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Observations placeholder

Tree, Isabella - Wilding - Ragwort



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is native to the Eurasian continent. In Europe, it is widely spread from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and is naturally abundant in Britain and Ireland.

Standing generally around three feet tall, it produces dense, flat-topped clusters of bright yellow flowers from June onwards, and is commonly found on wasteland, waysides and in grazing pastures, where even a rabbit scrape provides enough bare ground for it to germinate.

With rootling pigs and the disturbing hooves of herbivores, not to mention thousands of burrowing rabbits, the opportunities for it to flourish on our post-agricultural land are manifold. But in 2008 it was particularly virulent. Being a biennial and responding vigorously to stress, it abounds two years on from a drought summer, like the one we had in 2006. The dry April of 2007 had facilitated germination even further and, in the words of a County Times reader, we were seeing 'field after field of ragwort blowing in the breeze'.

The moral outrage ragwort engenders in Britain is usually aimed at alien invasives like Japanese knotweed. Hostility to a plant that has been part of our environment since the last ice age is a peculiar new phenomenon. Less than two centuries ago the poet John Clare was extolling its 'shining blossoms . . . of rich sunshine'. The Isle of Man knows it as 'cushag' - its national flower. Yet to the rest of Britain ragwort is an evil to be expunged from the world. Its sulphur-yellow flowers are rags to irascible bulls. Feelings run so high that recent attempts by DEFRA and the Wildlife & Countryside Link - a coalition of forty-six conservation organizations - to encourage a sensible approach have failed to dent anti-ragwort propaganda.

The loudest accusation of all is that it is a killer of livestock...................

…… British antagonism towards John Clare's 'humble flower' has stubborn roots - as difficult to grub out it seems, as the roots of ragwort itself. The ground in which the prejudice first germinated was opened up by the Weeds Act back in 1959.

The Weeds Act singled out ragwort and four other species -broad-leaved dock, curled dock, creeping thistle and spear thistle - and labelled them 'injurious'. Back then, the Act had, specifically, agricultural interests in mind. These are weeds that if uncontrolled, can have a significant impact on arable production in terms of lost revenue from lower crop yields. Creeping thistle, for example, exudes pheromones which inhibit the germination of most grain crops. In the case of ragwort, the cost is in eradicating it from fields and paddocks so it is not processed into animal fodder.  But 'injurious' is a provocative word, a fluttering skull and crossbones that has waved a welcome to all sorts of scaremongering over 'pernicious' plants ever since..............

Opponents of ragwort, pointing the finger at the offensive weed on other people's land, routinely claim the moral high ground. Landowners and local councils, they insist, are obliged by law to eradicate it wherever it occurs.

But this is categorically not the case.

Neither are the five weed species listed under the Weed Act 'notifiable'- there is no such concept in UK law.

The Ragwort Control Act of 2003 - an amendment to the Weeds Act of 1959 - has done little to clarify the situation and allay public fears despite publishing a Code of Practice, under pressure from the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which clearly states that 'common ragwort and other ragwort species are native to the British Isles and are therefore an inherent part of our flora and fauna, along with invertebrate and other wildlife they support. The Code does not propose the eradication of common ragwort but promotes a strategic approach to control the spread of common ragwort where it poses a threat to the health and welfare of grazing animals and the production of feed or forage.'

The government's own guidelines still appear somewhat conflicted and inflammatory about ragwort and other 'injurious' weeds. 'It's not an offence to have these weeds growing on your land', it states in 2014 Land Management advice, but 'you, must . . . prevent harmful weeds on your land from spreading onto a neighbour's property'. While stating it will only take action if these weeds are threatening land used for livestock, forage or agriculture, at the same time it encourages people to 'complain about harmful weeds' on their neighbours' land, and provides an 'injurious weeds complaint form' with which to do so.

It seems that the damage is done.

Few people in the countryside nowadays are able to accept common ragwort's place in nature, let alone celebrate it as John Clare did. No one sees it as a beautiful, dazzling explosion of sunshine and - perhaps more importantly - no one values its ecological contribution to our lives. Though we protest that we love nature it seems that this is only on our own terms. We have become a nation of gardeners, more interested in exotic flowers than natives. Plantlife, the environmental organization that seeks to safeguard our wild vegetation, has a membership of 10,500. The Royal Horticultural Society has 434,000. Even Prince Charles, champion of wildflower meadows, patron of Plantlife, in 2015 petitioned Natural England to change its stance on ragwort and 'tackle the problem more proactively'.

Yet the very fact that ragwort is not grazed, leaving it standing when other flowering plants have been nibbled away (and therefore glaringly conspicuous to its critics), should be cause for celebration. Ragwort is one of the most sustaining hosts to insects we have. Seven species of beetle, twelve species of flies, one macromoth - the cinnabar, with its distinctive black-and-yellow rugby jersey caterpillars - and seven micromoths feed exclusively on common ragwort. It is a major source of nectar for at least thirty species of solitary bees, eighteen species of solitary wasps and fifty insect parasites. In all, 177 species of insects use common ragwort as a source of nectar or pollen.

When most of the other flowers have died, ragwort continues on into late summer, providing a vital source of nectar. 'We have it at Knepp sometimes as late as November. Even at night its bursts of luminous yellow attract nocturnal moths – forty species of them. The effect of this boost to insect life is colossal.

Natural England, itself, describes the number of predators and parasites dependent on the invertebrate resource supported by common ragwort as 'incalculable'; while its attractiveness to carrion-associated insects plays a key role in supporting the decomposition cycle.

The source of the experience

Tree, Isabella

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