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The Dangers of Ragwort

Ragwort contains toxic compounds which can cause poisoning to horses if eaten in any state. Ragwort can damage the liver, which may eventually result in severe disease and even death.

  • Last reviewed: 10th August 2022
HPIM1556[6237] HPIM1556[6237]

Ragwort is a common weed many of us will see thriving on wasteland, road verges and railway embankments.

The concern for horse owners and landowners producing forage and grazing their animals, is that if ragwort is left to grow in high-risk areas, it can spread onto neighbouring land.  
 

Most horses won’t immediately choose to eat ragwort if it is growing among their grazing because it tastes bitter– but this isn’t a guarantee. Horses will eat ragwort if nothing else is available, if they eat it accidentally or where parts of the plant have wilted and become palatable. Ragwort loses its bitter taste if it’s cut, dried and found in forage for example hay – but it doesn’t lose any of its toxicity and still remains a danger. 

Signs of ragwort poisoning can include:

  • Depression/lethargy
  • Jaundice (a yellow tinge in the gums and eyes)
  • Photosensitisation (inflammation of the skin)
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Neurological signs including head pressing, loss of coordination, continuous circling, seizures
  • Aggressiveness

    Effects of horse’s eating ragwort:

    1. Ragwort contains Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (PAs) and ingestion leads to toxic by-products produced in the liver
    2. These toxic by-products called pyroles disrupt DNA function in the liver cells
    3. Damaged cells lose their capacity to regenerate
    4. The liver has the ability to function until approximately 70% becomes damaged
    5. At this stage there is no effective treatment to reverse the damage to the liver cells

Identifying Ragwort

It is vital that horse owners know how to identify ragwort to reduce the risk of poisoning and help stop the vicious cycle of it growing on your pasture.

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Rosette

Who is responsible?

The control of ragwort comes under two government acts, The Weeds Act (1959) and The Control of Ragwort Act (2003). It isn’t an offence for ragwort to grow in certain areas but because common ragwort is a specified weed under the Weeds Act (1959), landowners/occupiers have an obligation to control the spread if it poses a high risk (within 50 metres) of land used for grazing or forage production.

In the equestrian sector, the person responsible for the control of ragwort could be a landowner, yard manager, tenant or livery client. Check your contract as it may stipulate who is responsible for removing ragwort from the horses’ pasture. Discuss any concerns with your yard manager or the landowner. Investment in pasture management helps decrease the opportunities for ragwort to seed and grow.

What to do if there is Ragwort on neighbouring land

For horse owners and landowners, it can be extremely frustrating when you spend hours of time and money keeping your pastures and forage production land clear of ragwort, but are being affected due to the spread of ragwort from neighbouring land.

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Ragwort

Removal of Ragwort

It is strongly advised that gloves are worn when handling ragwort as the toxins may be harmful to humans1,2 and minimise the risks of exposure to pollen by wearing a facemask.

In its first year, ragwort grows in the rosette form, and in the second year as a plant. In certain conditions ragwort seeds can lie dormant within the ground for many years. This means removal methods may have to be used annually until the weed is brought under control. A combination of different removal methods may be needed, along with good pasture management.

It’s vital that all ragwort is removed from the field - once it has wilted and dried it becomes more palatable to horses but is still just as toxic. 

Herbicide Treatment
  • Animals must be moved to alternative grazing before the herbicide is applied to the land.
  • A risk assessment must be completed.
  • Some products require a qualified specialist to carry out the application. Details are available from the National Association of Agricultural Contractors - naac.co.uk.
  • The herbicide should be applied when rosette growth is seen in spring. It is unlikely that herbicide will be effective if used on the plants.
  • Apply the herbicide on a mild, calm day, ensuring the vegetation is dry and that rain is not expected for at least a few hours.
  • It’s only safe to return horses once all the ragwort has fully disintegrated. This can take a few weeks, so follow the product specific guidelines carefully. Remember that dead ragwort is still toxic and palatable.
Mowing/Cutting
  • Not advised as cutting stimulates growth.
  • Unlikely to have any impact on controlling the spread of ragwort
Improve Pasture Management
  • Ragwort thrives on poor quality pasture.
  • Rosettes left alone will compete with surrounding plants.
  • Improving the pasture quality will help reduce the opportunity for ragwort to grow.
Hand Pulling
  • Appropriate for smaller areas of land.
  • Make sure the whole of the root is removed, as any fragments of the root left within the soil will result in the ragwort regrowing.
  • Best results are achieved when the soil is damp.
  • Ragwort-specific tools are available to help with successful root removal.

