Chalk downland is the product of many centuries of grazing, and is rich in animal and plant life. These areas are well-known for butterflies and orchids. Without proper management, grasslands will become overgrown with scrub and eventually trees. Unfortunately, it is not possible to control woody growth just by putting more livestock on, as they would seriously over-graze the grass and other palatable plants before having a big impact on the scrub.
The economics of the countryside means that there is usually a job for volunteers, selectively clearing bushes to create a mixture of habitats. If left to rot down, the cut material would shade out the grassland and supply it with unwanted nutrients. So we almost always have a bonfire, which also provides a bit of warmth at the end of a winter's day.
Ragwort is very poisonous to cattle, horses and sheep, causing progressive damage to
the liver. Animals will usually avoid eating live plants, but are more likely to eat dead plants
that have become mixed with other material. Although the plant becomes more palatable when dead,
the poisonous alkaloids remain.
Its only plus point is that it supports the red and black Cinnabar moth. The yellow and black larva can often be found eating the leaves and flowers.
The normal way to remove ragwort is to wait until it flowers so that it is easy to identify, then pull up the whole plant, complete with roots. Any roots left in the ground know a challenge when they see one, and produce more top growth.
Pulling ragwort can be hot work during the summer, but a well-managed site should have only a scattering to deal with. One of our regular sites is Magdalen Hill Down, near Winchester, where the easiest technique is to follow the contours from one end to the other while admiring the combined spectacle of landscape, flowers and butterflies.
To help avoid pulling up the wrong thing, here are some pictures from Magdalen Hill Down.
|Ragwort||St. John's Wort||Ploughman's Spikenard|