Growing menace that we have to conquer; THE common ragwort plant maybe a regular sight in fields and roadside verges across Britain, but it carries a deadly poison and can spell death to grazing animals. Yet many people, including farmers, are said to be unaware of the dangers. Now The Journal wants you to help eradicate the menace by helping to put together a detailed map charting just where the weed is. PAUL TULLY reports.
A single weed can spread up to 200,000 seeds, each and every one of them a potential source of death for unwitting livestock.
Common ragwort is one of five weeds officially classified as dangerous under Government legislation - spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, curled dock and broad-leaved dock are the others.
And it is the landowner's legal responsibility under the Animal Welfare Act to take all precautions, a law which covers farmers' pastures and local authorities and highways agencies on roadside verges.
Yet, despite this, little is done to prevent the spread of ragwort.
Northumberland horse-owner Sue Cansdale, of Hartburn, Morpeth, told The Journal that on two recent outings she came across quantities of the killer weed.
And she is backing The Journal campaign all the way, saying: "I've kept ponies all my life and I've been horrified by the ragwort for the last two years driving around the North East. I travel a lot around Northumberland, and see lots of it.
"Some of the councils have money specifically allocated for the control of the five weeds, including ragwort, which really is deadly poisonous.
"It's a very horrible and painful death for animals that eat it, and we need to be doing something about it."
Northumberland vet Ros Paul, urged people to destroy the weed when spotted.
"A lot of owners will take the weed out of their pasture because they know the dangers, but it is up to the owner of the pasture to make sure it is de-weeded."
However, Prof Derek Knottenbelt, who has researched common ragwort poisoning, says many farmers remain ignorant of the problem.
He revealed: "My estimate of 500 horse deaths every year is a very conservative one. Some researchers believe the true figure can be as high as 6,000.
"There can be other causes of death in livestock that conceal the true extent, but 500 to my mind is the absolute minimum.
"I believe the figure has actually gone up, but I have erred on the side of extreme caution.
"The difficulty is that it is the responsibility of the owner of the land to prevent this. In pastures, that means farmers; on roadside verges, it means highways authorities."
Prof Knottenbelt added: "What surprises me to this day is that you still see horses with ragwort in the field around them. It is farming suicide.
"The Animal Welfare Act is very strict, and you are guilty of an offence by not taking precautions.
"But ragwort is on every street corner, every single piece of common land, every single motorway, every single everything."
Three sites in the North East have so far been unofficially identified - on the A1 between Alnwick and Newcastle, further north on the A1 near Haggerston, and next to the Bobby Shafto caravan park at Beamish, County Durham.
A Northumberland County Council spokesman said last night: "There are not any significant issues with ragwort on our land.
"We treat each individual case on its merits and we would certainly respond quickly to any reports of ragwort being found."
In 2002 MP John Greenway introduced a Private Members' Bill which led to the 2003 Ragwort Control Act.
Recently, the Rural Affairs Editor of the North Wales Daily Post, Andrew Forgrave, undertook a study which revealed 70 problem areas across Britain, including the three in the North East.
Comment 10 HOW IT KILLS COMMON ragwort contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are poisonous, particularly to horses as well as other animals such as cattle and sheep.
Gradual ingestion of the weed causes cumulative liver damage, though most cattle are slaughtered before the effects become evident. the meat does not enter the food chain. In 2002 and 2003, 120 cattle were rejected, according to figures from the agricultural watchdog Defra. Countryside surveys have revealed "significant" increases in ragwort, and a 1998 survey showed that 11% pastures, 9% of road verges and 4% of fields contained ragwort.
If jaundiced livers are diagnosed, WHAT YOU CAN DO COMMON ragwort is a major danger and the best way of dealing with it is to rip it up by the root wearing gloves, bag it, and dispose of it safely.
But you can now also call The Journal with your findings as we look to make a detailed map of where it has been spotted..
Telephone Paul Tully on (0191) 2016003 or email to: Paul.Tully@ncjmedia.co.uk.
DANGER Lethal ragwort may look harmless and even attractive ACTION CALL Horse owner Sue Cansdale says ragwort can give animals a painful death