The ragwort, a really beautiful weed, has been shining out on the hills but, perhaps thanks to the volunteer’s labour, it was not over-abundant as in earlier years.
Ragwort makes the hills glint o’ gold, and to walk there feels far more inviting than a bucolic stroll through wheat or barley. Unlike the pale, safe, beige of the adjacent ripening cereal crops, the ragwort is bold as brass. Unlike the slim pickings in the arable fields the ragwort swarms with life. The insects, and those creatures who feed on it, are harvesting a crop that is toxic to humans yet the antidote to the nearby intensive agriculture that harms insects. So why are we destroying ragwort?
Ragwort is seen as a sign of bad behaviour – it’s what happens when we stop tidying up the place. It is harmful to horses and cattle, but only when it gets into their fodder – they avoid its bitter taste in the pasture. The reason that it is pulled from the hills is simply to prevent it taking over and shading out the more delicate summer flowers.
The annual August volunteer’s bash, toiling in the sun only contains the spread of this pernicious perennial – the root must be completely removed to have any chance of eradication and this is nigh on impossible in summer drought conditions. The best bet is to to remove the flower heads with secateurs and bin them to prevent seeding, then return in the Autumn to pull the plant roots and all. Best to cover up and wear gloves to avoid skin rash when handling the plant.
This year, and it felt sudden, the ragwort has been alive with invertebrates. Among the feeders there were commas, red admirals, meadow browns, common blues, gatekeepers, and small heaths, their flight a folding-unfolding origami in the air.
Cinnabar moth caterpillars, like items of lost games kit – a sock, a sleeve – in wasp-stripe warnings of toxicity fed on ragwort leaves. A fantasia of hover flies, robber flies, solitary bees, bumblebees and beetles fed on ragwort pollen and nectar.
A harvest-man spider – a full-stop on improbably spindly legs – hunted ragwort visitors, as did the house martins swooping above. A flattened patch is evidence of a deer lay-up; and dusk would be batty with nocturnal tribes. There is more life in one acre of ragwort than a hundred in the surrounding arable fields.
The common ragwort Senecio jacobaea is a member of the daisy family – it is not dangerous when shown respect. 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 defying the Ragwort Control Act of 2003. The hills are extensive so why do we not leave a patch where daisy can thrive without hindrance as nature intended ?
The volunteers will be back next year!
Thanks to Thomas Coward