The annual task for the volunteers to purge the ragwort from the Beacon hills before it sets seed and creates another generation, has taken place.
Ragwort makes fields of gold, and to walk in them feels far more transgressive than a bucolic stroll through wheat or barley. Unlike the pale, safe, beige of ripening cereal crops, the ragwort is as bold as brass. Unlike the slim pickings in the sterile acres of corn-fields, the ragwort swarms with life and is a haven for butterflies and bees.
The insects, and those creatures who feed on them, are harvesting a crop that is toxic to humans yet the antidote to the intensive agriculture that harms insects. This year, as in most years there is a lot of common ragwort about. Among the butterflies there are commas, red admirals, meadow browns, common blues, small heaths and large skippers, their flight a folding-unfolding origami in the air.
Cinnabar moth caterpillars, like items of lost games kit – a sock, a sleeve – in their wasp-stripe warnings of toxicity feed on ragwort leaves. A fantasia of hoverflies, robber flies, solitary bees, bumblebees and beetles feed on ragwort pollen and nectar.
A harvestman spider – a full-stop on improbably spindly legs – hunts ragwort visitors, as do the house martins swooping above. A flattened patch is evidence of a deer lay-up; and dusk will be batty with nocturnal tribes. There is more life in one acre of ragwort than a hundred in surrounding arable fields.
The common ragwort, Senecio jacobaea is a dangerous daisy with more myths (or alternative truths) about it than you could imagine. It is poisonous to humans but you would need to eat plate-loads before you felt ill. It is poisonous to horses but they don’t like the taste anyway – but harmful if it gets into their hay feed. Anyway you don’t see many horses running free on the hills. It is harmful to the cattle but they only graze the hills in winter. Whilst there is legislation to control it, there is no requirement on landowners to remove it.
The flowers are golden and glorious, and despite, or maybe because of, its outlaw reputation as a pernicious weed, and our centuries of trying to root it out, the plant has an irrepressible spirit.
We have misjudged these heathens if we thought them repatriated to the heaths and commons of the past.
It is no easy task pulling ragwort. On our thin dry soils the roots run deep and unless the plant is removed completely, because it is perennial it will come again each year. The harvested plants then have to be burnt back at the stock yard after transportation – a lot of work which fortunately the volunteers enjoy.
So with all it’s merits why are we attacking it – why are we destroying a valuable habitat? Well it’s a trade-off with the more delicate wild flowers that we find in abundance on the hills – they need to be nurtured at the expense of the more aggressive types.
Thanks to Paul Evans for his contribution