Who is affected by ragwort?
In the equestrian sector, anyone who owns or cares for horses is impacted by ragwort. The health risks from consuming the plant mean it’s something everyone needs to be aware of and control where necessary. For biodiversity purposes, it’s important to make sure ragwort can remain where there’s low or no risk to horses and other livestock or land used for forage production.
Who is responsible for clearing ragwort where it poses a problem?
Under the Weeds Act 1959, the occupier of land is responsible for clearing ragwort where there is risk of spread. In the equestrian sector, this could be a landowner, yard manager, tenant or livery client. If you’re unsure of whether ragwort control is your responsibility on your yard, check your contract.
Who are Natural England?
Natural England are an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by Defra, who advise the government on the natural environment and how to look after England’s landscapes and wildlife. As part of this remit, they are responsible for enforcing the Weeds Act and investigating and dealing with complaints about ragwort that fall under the Act.
What is common ragwort?
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobea) is a weed that grows throughout the British Isles. It contains the toxic compounds pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can cause poisoning if ingested in any state (and it’s even more palatable when wilted or cut, such as accidentally in hay or haylage). Horses are particularly susceptible to ragwort poisoning although other grazing animals are also at risk. Pyrrolizdine alkaloids principally damage the liver, which can eventually result in severe disease and potentially death. However, ragwort is also an important plant for biodiversity and has a valuable place in the ecosystem. This is why the BHS will never advocate blanket removal of all ragwort where it does not pose a risk to horses, other grazing livestock or land used for forage production.
What research led to this toolkit?
In association with Defra, the BHS surveyed the horse world in summer 2014 to get the real facts about people’s perceptions of ragwort. Nearly 14,000 people completed the survey, making it the biggest research of its kind. The results showed a need for clearer communication between individuals and organisations affected by ragwort’s growth near livestock, and increased awareness of ragwort and its effects.
What are landowners’ obligations?
Landowners or occupiers have an obligation to control ragwort within high-risk areas (land within 50 metres areas used for grazing or forage production). Immediate action must be taken in high-risk areas to remove the weed and control its spread, but it's more effective to control ragwort within 100 metres of any eligible land at risk. In medium-risk areas (50-100 metres of land used for grazing or forage production), landowners or occupiers should monitor the situation and put controls in place if necessary. In low risk areas, it’s in landowners or occupiers’ interests to be aware and consider contingency plans if necessary. Landowners and occupiers may be required to remove ragwort under the Weeds Act 1959, i.e. where a complaint has been made because the weeds are spreading unchecked and the landowner/occupier has been issued with an enforcement notice.
What about land used for forage production or ragwort found in forage?
Grassland used for the production of forage should be checked and cleared of any ragwort prior to cutting. In its dried form, ragwort can become difficult to identify. If ragwort is located within the centre of hay bales or under haylage and silage wrapping, it is impossible to identify its presence until the bale is opened. Any forage containing ragwort must be declared as ‘unfit’ for animal feed, as in its dried form, ragwort is still as toxic and becomes more palatable to horses. There is legislation that makes it an offence to sell any material for use as a feedstuff that is classed as unfit for consumption. If ragwort is discovered in purchased forage, Trading Standards should be contacted.
When does ragwort grow?
Ragwort is normally a biennial plant – taking two years to fully grow and flower. In the first year of growth ragwort has a dense rosette of leaves low to the ground. Plants in their second year grow to between 30-100cm high and have woody stems and dark green leaves with ragged, irregular edges. They produce bright yellow, densely packed flowers from May to October. Ragwort can behave like a perennial (flowering every year) if the long stems are cut or mown. Each plant produces thousands of seeds that are dispersed widely by the wind, resulting in the rapid spread of the weed. Seeds can also lie dormant for years before germinating.
When do I need to ask for help?
If you have land used for grazing or forage production, and ragwort on neighbouring land is putting yours at risk, firstly try talking to the landowner or occupier - remember they may not already be aware of the issue. In most cases, this is the easiest and quickest solution for everyone. Discuss the risk with the landowner and agree together when will be reasonable and realistic for any necessary work to be carried out. If this then doesn’t happen, or if your neighbour isn’t open to discussion and you’re satisfied the risk is high (i.e. ragwort is present within 50 metres of land used for grazing or forage production), you should notify Natural England using a Weed 2 Complaint Form.
Where does ragwort grow?
Ragwort can establish virtually in any soil but it thrives on wasteland, road verges and railway land and from here, it can spread to pasture. Poor quality and poorly-managed horse pastures are particularly susceptible. Closely-growing grass prevents ragwort growth but when the grass thins out due to poaching or over-grazing, the seeds are able to germinate in the exposed soil. Once flowered, a ragwort plant can produce 150,000 seeds. The weed grows throughout the British Isles. Ragwort is mainly a problem where it establishes either on land used for grazing / forage production or in high-risk areas. A high-risk area is land containing ragwort within 50 metres of land used for grazing or forage production.
Where is ragwort not a problem?
Ragwort is not a problem for horses or other livestock if it’s not growing in high or medium risk areas. Outside of these areas, ragwort is important for biodiversity and there is no equine welfare reason to remove it there.
Why has the BHS produced this toolkit?
Research conducted in 2014 by the BHS in association with Defra showed a clear need for greater awareness of ragwort control and how to deal with ragwort in risk areas. Our toolkit aims to make processes clearer and show you how, where and when to get help if needed.
Why do I need to remove ragwort?
Under the Weeds Act 1959, landowners/occupiers must control ragwort within risk areas for grazing or forage production. This means there is a legal obligation to remove ragwort where it’s growing on this land or there is a high risk of spread to it. Ragwort control is vital to help reduce the risk of devastating poisoning in horses.
How do I know if it’s common ragwort?
Check out our identification guide to be sure you’re tackling the right plant.
How do I report ragwort that is posing a risk to my horses?
First, use our interactive flowchart to check if you need to report it to Natural England. If so, download a Weed 2 Complaint form and send it to Natural England’s Customer Services. Natural England will take enforcement action under the Weeds Act 1959 where ragwort poses a high risk to livestock or production of conserved forage.
How do I find out who owns land?
Use our interactive flowchart to narrow your search and find contacts.