these, about 70% germinate the following spring, while the rest lie dormant for many years.

The plant is used for food by the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth, and many butterflies, including the white-letter hairstreak, drink its nectar.

A problem recognised

But Butterfly Conservation says it agrees that ragwort needs to be controlled.

"We think it would be impractical and unlikely to try to eradicate ragwort from the face of the countryside.

"But we do not oppose reasonable control, and we control it on our own land."

In some countries there have been successful experiments with biological control of ragwort.

The use of moths and beetles in parts of Tasmania has led to the destruction of 85% of the plants.

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