Monday 16 September 2019

Yellow peril is a dangerous daisy

Country Matters

Humble flower: Ragwort
Humble flower: Ragwort

Joe Kennedy

Not all grassland is given over to silage cutting of winter fodder for cattle.

Meadows still flourish, though haycocks may no longer be seen except in some of Leitrim's small fields - my last sightings a couple of years ago and now is as scarce as yellowhammers in field corners.

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Hay is cut and baled in fields and is a valuable resource. This has been an excellent growth year, helped by all the rain and high temperatures. There should not be any supply problems with no winter commodity described as "bad hay" which, so described by a Cavan farmer, was still "better than a snowball in the mouth in the month of January".

This should be a Happy Hay Year, except for some livestock (especially bloodstock) persons with niggling concerns about the presence of a "dangerous daisy" lurking in some animal feed. This is ragwort (Senecio jacobaea or bulkishans, bulterans or builleachain buidhe), a nasty colonist in meadows, yellow peril of grazing animals, especially horses which can ingest the dried strands hidden in hay bales. Ragwort, though withered, can contain a poison that attacks an animal's liver, causing cirrhosis and a painful death. Horses are not the only victims; cattle are also vulnerable. It is estimated as being the cause of almost half of all farm stock deaths.

Ragwort is a deceptive plant. It may appear to some as swathes of golden flowers on roadsides and neglected areas of less productive land. There is a distinctive richness. One observer has described walking through such terrain as being more transgressive than being on a track through a grain crop, as insects abound. Ragwort plants are havens for bees, butterflies, hoverflies and moths, feeding on the pollen and nectar, the most attractive being the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth.

There is more life in a patch of ragwort than in the intensively farmed land around it. In the Isle of Man, it is called 'cushag' and regarded as a tourist-admiring treasure and, years ago in the north of England, farmers used to sell it in bundles to innocent day-trippers as 'summer gold'! John Clare, the 19th Century poet saw it so: "Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves/I love to see thee come and litter gold."

But farmers see the downside and it drives them to anger at local authorities when they see this threat to their fields and stock, flourishing on roadsides and public places. Many years ago, neglectful farmers could be prosecuted over ragwort growth. Now there are fewer barren acres.

Sheep may nibble at early growth without apparent harm and cattle may eat it if distorted by herbicides, but the greater danger is to horses. The most effective way to deal with it is to pull up and leave to decay or go on a bonfire. Older people had some uncomplimentary names for it such as 'mare's fart' or 'stinking willie' as the plant smells when bruised. The 'willie', I learn, is a Highlands descriptive of the Duke of Cumberland, the 'Butcher of Culloden', in the final defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1746. Scotland's history is not without a colourful turn of phrase.

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