Sunday 17 June 2018

Country Matters: Dangerous daisy hides a yellow peril

LETHAL TO HORSES: Ragwort is a sign of moral turpitude
LETHAL TO HORSES: Ragwort is a sign of moral turpitude

Joe Kennedy

On the cracked and broken path half-way from the road to a house front door, a yellow sentinel, long and narrow with florets going to seed puffs, stands defiant.

In front of the property, in what was once a garden, there are several clusters of this invader firmly established with various other weeds in support. As autumn shudders in and intermittent heat and rain bring forth woodland fungi puffballs, these ragwort growths have taken a settled permanency of bedding-in, dispensing parachute seeds. This is their place, ready for a winter of possibilities.

But that is not to be as a notice on a railing informs. Change is nigh and the temporary residence of "builleachan buidhe" (senecio jacobaea) will soon be builders' rubble.

This particular yellow peril of farmers sprang from blown seed settled in the dust of crumbled mortar rather than to have burst its powerful way through man's best endeavours at covering naked clay like the Tarmac philosopher John Stewart Collis watched daily as nature reclaimed an abandoned garage forecourt.

I have seen ragwort, that dangerous daisy, as the naturalist Paul Evans described it, in field corners of gold swarming with insect life of hoverflies, solitary bees and beetles feeding on its pollen and nectar. Its most attractive residents are the yellow-striped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth. But it is also a lethal poison to grazing animals, especially for horses, by stealth.

Ragwort may be seen as a sign of moral turpitude in a field-scape, what happens when corners are left to run wild. It is as bold as brass and upsets farmers when they see it thriving on roadsides - council responsibility! -threatening their fields.

There was a time when parcels of pasture were untouched because of little financial reward and landowners could find themselves before the courts under noxious weeds laws as ragwort flourished. The Department of Agriculture minds the shop now but unkempt land is rare. Every corner is taken for crops

To the poet of the English countryside, John Clare, ragwort was "a humble flower... I love to see thee come and litter gold." Manxmen - and women - call it 'cushag' and consider it a national attraction. But as a colonist in old hay meadows it often had fatal consequences for animals. Sheep cropped around it, eating early emerging growth without harmful effect. Horses will avoid it but a great danger is when it is an unobtrusive dried ingredient in baled hay. It attacks the animals' liver. Cattle may be caught unawares, eating the plant when it has been distorted by herbicides.

In older farming times ragwort was pulled up by the roots and left on headlands to dry for burning. In manual hay-making it was cast aside when grass was turned to dry and cocks were made. But, incredibly, this killer of horses was also used as an ingredient in a cure for 'head-staggers' - "she-bulkishawn". Colgan's Flora of the County Dublin (1904) recorded a 'cure' also using tansy ("he-bulkishawn") taken from an old carter. Ragwort was also called "mare's fart" by some country people, probably a more authentic nick-name for this dangerous daisy.

Sunday Independent

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