A vision in yellow

The cold wet summer of 2012 has been a terrible for much of our native wildlife- but one plant that seems to have done really well this summer is ragwort, Senecio jacobaea. Love it or hate it, ragwort is a familiar sight in throughout our countryside and this month it has certainly been particularly abundant, covering fields and road verges in banks of yellow. The Trust has received many reports of a higher abundance of flowering plants than usual across south west Wales.

Ragwort is a native plant and a member of the daisy family. It is a biennial, meaning it normally lives for two years, as a rosette of basal leaves in the first year and then flowering in the second. The flowering stem can be about a metre tall and it bears flat-topped clusters of yellow daisy-shaped flowers from around July until autumn. It seeds prolifically, seeds germinating readily in patches of bare ground, making it a common species on disturbed ground and an early coloniser and bringer of colour to dereliction sites.

Cinnabar moth caterpillar on ragwort Zsuzsanna Bird

Cinnabar moth caterpillar on ragwort Zsuzsanna Bird

Ragwort is a very important species for many reasons. There are at least thirty species of invertebrate which are wholly dependent upon it, including the cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae with its familiar yellow and black stripy caterpillars. The cinnabar itself appears on the Section 42 list of species of principal importance for the conservation of biodiversity in Wales. Ragwort is an important nectar source for a huge array of invertebrates.

Ragwort is a source of controversy and unpopular with many people because of its toxicity to livestock. All livestock are susceptible, but horses are most likely to suffer from the consequences of ingesting ragwort because of their long life expectancy and the fact that ragwort causes damage to the liver, and that damage can build up over time. In general, landowners will work to remove ragwort in or near fields containing susceptible livestock by cutting, pulling or treating the plants with herbicide.

Most livestock will avoid grazing ragwort when it is growing. The problem for livestock owners is that they will not recognise it and will therefore ingest it once wilted, for example as a result of treatment with chemicals or cutting and incorporating into hay, but its toxicity remains unchanged.

ragwort close up L Maiden

Ragwort by L Maiden

It is commonly misquoted that ragwort is a ‘notifiable weed’; it is not, and contrary to common perception there is no universal legal duty to remove it. It is however mentioned in the Weeds Act 1959, which confers the ability on the government to serve notice upon a landowner to prevent an injurious weed (ragwort being listed) from spreading. When such a notice is served, it is normally in response to a complaint.

2012 seems to have been a particularly good year for ragwort. This may be because the poor grass growth last summer created lots of opportunities for the development of rosette plants, which combined with good growing conditions this damp summer and allowed them all to flower.

Here at WTSWW we do control ragwort on some of our nature reserves where we depend on grazing livestock for the sustainable management of the grassland habitat, including Caeau Llety Cybi and the Teifi Marshes. However on other reserves where grazing animals will not be affected, such as Skomer Island, ragwort is allowed to thrive, and its value to other species is apparent at a glance, with flowerheads festooned with all manner of flying insects.

ragwort  L Maiden

Ragwort L Maiden

Ragwort may present some challenges to livestock owners, and it may be considered a weed of abandoned land, but it’s a beautiful and valuable plant that is certainly offering benefits to our beleaguered invertebrates after the cold, damp summer that we’ve had. We should all learn to love it just a little bit more.