Ragwort pulling

Ragwort pulling

About this time of the year the ragwort starts to flower. In the hay meadows, and those areas close to hay meadows, we pull the ragwort out- a tedious job but, over the years, we have been getting less and less ragwort in these meadows. This year it only took 3 days whereas, when I started pulling ragwort, it was a couple of weeks’ worth of work. I have included some information here from Wiki to dispel some myths and try to get people to understand more about this rather lovely plant. However… don’t want it in my meadow!

‘In the UK, where the plant is native, Ragwort provides a home and food source to at least 77 insect species. Thirty of these species of invertebrate use Ragwort exclusively as their food source and there are another 22 species where Ragwort forms a significant part of their diet.

Drone fly on Ragwort

Furthermore, English Nature identify a further 117 species who use Ragwort as a nectar source whilst travelling between feeding and breeding sites, or between metapopulations.  These consist mainly of solitary bees, hoverflies, moths, and butterflies such as the Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas).

Besides the fact that Ragwort is incredibly attractive to such a vast array of insects, some of these are very rare indeed. Of the 30 species that specifically feed on Ragwort alone, seven are officially deemed Nationally Scarce. A further three species are on the IUCN Red List. In short, Ragwort is an exclusive food source for ten rare or threatened insect species, including the Picture Winged Fly (Campiglossa malaris), the Scarse Clouded Knot Horn micro moth (Homocosoma nimbella), and the Sussex Emerald micro moth (Thalera fimbrialis). The Sussex Emerald has been labelled a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Six spot burnet moths on knapweed

Six spot burnet moths on knapweed- the caterpillar likes bird’s foot trefoil, not the cinnabar moth caterpillar who flies at night and likes ragwort

A Priority Species is one which is scarce, threatened and declining The remainder of the ten threatened species include three species of Leaf Beetle, another Picture-Winged Fly, and three micro moths. All of these species are Nationally Scarce B, with one Leaf Beetle categorised as Nationally Scarce A. Without doubt the most common of those species that are totally reliant on Ragwort for their survival is the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae). The Cinnabar is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Species, its status described as common and widespread but rapidly declining. Which gives yet more evidence of Ragwort’s important role in maintaining the country’s biodiversity and a vitally important component of the native flora.

Poisonous effect

Looks tiring

Looks tiring!

Ragwort contains many different alkaloids, making it poisonous to certain animals. Alkaloids which have been found in the plant confirmed by the WHO report EHC 80 are — jacobine, jaconine, jacozine, otosenine, retrorsine, seneciphylline, senecionine, and senkirkine. Ragwort is of concern to people who keep horses and cattle. In areas of the world where ragwort is a native plant, such as Britain and continental Europe, documented cases of proven poisoning are rare. Horses do not normally eat fresh ragwort due to its bitter taste. It loses this taste when dried and can become a danger in hay. The result, if sufficient quantity is consumed, can be irreversible cirrhosis of the liver. Signs that a horse has been poisoned include yellow mucus membranes, depression, and lack of coordination. Animals may also resort to the consumption of ragwort when there is shortage of food. In rare cases they can even become addicted to it. Sheep and goats suffer the same process of liver destruction but at a reduced rate to horses and pigs.

More ragwort pulling

More ragwort pulling

The danger of Ragwort is that the toxin can have a cumulative effect. The alkaloid does not actually accumulate in the liver but a breakdown product can damage DNA and progressively kills cells. About 3-7% of the body weight is sometimes claimed as deadly for horses, but an example in the scientific literature exists of a horse surviving being fed over 20% of its body weight. The effect of low doses is lessened by the destruction of the original alkaloids by the action of bacteria in the digestive tract before they reach the bloodstream. There is no known antidote or cure to poisoning, but examples are known from the scientific literature of horses making a full recovery once consumption has been stopped. Ragwort poses little risk to the livers of humans since, although it is theoretically poisonous to humans, it is distasteful and is not used as a food. The alkaloids can be absorbed in small quantities through the skin but studies have shown that the absorption is very much less than by ingestion.

Some of the hay meadow left long for the wildlife

Some of the hay meadow left long for the wildlife but with all the ragwort pulled out so it won’t seed.

Also they are in the N-oxide form which only becomes toxic after conversion inside the digestive tract and they will be excreted harmlessly. Some sensitive individuals can suffer from an allergic reaction because ragwort like many members of the compositae family contains sesquiterpine lactones which can cause compositae dermatitis.

These are different from the pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are responsible for the toxic effects. Honey collected over Ragwort has been found to contain small quantities of jacoline, jacobine, jacozine, senecionine, and seneciphylline, but the quantities have been judged as too minute to be of concern”

Matt the gardener had had enough

Matt the gardener had had enough

Oh he carried on mowing!

Oh …he carried on mowing!

Monday evening’s mowing session saw another large swathe of grass mown, even Matt Mace the gardener came to have a go and he did a pretty good job. I think we will only have one more mowing session as, after that, the meadow is full of meadowsweet- this plant likes wet conditions so we may cut some of this later and introduce meadowsweet into wet areas and ditches elsewhere on the estate.

Greenn haying or just horsing around

Green haying or just horsing around?

We spread the hay during the week as usual but some of us like to pose when doing the job- full of energy and horsing around was Shane!

Reaping more hertitage wheat

Reaping more heritage wheat

With all this hot and sunny weather the corn crops were ripening exceedingly quickly- the wheat needed to be reaped. As we are getting much more efficient with the sickle I think we could each cut a quarter acre’s worth now – the same that a man or woman could cut in the Victorian period. Although… one has to say… day after day, week after week … wow! Still, when you have a gang it’s not so unpleasant and I can see how this type of hard work reinforces community spirit as, with lots of you, you can and do make a difference quickly. This type of work on you own would be like climbing the biggest mountain in the world.

