Stinking Willie and Marefart

Ragwort has many common names; in fact some, like stinking willie and marefart, are downright vulgar. Both refer to the plant’s unpleasant smell. Another set of names, staggerwort, stammerwort and sleepy-dose, are about to its toxicity.  Then there is felon weed, swine grass and our personal favourites: scrog and weeby.

To go with its unsavoury nicknames, Ragwort has an unsavoury reputation: an aggressive weed, common to wasteland, poisonous to livestock, subject to legislative control since 1959, almost impossible to get rid of.  But there is another side to this story.

Reliable sources say that there are 30 species of invertebrates that are wholly dependent on ragwort. The cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) is the best known and most recognisable of these. It lays its eggs exclusively on ragwort and its caterpillars eat the leaves down to their stalks before moving onto the next  plant. They absorb toxic alkaloids from their diet, a fact they advertise with  black and yellow stripes to warn predators.

At least ten of these  30 species are scarce or rare; here are two of them:

Altogether, nearly 200 invertebrate species have been found feeding on ragwort in the UK.  The nectar-rich, pollen-heavy flowers are an increasingly important food source for generalist feeders in the late summer when other sources are waning. They are the flowers most frequently visited by our dwindling butterfly populations. For the sake of the SCP’s biodiversity, we cannot afford to lose this valuable resource.

There are three elements to the ragwort trap in which FoSCP finds itself. The first is Defra’s requirement that we control the spread of ragwort,  the second is our tenant’s right to a crop of ragwort-free hay, and the third is manpower. The only way to manage the ragwort without the regular use of herbicides, that are never as selective as they say they are, is to pull it by hand and that requires lots (and lots) of volunteer man-hours.

FoSCP has set up a list of potential volunteers whom we hope to call on at ragwort pulling time; we recruited all the people who protested about the spraying. The list is called The Ragbag; if you want to be a ragbagger contact us.


All pictures bar the last one are from Google Images; the last one is by DKG

Click below for more about our wildflowers:

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