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I have been interested in nature for most of my life but since I retired I spend as much time as I can exploring the nature reserves and wildlife hotspots of my adopted home, Dorset in southern England. Whilst out I record what I see and take snaps where I can (I am no photographer!) and that forms the basis of my Nature of Dorset website. When I find something new I like to research it and write about it in my nature notes, it is how I learn and hopefully you might find my notes helpful as well!

This website is for the people of Dorset interested in wildlife and for people from elsewhere interested in the wildlife of Dorset!

08 March, 2017

Marsh Ragwort: poisoned lies

I am pretty sure most of us know ragwort when we see it; it is both common and infamous as supposedly being the cause of death of thousands of animals a year! I am, of course, being facetious but I do find some of the unjustified things said about our native flora and fauna rather irksome and feel an inbuilt need to come to their defence. 
If you do know ragwort when you see it, can you tell the difference between common ragwort and marsh ragwort (Senecio aquaticus)? I ask this because in my days leading walks I found a general 'ragwort is ragwort' belief amongst those with me and when I pointed out marsh ragwort there was both surprise that there are different species of ragwort and that, although similar, they are different. Marsh ragwort is much shorter than common ragwort and more branched, common ragwort tends to be an upright plants whereas the branched marsh ragwort is somewhat more disparate. Whilst the individual flowers are similar they form a much looser cluster on marsh ragwort than the much tighter cluster on the common ragwort. Marsh ragwort has a reddish stem and the leaves are a darker green than its cousin so there are plenty of differences. If you are still in doubt then common ragwort grows in dry conditions whilst marsh ragwort likes damp meadows and grassy places.
The question of toxicity is complex one and as I am not a chemist I am not going to comment but it seems marsh ragwort has similar chemical properties to common ragwort but, in general it, goats and pigs eat it with no ill effects, cows find it distasteful and horses and sheep refuse to touch it. On the other hand rabbits are fond of it, birds eat the seeds (and you can buy the seeds to feed to caged birds) and, of course, insects love it, especially the caterpillars of some moths which not only take pollen but eat the leaves. Studies show that a horse or a cow would need to eat 7% of their own body weight in ragwort before it would damage them. The case for the defence rests!
Marsh Ragwort: poisoned lies