Although Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) can be a problem plant for some horse owners it is also
an extremely important plant in the British countryside and on urban waste ground in terms of the number of insect species it supports. At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species of are entirely dependant on Ragwort. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare.
| || |
|Cinnabar moth caterpillar on ragwort © Helena ||Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) © Ian Kimbler ||Six spot burnet (Zygaena filipendulae) © Roger Key|
This is a high total for a plant and the large majority are confined to Common ragwort (S. jacobaea), or the closely similar Hoary ragwort (S. erucifolius). This fauna includes; seven leaf beetles, twelve flies, one macro moth, the Cinnabar moth, seven micro moths, one aphid, one thrip and one mite. Seven of the 52 species highly reliant on Ragwort are Nationally Scarce (three beetles, one fly and three micromoths) and three species are of Red Data Book status. Most breed in the flowers, seedheads or stems of Ragwort and control by uprooting of flailing can destroy the habitats of these insects.
Ragwort is also an important nectar source for hundreds of species (117 species, English Nature) of butterflies (e.g. Small copper), bees (~30 species), moths, flies and other invertebrates, helping to maintain their populations in the UK countryside. A number of look-alike plants also support rare and endangered species such as the Tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis).
In 2003, Buglife and Wildlife and Countryside Link were consulted in the drafting of the new code of practice for implementing the Ragwort Control Bill. Wildlife and Countryside Link concluded in its position statement that 'in the absence of any evidence that Ragwort is increasing and reliable data on the frequency of horse deaths Wildlife and Countryside Link will not endorse the Code'. This statement was successful in raising the issue of the potential damage to wildlife.
As a result of these concerns, concessions were made to ensure that the Code does not destroy the biodiversity associated with Ragwort. For instance the Code now states that it 'does not propose the eradication of common ragwort but promotes a strategic approach to control the spread of common ragwort where it poses a threat to the health and welfare of grazing animals and the production of feed or forage.' Despite this, Buglife and other wildlife charities remain very concerned that the anti-Ragwort campaign will continue to damage the rare invertebrate fauna that depend upon this native plant, or the wildflower habitats of which Ragwort is a part.
Buglife continues to work with our partners in Wildlife and Countryside Link to ensure that Defra and local councils implement the elements of the Code that would safeguard biodiversity and limit damage to wildlife. They continue to promote a balanced approach whereby both livestock and our native flora and fauna are protected.Although ingested Ragwort causes liver damage, livestock normally avoid eating live Ragwort unless there are no other options, and most Ragwort poisoning is the result of the use of contaminated hay. The appropriate solutions to the problem are;
1) To properly implement the Agriculture Act (1970) and Feeding Stuffs Regulations (2000) in which regulation 14 makes it an offence to sell feeding stuff contaminated with dangerous material.
2) The promotion of improved management of horse pastures, using established management techniques (e.g. rotation and reduced grazing pressure) to minimise the Ragwort content. This will minimise the risk that livestock will be forced to eat Ragwort.
The Ragwort Control Bill is implemented through a Code of Practice that provides guidance on how to prevent the spread of Ragwort. The code can be seen at:
Other Ragwort information:
Ragwort - about the plant
Ragwort and horses
Ragwort control and the Law
Ragwort insect fauna in detail (pdf)