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The Big Society and a killer weed

Friday 6 August 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard has been warning for years about the growing dangers of the killer weed ragwort, which is spreading like wildfire. Can it be tackled by the Big Society?

OK! I confess. I am a dyed in the wool sceptic when it comes to grandiose schemes announced by politicians of any stripe. Sadly, I have seen so many launched with great fanfare only to fail miserably, to be filed away and forgotten in that great pigeon hole they call Whitehall.

So although I am so far pretty impressed by the way the new Coalition has been handling things from the countryside’s point of view – they now seem to know what they are doing at Defra, for instance – I have grave doubts about David Cameron’s grandiose dream, the Big Society.

Killer Weed

Basically, it demands that many of the tasks which should be the work of state employees – whose incompetence and execrable leadership in many areas has made us an international laughing stock – and given to volunteers who, it is believed, will do a better job. For free!

Now living as I do in the Yorkshire Dales, where voluntary work and charities are highly active and where helping out the neighbours is the norm, I think this has a good chance of working – although the charities could do with a boost from the funds which will allegedly be saved by state sector cuts.

Whether it will have any effect in the inner cities, where most of this nation’s problems lie, is another matter but (thankfully) this is not my subject today because this is a country column and, this week, a Government minister hit on a countryside problem which has been vexing me for years: an innocuous looking yellow flowered weed called ragwort.

And that’s one of the problems: this pretty little plant is the very opposite from innocuous. It is, in fact, a killer, particularly of horses, is very dangerous to cattle and sheep and, here’s a shock for many innocent pet owners, it can also kill dogs (dogs which have a habit of eating grass and other plants are probably suffering from worms, and need treatment anyway).

This has been known for centuries by farmers and equestrians but is little known to the general public, particularly trippers out for a day in the countryside and young pony owners. It is so dangerous that it even has its very own Parliamentary bill, the Ragwort Control Act 2003, which makes it illegal to allow the weed to grow on a person’s land or garden – and it pops up from time to time on my allotment.

This is the time of the year when the plant is in full flower, and therefore more easily identified, but what brought it into the news this week was a remarkable speech by the new, and very active, Farm Minister Jim Paice, the nearest thing we have had to a Minister of Agriculture since New Labour scrapped the post after their foot and mouth debacle.

What was so remarkable about this speech was that Jim Paice declared that this was an ideal case to cause the Big Society to spring into action and we, the general public – and the rural public in particular – should tackle this golden plague ourselves.

I shall be out looking this dangerous menace this weekend...

Now this was the first concrete proposal I have yet heard from the much-vaunted Big Society dream. As the Minister said: “Tackling common ragwort can be a practical example of the Big Society in action. Landowners, conservation and community groups can all help by being on the lookout and to help remove this weed where there’s a risk that livestock will eat it.”

Now there is no doubt that action is needed. Despite the fact that landowners are bound by law to clear any of the weed which grows on their property, it has been spreading like wildfire. I have been campaigning against it for years here in the Yorkshire Dales, both in this column and in newspapers, but – frankly – it has not made a blind bit of difference.

And the reason for that – would you believe – seems to be a total lack of interest (or could it be ignorance of the law?) by two public bodies in particular, North Yorkshire County Council and British Waterways, one the county’s highways authority, the other responsible for maintaining the many miles of towpath along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

Ragwort has been spreading along our roadside verges and the canal banks for years and I have never in my travels along both have I seen any attempt to cull it. My allotment abuts the canal and the tow path is much used by dog walkers: there have even been clumps of the weed growing out of the canal bridge in the very centre of Skipton.

Both these bodies do a splendid job considering that they have been strapped for cash for the past decade, a situation that will get even worse as the country fights its biggest ever peacetime debts. North Yorkshire’s performance in education and road maintenance for the biggest county in England deserve great praise. British Waterways have made the canal a jewel in the crown of the southern Dales.

Tackling the ragwort menace will not be easy – it is a stubborn plant to destroy and its seeds can propagate even after the host plant is dead – but advice is available at www.defra.gov.uk - weeds

I shall be out looking this dangerous menace this weekend. This is the first concrete proposal the Big Society has thrown up and it is well within the scope of caring country folk. Here’s hoping, fingers crossed, that this is a challenge the Big Society will meet and beat.

Feedback received on this subject:

There is a lot of ragwort and other weeds on National Trust owned land in Swaffham Prior Fen (in Mr Paice’s constituency of South East Cambridgeshire).

It is part of the Trust’s so-called ‘Wicken Vision.’ Maybe some people can be got together to pull the ragwort? I’m not going to do it because I am ‘persona non grata’ with the National Trust.

Geoffrey Woollard South East Cambridgeshire

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