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The British Horse Society (BHS) is holding the first of two annual ragwort awareness weeks this week (4-8 April) — the second will take place in September.

The BHS is using the initiative to encouraging horse owners to clear paddocks of the small “rosette-stage” growths visible now, rather than waiting until the plant is in bloom and ready to spread.

The biennial weed is one of the most common causes of poisoning in horses and cattle, killing thousands every year, and its effects are cumulative, so that small intakes over a long period of time have the same effects as one large intake.

Ragwort contains alkaloids, which are poisonous to livestock as well as humans, and causes potentially fatal liver damage in horses. Symptoms include loss of condition, poor appetite, lethargy and photosensitisation (sunburn).

The most recent data available for ragwort deaths in Britain dates back to 2002, when some 6,500 animals were believed to have died as a result of ingesting the killer weed.

The introduction of the BHS-backed Ragwort Control Act in 2003, has made it easier for DEFRA to act on complaints about ragwort and compel councils, public bodies and landowners to clear the poisonous yellow-flowering plant.

Under the revised procedures for investigating ragwort, DEFRA issued 41 enforcement notices in 2004, compared to 11 in 2003. A DEFRA spokesman said that in most cases, the notice had resulted in the weeds being cleared.

The BHS reported a surge in calls after the ragwort code of practice was launched in July 2004 from people asking how to complain about ragwort.

The DEFRA website advises: “First approach the owner/occupier of the land on which the weeds are and ask them to take steps to clear the weeds.”

For ragwort alongside motorways or trunk roads, the complaint should be referred to the Highways Agency (tel: 08457 504030), and for minor roads, the local highway authority (see telephone directory). For ragwort on railway land, call Network Rail (tel: 08457 114141).

If this fails, complainants should complete the four-page Weeds Act complaint form (north of England: tel: 01270 754262; south: tel: 0117 959 8622; ask for Weed 2 Rev 7/03).

For further information about ragwort, contact the BHS welfare department (tel: 01926 707807) or visit: www.bhs.org.uk