Ragwort - what's the problem?

Farmers, landowners and the general public may be aware of the legal implications under the Weeds Act 1959 and the legal obligation to clear away and prevent the spread of this notifiable weed.  

In fact, the “powers that be” and the Environment Agency can issue a clearance notice under the Ragwort Act since this is a poisonous plant which is dangerous to animals, in particular horses and cattle.  It is more poisonous in its dry form so if found in hay it can kill more rapidly than if it was left standing in a grazing field.  Farmers selling hay to other livestock owners for winter fodder should be particularly cautious if there is any risk of contamination with this poisonous weed. 

Ragwort spreads rapidly and has a long-lasting seed and can take years to eradicate once a parcel of land is infested.

You as a landowner have legal obligations to remove and treat your own land and you must not allow ragwort to spread onto adjacent land since that landowner could take legal action against you for allowing the spread of the weed.

Each plant produces thousands of seeds which are dispersed mainly by the wind and even the movement of contaminated soil during building operations could incur such a liability if the soil has ragwort weed within it.  Therefore it is important that landowners have management strategies for the removal and disposal of this weed to prevent further infestation.

The weed can be easily pulled up since it is shallow-rooted and the stem and flower should be burnt, or if no seeds are present it can be chopped and composted.  However for heavy infestations, broadleaf weed killers will be necessary.

The legislation

Under the Weeds Act 1959 common ragwort is one of the five weeds which allows the appropriate authorities (DEFRA) to serve a notice requiring an occupier of land to prevent the spread of this weed.  It is unfortunate the Highways Authority do not take this weed seriously and if landowners feel that their land has been contaminated by the spread of the weed along the highway and can show it has spread over several years they may have an action against the Highways Authority or the County Council.

There is also the Ragwort Control Act 2003 which gives a code of good practice not seeking to eradicate ragwort but to help prevent its spread onto land used for livestock and forage production.  Many people other than farmers and growers believe that ragwort is a useful plant for wildlife and it is particularly noted that certain butterfly species do enjoy ragwort as a source of food and in nature every plant has its place, but not in a hay or silage field. 

The responsibility to control ragwort rests with the occupier of the land and farmers that have land rented under Agricultural Holding Act or Farm Business Tenancy agreements should enforce their lease provisions regarding the spread of this noxious weed.  Farmers and landowners should seriously consider the implications of the spread of this weed and if they have concerns, contact their agrichemical consultants or environmental consultants for further advice.  

Alternatively, DEFRA gives very good advice on its website including advice on chemical use and other means of disposal of the plant and contaminated soil.