Most horse owners are aware of the problem of ragwort which is an important plant for insects (with an estimated 150 species of bees, flies and butterflies feeding on its nectar and pollen), but very toxic to grazing animals, especially horses. Horses also know it is dangerous and tastes bitter so they won’t eat it fresh (unless there is absolutely nothing else available to graze on). The problem is if it gets into hay as ragwort does not lose any of its toxicity when the plant is dead so it absolutely must be controlled in any fields cut for hay.
British Horse Society (BHS) explains that horses are at the greatest risk of being poisoned and can suffer liver damage and death after ingesting ragwort. Often symptoms can present with similar symptoms to colic, but there is no current treatment to avert ragwort poisoning once it is in the animal’s system. The control of ragwort comes under The Weeds Act (1959) and The Control of Ragwort Act (2003) and whilst it isn’t an offence to allow it to grow in particular areas, landowners or occupiers have a legal obligation to control its spread if there is a risk to grazing animals, or the land is used for forage production.
Local nature author Nicola Chester has had many years working with horses and making hay, and as a passionate conservationist has found a middle ground. Pulling ragwort sensitively and in certain places is something she has done almost every year of her life. “We know a lot more now about both the risks of ragwort & the huge benefits to wildlife,” she explains. “Animals are unlikely to eat it when it’s fresh and flowering and of most benefit to insects. Personally, I pull ragwort only when it’s just past flowering and only in a grazed or hay field. This isn’t particularly efficient, as some roots stay in the ground and it comes back – but my intention isn’t to eradicate it! Just to remove it when it starts to dry and become less bitter and therefore more palatable to animals.
“I make sure to leave any ragwort I’ve pulled outside reach of the fence and leave the pulled plants by growing ones so insects have a chance to migrate. No one will buy hay made from fields with ragwort in. But it’s a wonderful & important plant for insects.”