Ragwort control is vital

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Remember Day Of The Triffids, by John Wyndham, a science fiction story about a plant threatening to take over the world, blinding and eating humanity in the process?

I recalled it when I saw recent publicity about the spread of giant hogweed in the Borders – it doesn’t blind and eat humans, but can cause severe skin irritation – and also when looking at some of the swathes of yellow, potentially poisonous, ragwort in the countryside at present.

Clearly ragwort is not a fictional triffid or the too-real hogweed. But its spread over recent years rivals anything Wyndham imagined. Failure to control its growth and spread is a legal offence, but the fact that no farmer, landowner or council, because many roadside verges and dunes are a riot of ragwort this summer, has ever been charged dilutes that threat.

In effect, controlling ragwort needs self-policing and too many who should know better ignore that.

If feeling charitable, we could say that some farmers have a blind spot about ragwort even though it grows fairly tall, has a strong stem, is a gorgeous yellow in full bloom, and can take over whole fields. Yet, like wild oats in grain, ragwort seems to appear in grassland by stealth.

It should be easily detected, but it isn’t, and once established – one plant can produce tens of thousands of viable seeds – is difficult to eradicate.

There is an apparent oddity in the most recent annual rural crime figures compiled by NFU Mutual, the biggest rural insurance company. It is that rural crime in the UK as a whole was down 20 per cent last year, but in Scotland was 12 per cent up. The overall drop in claims by £42million is good news, particularly a drop of more than 30 per cent for tractor theft and 17 per cent for quad bikes. But livestock rustling increased, which might account for much of the increase in rural crime.

Determined thieves, many of whom obviously work or have worked with sheep and cattle and know exactly what they’re doing, are hard to stop. Given the rustlers’ expertise, good timing, and some luck, sheep can be loaded quickly into a small lorry or big van and be far away before the next check is made by farmer or shepherd. Fewer stockmen looking after bigger numbers in further-flung grazings is also a factor.

It’s impossible to be everywhere at once and regular checks can get the go-by at busy times elsewhere on a farm. In the tales of the Border reivers, cattle stealing was seen as brave and romantic. Now we see it for the sneaky theft it is.

I only grow potatoes for home use. But I take an interest in varieties and wonder why so much hot air is talked about the old varieties being best and why efforts are made to revive them.

This summer, for example, Epicure potatoes have not been a patch on Charlotte for yield or eating quality, and my efforts in previous years with varieties such as Dunbar Rover and Pentland Blue only proved why they had almost died out.

I can see the point in maintaining a genetic base of all varieties because one characteristic might be useful in future breeding programmes. That doesn’t mean I have to eat them.