Ragwort – Friend or Foe?

June and July are the months that bring both wildflowers and weeds to The Howe. One plant that causes much controversy is Ragwort.

There are 3 varieties of Ragwort, all of which look fairly alike and which grow to around 90cm and bears clusters of yellow, daisy-shaped flowers in summer.

The plant is quite pretty but has an unpleasant smell and so was historically also known as ‘Stinking Willy’. Insects love it and on a sunny day each plant will be a buzz of activity with bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and their larvae.

Most nature lovers regard Ragwort fairly neutrally or as a friend. Like many others it’s an important plant for nectar but its particular value is that the only plant which supports the lifecycle of the Cinnabar Moth. Cinnabar moth females lay up to 300 eggs, on the underside of their leaves. When the caterpillars (larvae) hatch they feed on the around the area of the hatched eggs but as they get bigger and moult (instars) they mainly feed on the leaves and flowers of the plant, and can be seen out in the open during the day. So Ragwort is very valuable to the survival of the Cinnabar Moth species!

But Ragwort has a bad reputation with the horse owner community and is certainly seen by many of them as a foe. This is because if it is eaten by horses (in large quantities on a regular basis – estimated 7% of their body weight over their lifetime) it is extremely toxic. Luckily our equine friends are very clever and will never eat it when it is in their pasture. Instead they studiously eat around it – perhaps the smell puts them off! The only time it is of concern is if a field which has Ragwort growing in it freely is then cut and dried for hay or haylage. As it is this contaminated hay that is the real danger – because it’s still toxic when dried, but the horse won’t be able to distinguish it from the rest of the feed.

Ragwort also has a reputation for easily getting out of hand. It spreads by seed, which are carried by the wind. A single plant may produce a lot of seeds – up to 20-30,000. These can readily germinate on bare ground or disturbed soil – and unfortunately as most horses graze intensively, when ragwort grows in paddocks these heavily grazed conditions create the perfect situation for the plant to prosper and spread.

However the picture isn’t quite as bad as it seems. Scientists have found that only 0.5% of seeds travel and then these generally go no more than 5m from the parent plant – so its spread is actually very local. This means that whilst the plant should be controlled carefully by pulling in areas that have horses grazing, or where the landowner plans to cut the grass for hay, it is not necessary or desirable to eradicate it by pulling every plant in people’s gardens or general land!

Instead we all just need to keep an eye on it!

With all this in mind we allow Ragwort plants to grow on The Howe to support biodiversity while following a control regime as suggested by organisations such as The Wildlife Trust. This balanced approach aims to reduce the spread by limiting the opportunity for any seeds to germinate – while also allowing enough plants to support the insect populations we hope to encourage. Much of this is achieved by reduced the intensity of grazing regimes and limiting bare ground etc. We keep a careful eye on it! We allow it to grow alongside all the other wildflower and grass nature-valuable species – only pulling if it shows signs of taking over and spreading, afterall there are no landowners cutting for hay within 1/2 a mile of The Howe!

So in summary up on The Howe we view Ragwort as more like a naughty friend. One we support and value, but who from time to time needs a little bit of extra care and guidance – just to make sure he behaves!

For more background information on Ragwort please click on these links:

The Butterfly Conservation Trust


Wildlife Trust

Joel Ashton (Wild Garden and Pond Expert)





640 480 Maggie Fyffe

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