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Neighbours despair as ragwort spreads

The ragwort fills a field owned by Heart of England Forest neighbour Lady Kilmaine. Photo Mark Williamson
The ragwort fills a field owned by Heart of England Forest neighbour Lady Kilmaine. Photo Mark Williamson

For a little weed, ragwort causes big problems. And right now it has become the source of escalating friction between a woodland trust and its increasingly frustrated neighbours.

Ragwort spreads easily and is highly toxic, and can be poisonous to livestock – especially horses. It’s also frustratingly hard to get rid of.

However, the Heart of England Forest points out that the yellow-flowering ragwort is unfairly maligned and it is, in fact, an important wildflower, providing home and food to a variety of insects.

HOEF is the legacy of publisher and poet Felix Dennis, who died in 2014. His dream was to create a 30,000-acre forest spanning from the Cotswolds to Henley-in-Arden.

That dream is now becoming a nightmare for the late Mr Dennis’s neighbours, who claim HOEF has recklessly allowed the weed to grow out of control – contrary to guidance given by the Ragwort Control Act, which advises that the plant should not be allowed to grow within 100m of neighbouring agricultural land.

The Herald reported last month on the frustrations of one of those neighbours, Lady Kilmaine, who accused the charity of being woefully inattentive to her concerns that the weed was encroaching on her 30 acres of farming land at Shelfield, near Wootton Wawen.

And this week, more neighbours spoke out to condemn HOEF for its failure to tackle the ragwort infestation, which some see as part of a bigger maintenance problem.

Racehorse trainer Dan Skelton’s immaculate facilities are next to HOEF land and he alleges that serious problems have not been addressed.

He told the Herald: “In recent years, the ragwort growing on HOEF land bordering that occupied by Dan Skelton Racing has become increasingly out of control, to the point where it now invades the land used both for grazing horses and the production of haylage.

“This is clearly a serious issue when it comes to the health of the horses under our care as ragwort is highly toxic when ingested by grazing animals and can cause serious complications.

“In our opinion, the response of the HOEF to numerous requests to address the ragwort infestation on land adjoining Dan Skelton Racing does not match the reality of the situation, and as far as we can tell their management of the ragwort on HOEF land is questionable.”

While acknowledging it had received six complaints about ragwort so far this year, HOEF would not comment on Mr Skelton’s statement.

Andrew and Sallie Walters, whose farm also borders HOEF territory, said that while much of the charity’s work was commendable, the way it was dealing with ragwort issues was not.

They added: “The HOEF is well placed financially to maintain and control this ragwort. It could be managed in certain areas, well away from arable and pasture, where varied species can thrive on it.

“The only action we have seen them take is to use a tractor and topper on the boundary. This just increases seed dispersal and is totally ineffective and unacceptable. The seeds just blow in increasing amounts into farmers’ fields, causing extra work in uprooting them as well as the danger of them going unseen into the combine/baler, where they are processed into hay and silage.

“We urge the management at HOEF to take a positive stance on this matter, to understand their neighbouring farmers and private individuals’ genuine concerns and to work out a plan of action going forward.”

Walker Diane Best said she saw huge swathes of mature ragwort, empty tree cones and misshapen trees near Shelfield. Her observations were echoed by Paul Cummins, who has worked in the forestry business for more than 30 years.

He said: “The woodland adjoining Lady Kilmaine’s land is an absolute disgrace. I’ve seen no maintenance done at all. I don’t see the point of HOEF wanting more land to plant if they can’t look after what they have got.”

HOEF told the Herald it always responded rapidly to neighbours’ concerns. A spokesperson said: “We get very few complaints and generally have good relationships with our neighbours. When complaints are raised then we ensure they are dealt with promptly.”

The charity said it had now mowed and strimmed ragwort on the border of Lady Kilmaine’s land according to Defra guidelines.

However, Lady Kilmaine said this approach so late in the year had only worsened the problem by spreading the seeds. “I could cry – my lawn and tennis court looks like ragwort seedling trays,” she said.

HOEF responded: “We are disappointed that this story appears to be one-sided and you are disregarding the expertise of the charity. In the interests of impartiality we urge you to contact these organisations [Defra, and others] to ascertain the biology of ragwort, which will confirm that the actions we took to deal with the problem Lady Kilmaine made us aware of were the best actions in the circumstances.”

What the experts say about ragwort...

From Defra’s code of practice on how to prevent the spread of ragwort:

“The most effective way to prevent the spread of ragwort is to preclude its establishment through strategic management rather than last-minute control…

“Occupiers of all land, including uncultivated land, should be vigilant for the presence of ragwort. Detection at an early stage will enable any potential problems to be more easily, safely and economically dealt with…

“Cutting is an emergency treatment to prevent seeding. It is essential to cut before seed heads are mature.”

Peter Dews, Warwickshire agronomist with Agrovista:

“We are definitely seeing an increase in ragwort populations in comparison to around a decade ago. This is primarily as a result of fewer landowners or land managers taking the responsibility for controlling common ragwort.

“Ragwort seeds can travel a fair distance, particularly if conditions are windy at seeding time, which is usually in late summer.

“Often chemical spraying control is left a bit too late, when the plants have begun to stem extend or are about to flower, and it is vital to try to get good chemical control through the use of correct selective herbicides in warm growing weather – usually around late April/early May to get the best control.

“Thistles are another weed which has also become more prevalent owing to land management neglect or changes in neighbourly attitudes to control. Whilst thistles are unpalatable, though, they are not so highly toxic as ragwort is to livestock – particularly horses.”

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