Tiring work for Shane

Tiring work for Shane

Even Shane was having a go but he seemed to be flagging- maybe the hot sun was getting to his head or was it just old age? And yes, he is standing upright, it’s tall wheat indeed!

Golden wheat

Golden wheat

Last week most of this wheat was green but, with a few hot days, the wheat turned a lovely golden brown and, when you cut it at this time (so the grain does not fall out), sheaf it up and put eight into a stook, you notice a very pleasant smell from the ripening wheat, something you don’t get when harvesting desiccated modern wheat crops with combines. It’s hard work the old way but it is romantic for a very good reason.


Is that John sleeping?

Is that John sleeping?

However, sickling all that corn was going to take too long for our small gang ( gangs of harvesters would have been 20- 40 strong). Time to get the reaper binder out- the most elaborate contraption you could invent ( and quite a bit of inventing went on to get this machine). First the corn had to be cut ( so they invented the reciprocating mower); then the cut corn had to fall onto the canvasses (the six revolving blades knocked the corn onto the canvasses) which then transported the cut corn towards a buncher; when enough corn was bunched it tripped  the knotter mechanism which tied a bit of sisal twine around the sheaf and then spat the sheaf out. The knotter was an amazing 19th century invention but could not have worked without the Scots inventing a way to make sisal string- they used whale oil to help get the tough fibres to spin. Sisal is a plant originally from Yucatan, Mexico.  It is called ‘sosquil’ and ‘green gold’.  It is the coarsest vegetable “hard” fibre.  In the 1890s  sisal was introduced to East Africa as a crop suitable for extreme hot and dry conditions.  The majority of sisal production now takes place in Tanzania. Sisal twine has mostly now been replaced by oil based string; however, to run the reaper binder, I had to find some reaper sisal twine (which you can still get!). Oh… but what’s this? John has fallen asleep on the job… time to wake the old boy up.

The reaper binder at work

The reaper binder at work

Not snoozing for long, we soon had him awake and driving the old Ford 5000. A few niggles with the canvasses that act as a large belt feed (they really need replacing now) we soon had sheaves flying out of the knotter/buncher mechanism. It didn’t take very long to cut two lots of oats- the white and black sort once grown in Cambridgeshire in the Victorian era.

Making stooks

Making stooks

Once the crop had been reaped and bound it was time to stand all the sheaves up in stooks- again we put about eight sheaves to one stook. These will now dry out in the sun and will have to go down to a moisture content of around 16% before they can be moved and put into a rick or stack.

Alistair trying out a cradle on a scythe

Alistair trying out a cradle on a scythe

Alistair came over to have a go at mowing the wheat with a scythe and cradle. Unfortunately for him, the wheat was the large Victorian type that seems always to fall over no matter what the sowing rate is so he was not so successful here- the sickle would be the best choice as even the reaper binder would find this hard work. He did however mow some oats to great effect.

Roughing the spring beans

Roguing the spring beans

Another job for the week was to rogue the beans. Roguing involves people walking through the crop and pulling out the injurious weeds like dock and wild oats by hand. Again, not such a bad job if you work as a gang (team, as they call it today). Jobs soon get done and those seeds won’t be finding their way back into the soil to annoy us next year. Not so many years ago I used to earn my money this way, then go travelling, but, with the advent of cheap, modern herbicides, roguing has largely disappeared. It is however quite necessary in an organic system and can also be done where the crop is intended for seed.

Mowing the Nottingham long eared barley

Mowing the  Long-eared Nottingham barley

Earlier in the week Jim and Paul mowed the rest of the barley- this time it was the Long- eared Nottingham variety. Rather oddly this had been very productive and, considering I had sown twice as much Chevalier barley, it was quite a surprise. Suspect that, as I had sown the latter first, the birds must have helped themselves. No reaping here, just mowing and leaving the barley in a windrow to dry.

Barley cock

Barley cock

Barley cock

Barley cock again

Later in the week, when the barley had dried out to the required moisture content, we put it into a cock- this is a temporary sort of rick which protects the crop from rain (we put a tarpaulin on top just to make sure), next week we may thrash it.

To much beer for Shane!

To much beer for Shane!

Poor old boy… started out with so much energy and finished the beer off!


About Sadeik

You may ask why "Sadeik" well it means friend in arabic. Worked in Jordan a lot doing tree surgery you see. I have worked in forestry since I left school with a two years in Telecom. Went back to forestry and tree surgery as it may not have paid as much but was far more interesting and dangerous. Spent a lot of years mountaineering, caving and canoeing too. At 29 I went to Bangor University to study Forestry and soil science then did an MSc in Water engineering all very interesting. By a quirk of fate in 1995 ended up helping sort out the woodland and park at Wimpole, funny thing was then I only intended to stay six months or so, but 18 years later I'm still here learning all the time. That's the best bit, if I wasn't able to learn something new every year I would not have stayed and as you get older you realise that the grass is not so green in the next field after all. In fact my patch is getting greener while much of the rest is getting browner.
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1 Response to Harvest

  1. graemeu says:

    Good yarn on the ragwort. I see you gathered the pulled plants in which is the right thing to do as there is enough oomph in a pulled plant to still set viable seed. I don’t know if it’s true but accepted wisdom here (where it is a noxious weed) is that if you pull a plant and break it the bit left behind becomes perennial.


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