Sunday, 8 January 2012

Where's Winter

The first job of the New Year was to get over to Saltbox SSSI to dig up the Ragwort. Although Ragwort is the host plant for the Cinnabar Moth, it is, unfortunately, also very toxic to grazing animals and eventually the effects can kill them.  Horses are particularly sensitive to the plant if eaten and for this reason one is obliged by Defra's Code of Practice, to remove it if there are grazing animals near by.

We thought we had cleared the Ragwort from Saltbox in the summer but, worryingly, not only are there plants still flowering and producing seed heads (each plant can produce 150,000 seeds!!) but there are new plants growing and beginning to send up new flower heads.  They are in a sheltered part of the field so with the mild weather they have just kept growing.  I dread to think what it will be like next Spring/Summer if we don't get some proper winter weather soon.

We took three bags over to collect the Ragwort we had dug up but after just an hour we had filled them all so will have to go back again this week.  While digging up the Ragwort we found some lovely fungus...

...and also noticed that the Cuckoo Pint is shooting up.

It is so mild that I haven't really been able to do my new country boots justice which I had bought on the big side to accommodate thick socks to keep my feet warm this winter. When I first got them they seemed too lovely to use in the country (see pic below). 

However it hasn't taken me long to christen them and they are now covered in mud after walking across the fields to do a livestock check of the Herdwicks that we had moved from Chapel Bank to Tatsfield last week.

When we arrive to do the livestock check, the sheep seemed very interested in something going on over the other side of the fence, but when I looked I couldn't see anything unusual.  We moved them on to check that none were showing signs of lameness and then went off to check the fences. By the time we had finished they were back staring over the fence...

Very peculiar I thought...then, suddenly, a big lorry drove past very fast and the sheep all ran and I realised they had been looking at the traffic going past.  Although they are used to the sound of traffic, I don't think they have been in a situation where they could really see the traffic but at the point in the field where they were looking it was quite a bit higher than the road and so gave them a birds-eye view of all the vehicles speeding along this little country lane.  They obviously found it very entertaining:)


martin said...

Oh deep joy - just what we need, ragwort all year round!!!!!

Helen said...

Hi Martin...pleased you're joyful...I'll let everyone know you are up for the task:))))))))

mabymynydd said...

I have posted a reply to certain things said in this blog at.

Helen said...

Hi mabymynydd...Your blog raises some interesting points and it is evident more research is needed to give definitive answers but until then I feel one has to follow Defra's advice to control Ragwort in sensitive areas.

Putting the grazing question aside, Saltbox SSSI is one of several small but precious bits of chalk grassland in the process of restoration and that poses an additional problem. When areas of scrub are cleared it exposes patches of bare ground ideal for the germination of ragwort and other invasive non-chalkland plants. If they are not controlled they will take over the site and restoration will not be achieved. A good example is the chalkland plant, Kidney Vetch, which is so sensitive to competition from other plants that conservation groups actually make scrapes of bare soil for it because it is important as the host plant for the Small Blue Butterfly. Chalk grassland is in decline along with the species dependent on its many wildflowers and needs protecting.

It is all a balancing act but rest assured Ragwort is growing prolificly in our area, largely due to farmland being sold as investment plots and then left unmanaged, so the wildlife it supports is well catered for.

tony powell said...

I would claim to say exactly the same, where is Winter. Well, the calendar tells us Winter is here but the weather doesn't seem to agree. Mind you, there is a trend here over the years as you can see from my phenology blog, should you wish to visit.

Kind Regards

Tony Powell

Helen said...

Hi Tony..thanks for your comment and for becoming a follower..sorry for not acknowledging it earlier but with Christmas I forgot to find out who my 'extra person' was:) I checked out your blog and found it very interesting. For others interested the site is:

Matt said...

Dear Helen

The supposed high level of toxicity for horses is based on the work of Prof. Knottenbelt at Liverpool Uni Equine Hospital. Recent freedom of information requests have cast doubt on even the most conservative of the figures he has been touting.

Sheep and cattle do not live long enough to be poisoned by Ragwort (unless they are fed on bales of dried Ragwort).

Is Saltbox grazed by horses? If not there may be no reason at all to remove ragwort. As this is an SSSI that is important for invertebrates who authorises the removal of ragwort?

It is not safe to assume that Ragwort growing in farmland situations makes the same contribution to biodiversity conservation as ragwort growing on a chalk grassland SSSI. Lots of insects are specific on habitat as well as plant species.

For more on the fauna of ragwort please see

Time for a rethink perhaps?

Matt Shardlow

Helen said...

Hi Matt..thank you for your comments and links. I will try to follow them up at the weekend (I'm a bit busy at the moment).

Re. Saltbox SSSI,the area has been grazed by two conservation grazing ponies and adjoins fields of domestic grazing horses. The site will soon be grazed by either sheep or cows, however, these will be conservation grazing animals so will not be slaughtered at the young age of farmed animals. The grazing officer who manages the land authorised us to clear ragwort and I will certainly bring your comments to his notice as I'm sure he will be interested especially as a couple of his retired goats died of liver failure which, according to the vet, was most likely caused by eating ragwort.

I will certainly have a re-think, however, it is not me you need to convince, it is the vets and Defra as these are the bodies everyone looks to for advice.

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen, after reading some of the comments made it seems that you are on the right track. I believe that unless your objective is to clear many square miles of chalk downland of ALL ragwort then carry on the good work. As there needs to be a balance in the countryside whatever you do to keep that balsnce must be good. Everyone seems to have there own axe to grind, it seems, so you will always upset somebody so keep up with all the good work