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The silent killer lurking in a bale of hay



STINKING WILLIE: Ragwort can be a serious threat to horses, causing cirrhosis

STINKING WILLIE: Ragwort can be a serious threat to horses, causing cirrhosis

STINKING WILLIE: Ragwort can be a serious threat to horses, causing cirrhosis

That fount of equine knowledge, Ted Walsh, can be widely entertaining in a radio interview, as well as being deadly serious about a real danger to the welfare of horses very visible at this time of year.

Ted was speaking about ragwort, a noxious weed and the bane of farmers, widely perceived as the responsibility of local authorities as it persists on road verges, traffic islands and abandoned public places.

At one time, farmers who neglected fields, usually as being uneconomic, were prosecuted over weed control. The Department of Agriculture began policing this area; in these days of intensive agriculture, there are few neglected corners.

Ragwort (senecio jacobaea), or bulkishawns, bulterins or builleachain buidhe, is the yellow peril of grazing animals, especially horses who ingest its withered remains in the depths of bales of hay.

The poisons it contains attack the liver, causing cirrhosis and painful death. It is estimated as the cause of almost half of all farm stock poisoning.

It is a deceptive plant to most people, appearing as swathes of gold to the casual observer and to walk through an infested field can feel more transgressive than a careful walk through wheat or barley, as insects and those harvesting them abound.

The plants are havens for bees and butterflies, hoverflies and moths feeding on the pollen and nectar, the most attractive residents being the yellow-striped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth.

There is more life in a patch of ragwort than in the fields around it.

It is as bold as brass and can be seen as an antidote to today's intensive agriculture which, with its scientific preparations, essentially destroys most insect life.

I see ragwort in abandoned lots with its yellow sentinels defiant. In the summer heat and rain, which have turned some fields into landscapes of white fungi overnight, it can take a settled composure, a permanency of bedding in, when places are not grazed for long periods.

This dangerous daisy drives farmers into paroxysms of anger when they see it seeding on roadsides as a spreading threat to their fields, a carrier of poison by stealth to their grazing stock. They are highly vocal about council responsibility for control by mowing or herbicide spraying.

Ragwort becomes a nasty colonist in meadows, almost unnoticed in mowing, lost in the deep depths of hay bales.

Sheep will crop around early growth or nibble without obvious effects, cattle may eat it if distorted by herbicides, horses will avoid the growing plant but can face a silent fate in the fodder of winter days.

John Clare, poet of the English countryside, saw the beauty of ragwort's tattered leaves: "I love to see thee litter gold." But many country folk had a more realistic outlook, and knew it had to be pulled and left to be burned with other debris in autumnal farm fires.

They called it, sometimes, "mare's fart" or "stinking willie" (it smells when crushed), names that might sound authentic to Ted Walsh, a legend of the world of horses, a man who cares about animal welfare.

Sunday Independent