At the time of writing, verges, waste ground and some fields are lit up by the bright yellow flowers of Ragwort – Senecio jacobea to give its biological name. There is no doubt that Ragwort is a serious enemy to farming and livestock. It is a native species of the British Isles and is a specified weed under the Weeds Act 1959. It contains toxins which can have debilitating or fatal consequences if eaten by horses and other grazing animals. DEFRA states that it is specifically covered by the Ragwort Control Act 2003. Although this code does not seek to eradicate it, it is necessary to prevent its spread as it presents a high risk of poisoning horses and livestock or spreading to fields used for the production of forage.
But does Ragwort have any saving graces? Yes, because it is very important for wildlife in the UK. Its ecological importance is considered significant for Biodiversity because it provides a home and food source to at least 77 insect species. Thirty of these species of invertebrate use it exclusively as their food source, and there are another 22 species where Ragwort forms a significant part of their diet.
The most common of those totally reliant species on Ragwort for their survival is the Cinnabar moth. The Cinnabar is a United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan Species, its status described as “common and widespread, but rapidly declining”. You may well have noticed groups of the orange and black caterpillars, and maybe even seen the adult moth, as shown in the photographs. Other species feeding on Ragwort are named in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, and include some that are defined as Nationally Scarce.
So if you come across Ragwort plants that appear to be doing no harm, and are unlikely to spread seed on to agricultural land, do your bit for Biodiversity and leave it alone. Instead, look for any of the many invertebrates it is supporting. But if you do need to deal with it, pull it up, but wear gloves!
- The Tilley Timber project, 2014-2017
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