Disposal of Ragwort

An important part of ragwort control is the safe and effective disposal of the plant to help reduce the risk of further spread. It’s vital to ensure horses can’t access wilted or dead plants - these are more palatable and just as toxic.

What affects your disposal options?

  • The amount of ragwort to be disposed of
  • Facilities available on-site
  • Local resources available.

Realistically, not all options are feasible for equestrian properties, so this guide highlights the most common methods:

  • Consider how you’ll dispose of ragwort at the same time as planning a control system
  • Where possible, use on-site disposal
  • If there is any risk of seeds being dispersed, the flower heads can be cut off and placed in sealed bags.

When handling ragwort (either live or dead plants) gloves must be worn and a facemask is recommended to prevent the inhalation of ragwort pollen.

Do not…

  • Bury ragwort in manure heaps
  • Use ragwort as animal bedding
  • Dig, bury or plough ragwort into the ground
  • Attempt to dry ragwort where animals could access it
  • Allow seed dispersal from plants awaiting disposal
  • Transport ragwort unnecessarily
  • Transport ragwort unless it is in sealed bags or containers.

Domestic refuse collections are for domestic premises only, subject to Local Authority approval. Unless the Local Authority specifically permits its inclusion, ragwort should not be included with green waste collection. The composting facilities may not have the necessary resources and procedures in place for handling ragwort.

Controlled Burning or Small-Scale Incineration

Suitable for: disposing of small quantities where ragwort can be safely wilted prior to burning

  • Ragwort should be stored under cover to wilt or in paper bags where horses can’t access it. Although empty plastic horse feed bags are likely to be readily available on the yard, they’re not suitable for ragwort to wilt in as it’s likely to turn to mush.
  • Plastic bags must never be burnt.
  • Causing nuisance from smoke can be classified as an offence set out by regulations in each Nation. .
  • If dark smoke starts to appear, do not add any more slow-burning materials.
  • Ragwort burning or incineration must be undertaken and supervised by the owner/occupier/manager of the premises.

Considerations Before Burning

  • Weather conditions, especially wind direction and wind strength
  • Avoid causing a nuisance to nearby residential areas
  • Take precautions to avoid any surrounding combustible vegetation
  • Do not start fires close to a road. If an incident occurs as a result of the fire or smoke, this can be classed as an offence.

Domestic Settings

Checks should be made with your Local Authority for any bylaws prohibiting burning of garden waste.

Non-Domestic Settings

Following the relevant regulations, incineration may be an option. For more detailed advice visit:

Rotting

Suitable for: disposing of small quantities where ragwort can be safely rotted down on-site.

Note: this is not classed as composting.

For detailed advice on how to set up a suitable system visit:

Using a Waste-Management Company

Suitable for: large-scale removal where on-site disposal is not possible

Ragwort can be removed professionally and disposed of legally.

It’s important that the company provides a wheeled or bulk container with a lid. Open skips must not be used to collect ragwort.

For further details on approved contractors/waste management companies visit:

Ragwort Fork

This innovative tool supports the BHS’s work on controlling the spread of ragwort on to high-risk land and is ideal for lifting ragwort from the roots as part of paddock and garden maintenance. It also effectively removes other typical nuisance weeds therefore reducing the need for harmful chemicals.

Visit the BHS Shop
Ragwort Fork

Please note

The BHS does not advocate blanket removal of all ragwort. The plant plays a significant role in biodiversity, providing a habitat and food for many types of insect, plus pollen for bees. Ragwort has an important place in the British ecosystem in areas away from livestock and horse grazing or forage production land, and should only be removed from high-risk areas. 

 

References