Abundance of weed ragwort deadly to horses has cropped up

Bizarre photo of copulating snail from Edward Brunton. (S)
Bizarre photo of copulating snail from Edward Brunton. (S)

With the summer holiday period on us, please bear in mind that the weather has been atrocious not just for us, but also for our wildlife, or at least most of it.

The attached photograph of copulating snails taken by Edward Brunton and sent to me by his dad David suggests at least one species is doing well!

Local Businesses

Local businesses do need your support, so if you do get out and about over the holidays do visit the local enterprises and give them the support they need to help them survive these hard times. Some suggestions include the excellent museum at Pateley Bridge, the award-winning Studfold Explore and Discover Trail, the craft folk at Kings Street Workshops, Pateley, How Stean Gorge, Nidderdale Llamas, G & T’s Ice Cream, Risplith and various cafés and pubs all around our district, don’t let them down.

Extraordinary Summer

I’m sure many of you have, like me, been amazed to what lengths plants have grown during the extraordinary summer. Many seem to have done very well, such as ragwort, goosegrass and foxgloves, whilst many have also seem to have had a relatively short flowering period.

I have particularly been surprised at the amount of ragwort seen in fields. The weeds Act of 1959 states that common ragwort is one of five injurious weeds: spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare), creeping or field thistle (Cirsium arvencense), curled dock (Rumex crispus), broad leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) and common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea). This Act empowers the respective Agricultural Ministers to serve notice requiring an occupier of land on which ragwort is growing to take action to prevent the weed from spreading. The Act does not make it illegal to have any of the five injurious weeds growing on land. It is concerned with controlling the spread of the weeds to adjacent land.

This is because common ragwort contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are poisonous to horses, other farm animals such as sheep and cattle and also to wild animals such as hare and deer.

It is important for horse owners and horse pasture owners to recognise and control this potentially fatal plant. The problem is that many naturalists believe that ragwort is an important part of our flora and fauna and it not only provides late flowering sustenance for our insects but also is the food plant for one of our most beautiful day flying insects, the cinnabar moth.

I have seen on a number of occasions this summer fields full of ragwort being grazed by horses, maybe the horses know what’s good for them and the only time they eat it is when it is fed to them as part of a hay crop by humans, hence the legislation.


Helen Wilkinson, who lives in Scotton, has a family of spotted flycatchers nesting in her garden. I have only seen spotted flycatchers once this year and that was at High Force in Teesdale, not locally. Even more alarming, Helen’s is the only report I have had of this well loved bird.

Birdlife International, who work to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity tell us that the population is declining in North and Central Europe owing to habitat conversion, cooler summers, and decreasing insect populations caused by pollution and insecticides. In the UK spotted flycatchers are a red data species because of recent breeding population decline.

Neil Anderson reports seeing a kingfisher near the ancient Knox Bridge, Harrogate. Neil tells me this is always a good bet for seeing kingfishers, although some patience is required.

Dennis Skinner sent me a photo of a swallow-tailed moth which was “found in our bathroom on July 26, and probably came in during the night when the windows were open. The underside photo was taken after I released it and it stayed on the window glass outside.

Its wingspan was about two inches (5cm) and the colour was a striking pale yellow, almost transparent. I believe it is common in Britain but it is nocturnal and it’s the first I’ve ever seen.” Like many moths, because of being nocturnal and having a short flight period of July, they are rarely seen, unless you trap moths. Dennis is correct, they are reasonably common. Their caterpillars are found on ivy. The pointed tail is diagnostic and provides it with a common name, whilst the brown caterpillar resembles a twig.

Sandie Fagan visited the wooded area at the back of B&Q, New Park, Harrogate and took this excellent photo of a female broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, using her phone. The species is widespread and common throughout southern England and Wales. Its range does extend into southern Scotland and due to climate change is probably expanding. Sandie tells me, “This insect did not mind me being so close and I put my hand behind it just to demonstrate its size – the wing span must be at least four inches”.