For the past few weeks, many of us here at Lakenheath have been on the pull – a ragwort pull that is! It’s that time of year and we’ve all been working hard to clear the plant from particular areas of the reserve.
Common ragwort, a species native to the UK, is known as an injurious weed. It is one of five plants classified as such under the Weeds Act 1959, along with spear thistle, creeping/field thistle, broad-leaved dock and curled dock. It is important to note the Act applies only to common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) - other ragwort species are relatively rare and some, such as fen ragwort (found at Lakenheath) are protected. While it is not an offence to have any of the five classified plants on your land, they must not be allowed to spread to land used for grazing or the production of forage. The toxins in common ragwort can have debilitating or fatal consequences if eaten by cattle, sheep and particularly horses and the risk of consumption is heightened if the plant is cut, dried and baled up as part of hay. Our grazier does take a hay cut from some of our land and has just started this process, so it is very important that we control the plant in these sensitive areas.
However, common ragwort has significant benefits for biodiversity and therefore we do not clear it from all parts of the reserve. It is a great nectar source for invertebrates and 30 species are completely reliant upon ragwort. If you look closely at one of the plants you will soon spot the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth. The caterpillar has distinctive orange and black stripes to warn birds about its unpleasant taste, as it feeds on and absorbs the bitter toxins from the plant.
Photo credit: Ali Blaney – Cinnabar moth caterpillar feeding on common ragwort
So we have been targeting our pulling efforts on the areas of grazing marsh around the reserve and leaving other areas untouched. Pulling can prevent seed spread and give long-term control. Luckily for us, the sandy/peaty soil found at Lakenheath means the plants come up fairly easily – much easier than the clay soils that I’ve previously pulled common ragwort from! We’re careful to extract the whole root, as even small remaining particles can produce weak growth.
It seems that common ragwort pulling is an oddly satisfying task and if we find ourselves with a ‘spare’ half an hour here and there, off we go to pull some more. Suzanne, our administrator, has been putting in a sterling effort when in need of a break from the office and we’ve just about completed the section in and around Brandon Fen grazing marsh.
Tomorrow afternoon we’ll be putting in a big team effort with staff and volunteers alike on our final target area, before the plants begin setting seed. The more the merrier with this sort of task!
Photo credit: Ali Blaney – Suzanne working hard!