COMMON Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is a plant species native to the UK and Ireland and is found growing in urban areas and on poor quality land, such as wasteland, roadside verges, conservation areas and poor grazing land. Common Ragwort is also known by some as Ragweed, however, Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) is a different plant originating from North America.
Common Ragwort is a tall plant, growing up to 100cm in height, with characteristic dark green leaves that are deeply dissected with irregular, jagged-edged lobes and bright yellow flowers (see photograph). Flowering usually occurs from June until October, after which the plant dies.
Common Ragwort is classed as a noxious weed under the Noxious Weeds (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, due to containing pyrrolizidene alkaloids, which are toxic when ingested and that can cause liver damage to horses and other livestock if eaten. Horses grazed on well managed pastures with adequate grass coverage do not generally select to eat growing Ragwort. However, animals grazing poor pastures, where food supplies are limited, can be forced to consume Ragwort. The toxins within Ragwort are expelled from the body over a number of hours, however, large daily intakes of the plant, or continued low intakes, overload the body and damage the liver.
Ingestion of dried Ragwort in conserved forages, such as hay or haylage, is particularly problematic as horses do not recognise the dried plant as toxic. Therefore, it is important to check fields for Ragwort plants before harvesting pastures for forage and to check forage bales before feeding.
Control of Common Ragwort growth is regulated under the Noxious Weeds (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. Landowners and occupiers (those with exclusive use of the land) have a legal requirement to control its growth and ensure that pasture remains productive. Failure to control the weed could result in a notice of destruction being issued, requiring the Common Ragwort to be destroyed. If the notice is not adhered to, the person to whom it was issued could be seen as liable and upon conviction, be fined up to, but not exceeding, £2,500.
Controlling Common Ragwort growth is best achieved through a preventative management programme. The first recommendation is to maintain pasture in good condition by preventing overstocking and poaching of the ground. Removal of droppings is also recommended to reduce the areas horses refuse to graze.
If Ragwort is present, there are a number of options available depending on the size of the area affected and the number of Ragwort plants involved. Small areas or low numbers of Ragwort plants are manageable by pulling by hand, ideally before the plant has gone to seed. Pulling can be an effective long-term method of control, if the plants roots are removed and the seeds are prevented from spreading. Forks and hand-levering equipment specifically designed to remove Ragwort by the roots can be more effective than hand pulling alone and are cost effective tools that can make the task easier. Whether using levering equipment or hand pulling Common Ragwort, gloves should always be worn to protect the skin. It is also essential that pulled/ levered plants are removed from the grazing area as they remain toxic and can still spread their seeds.
Safe disposal includes sealing in plastic bags and either incinerating or taking to approved landfill sites. Composting of Ragwort is not recommended, as the seeds may not be destroyed during the composting process, leading to spread of the seeds when the compost is used.
For larger areas, herbicides can be used to kill the plants. It is important to select an appropriate herbicide for the plant species and stage of growth. Human, animal and environmental safety should also be considered and it is important to ensure any herbicide use is performed within current spraying legislation.
The final option for management of Ragwort is cutting. Cutting of the plants stimulates the plant to grow, but can be used as a last resort to reduce seed production. The stimulated growth can result in the plant re-flowering, therefore, cutting may need to be performed on a number of occasions to effectively prevent seed dispersal. Any cut plant parts should be removed from the pasture as previously described.