IT IS one of the prettiest of Britain's wildflowers, a tall plant whose brilliant golden blossoms stand out above long grass and other weeds in our hedgerows and other uncultivated land, and it is now just coming into bloom.
But ragwort is also a deadly poison, especially to horses and farm livestock, and can also be a serious danger to humans if it enters the bloodstream via contact or in foods like milk and honey. So a nationwide alert has gone out to landowners, farmers and highway authorities: kill it as soon as it appears.
Beautiful but deadly: Ragwort kills 2000 horses every year
Because the plant kills some 2,000 horses a year - and poisons many more sheep and cattle - the British Horse Society has launched a Ragwort Awareness Campaign, urging people to kill the plant whenver it is found but never to hand pull it: its poison absorbed through the hands can cause jaundice.
Professor Derek Knottenbelt, a ragwort specialist at the University of Liverpool, says: "This weed poses a health threat to people as well as horses, sheep and cattle.
"It is toxic to humans, so what are we doing with it in this country? I have deliberately poisoned myself with ragwort to disprove critics who had claimed it was harmless to humans. I have tested it on myself and my liver is now in a bad state.
"Fundamentally, the yellow weed kills around 2,000 horses a year in Britain, often by triggering liver failure, resulting in photosensitivity and in some instances cancer."
Ragwort can be found around the countryside in summer, flowering in places including horse meadows, roadsides and railway embankments. Although the Ragwort Act 2003 and codes of practice which were introduced alongside the legislation gives local authorities greater power to deal with the eradication of the plant, it does not appear to be on their priority lists.
Derek Smith of Ragwort-UK warns: "Hand pulling ragwort can be a lethal activity for humans. During 2002 we were notified of one lady who developed jaundice after several days rooting out ragwort. The World Health Organisation states that there is a 74% probability of death (within 18 to 24 months) in humans presented with ragwort induced jaundice. The problem is much worse in children.
"Unfortunately, the medical profession is generally unaware and doctors are unlikely to correlate liver disease with past bouts of ragwort pulling."Further details on ragwort can be found at: http://www.ragwortfacts.info/ http://support.ragwort-uk.com/ and http://edu.ragwort-uk.com/