weed policy


How this policy will address the points raised by Shipley Parish Council.

The points raised, as supplied by David Meadows (Chair of the Shipley Parish council), are dealt with below. David Meadows has also drawn attention to a website of Ragwort Facts - Information on Ragwort in the UK from a scientific perspective www.ragwortfacts.com/index.html – the reading of which is recommended. A (translated) Dutch website www.ragwort.jakobskruiskruid.com also provides a more European perspective. 

There is concern that R. is spreading to a large area of the Parish. There is no doubt that R. has spread to areas where it has not been seen, including gardens – As stated earlier in this report, over 60% of ragwort seed falls within 4.5m (15ft) of the parent plant. Clearly, ragwort needs to be controlled within the High Risk zone, but an increase in the parish overall cannot realistically be blamed entirely on Knepp. 

The perception by local people and visitors is that the countryside on large areas of Knepp is not well managed – KCE has taken considerable trouble to let people know about the wildland project, and the changes this will entail. It is understood that many people do not like to see changes, and the transition from intensive arable to a mixture of parkland, scrub and woodland does to many look like ‘bad’ management. Another point of view is that the wildlife – birds, wild flowers butterflies etc – will benefit greatly from these changes. In fact, there is already evidence that some of the UK’s declining bird species are actually on the increase in Knepp – including in 2008 for the first time, two male woodlarks. So the opinion of those who would prefer ‘farmland’ to ‘wildland’ has to be balanced against those who prefer ‘wildland’ to ‘farmland’. 

There is a need for clear scientific information to be available to local people so that they are able to understand why Knepp should be in a position to allow the growth and spread of huge quantities of pernicious weeds and at the same time be in a position to receive supporting funding – The ‘pernicious weeds’ are essentially those that flourish on bare ground. As a stable sward develops, the level of these weed species is predicted to fall. There is, in fact, a considerable amount of scientific information on vegetation succession, although admittedly it tends to be in scientific publications to which the general public may not have ready access. The supportive funding currently received by KCE is for the overall project, and possibly contentious developments such as weed proliferation are kept under review. Supportive organisations such as Natural England are working with Knepp to reduce any aspect perceived as damaging by neighbours. Are intensive farms in receipt of agricultural subsidies entirely weed-free? 

In an article in the Daily Mail last year – Graham Harvey August 2007 - (see Daily Mail website and put ‘Ragwort’ in Search) it is stated that pollen taken by bees for local honey contains toxins. It also states that inhaling pollen can lead to liver damage in people.  Clearly these problems are greatest where there is a large quantity of R., which there appears to be on the Estate. These claims require a scientific response so that everyone is sure there is no danger to the health of the general public – The Defra Code of Practice and the HMSO ‘Poisonous Plants and Fungi’ state that the risk of poisoning from honey containing ragwort pollen or nectar is ‘highly unlikely’ or ‘negligible’ in Britain. The Code of Practice was drawn up in consultation with the British Beekeepers’ Association. Bees collect nectar and pollen from many other poisonous plants in the UK – honey also undoubtedly contains residues from pesticides and other environmental contaminants, as does much of the rest of the food we eat. The publications cited do constitute ‘scientific response’, but our knowledge in any field of human health is never complete. We can only act on new, scientifically verifiable, information as it becomes available. 

At the meeting last week it was stated that pulling ragwort will encourage more to grow.  This goes against the experience of people who have pulled R. to clear it from paddocks.  I still have my Agricultural Botany book by John Percival which in the note on R. states ‘When it’s stems have been allowed to grow up, hand pulling after rain exterminates it’ He also says that the fruits blow about like groundsel and thistle – Ragwort can and will grow from fragments of root left behind in the soil; this is a botanical fact. This does not mean that it will ALWAYS regrow. Pulling it after rain will allow a more complete plant to be pulled, so fewer bits are left behind. Undoubtedly pulling plants will help, but it is not the answer over large areas, and it will not stop re-colonisation. Yes, of course the seeds blow about, they are wind-dispersed, but most of them fall close to the parent plant. But this also means that not all of the ragwort in Shipley comes from Knepp. 

At the meeting I believe that the number of animals dying each year from poisoning was greatly understated.  The British Horse Society believes that a figure of 6,500 horses per year is likely.  Talking to knacker workers would support that large numbers die – it is unlikely that anyone truly knows the correct figure, although it is considered that the figure of 6,500 is an exaggeration based on the faulty analysis of a small sample survey (See Ragwort Facts weblink). In any case, autopsies are seldom carried out, and a number of other plants can also poison livestock and will, because liver damage is caused, show similar symptoms to ragwort poisoning. The Defra Code gives an extrapolated figure of 500 horse deaths in 2000, and the weblink Ragwort Facts gives 13 in 2005, and addresses this issue further. However, as far as a horse-owner is concerned, one death is far too many. The Defra Code of Practice has been drawn up in conjunction with the British Horse Society, English Nature, ADAS and other organisations, and this Code should be read by all concerned – it is readily available either on the web or as a (free) hard copy. 

It is incomprehensible that any organization supporting organic farming would sanction a system where no control of Injurious Weeds was attempted – again, please refer to the Defra Code of Practice, which contains advice and procedures for organic farmers. It is a question of informed balance. 

The agricultural value (ability to produce food) of the land in a ‘no control’ situation has to be of concern for the future. The seed bank and in due course especially to drainage systems – The seed bank of non-agricultural plants will undoubtedly increase, this is considered one of the benefits of rewilding. Not all of these will rank as ‘pernicious weeds’. Soil structure, microclimate and nutrient level may well improve; the brown earths that develop under deciduous woodland are known for their fertility, which is one reason why woodlands were cleared in the first place. Low Weald clay, as all those who farm or garden on it know, is inherently of poor fertility, is difficult to work and drains poorly. It is accepted that the roots of plants such as willows may damage field drains, which would then need replacing if land use changed in the future. But Knepp is not being put under tarmac, housing, concrete – or even sand schools. Should future events dictate, the changes underway are by no means irreversible and it is disingenuous to suggest there is cause of concern for the future. 

Although grazing animals appear to avoid R., where there are large quantities some may be broken to become dry and palatable; animal welfare is therefore an important issue – yes, undoubtedly, which is why the estate is keen to implement a ragwort control policy. All ragwort eventually dies, but if it is not mixed with other plants in hay or silage, livestock may better be able to avoid it. The estate is continually assessing any risks from ragwort to its own livestock. 

Where fields have been seen to contain wall to wall R. in previous years there now seems to be a reduction to a lower but still significant level. This is not however a reassuring situation – the ragwort control policy will continue to work to reduce the risk of ragwort spreading from the High Risk zone. 

There would not seem to be any call to eradicate R., (and other listed plants in the Injurious Weeds Act) but that there should be control that is understood as policy, which is seen to be carried out – the estate’s ragwort control policy is and will continue to be carried out. The implementation of it will also reduce other wind-dispersed species such as creeping and spear thistle. This policy is available to all those wishing to read it. 

Will the Ragwort and other Injurious Weeds Control Policy prevent harm to Knepp’s own livestock? The estate does not want its own livestock harmed by ragwort ingestion. It has taken advice from relevant organisations including the Grazing Animals Project. The opinion of participants on the GAP discussion line is that animals are not interested in ragwort that dies naturally but will eat cut stems that have dried, either on the ground or in a hay mixture.  Our Steering Group member from the RSPCA has also found that there is a risk of precocious youngsters chewing on fresh ragwort out of curiosity.  It is hoped in these circumstances that the unpalatable taste would be aversive to them.

For more information, visit Buglife’s fascinating website  www.buglife.org.uk