WHEN I first kept horses, many moons ago, there was no haylage, it was meadow hay or nothing.
And as a penniless schoolgirl with no help from the bank of mum and dad, I'd go for the cheapest hay, which meant from time to time it would contain some ragwort, along with a bundle of other weeds.
Ragwort, as every horse owner knows, is deadly poisonous, so, I'd pull it out, burn it and resolve not to return to that particular supplier of hay again. The same applied with the small and scattered paddocks where I'd graze my ponies - any random plant would be pulled up from its root, taken away and destroyed.
Ragwort - with its not unattractive yellow daisy like flowers has been very much in the news this year. The British Horse Society, which has campaigned for many years to educate horse owners on its dangers, played a role in the instigation of the Control of Ragwort Act of 2003 and is currently working with the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to gather fresh data on perceptions and reality. It is intended the results will ensure the correct use of the legislation.
Horses cannot be trusted not to eat it in field, although the most common source of poisoning is when it is dry and less bitter tasting in hay or haylage. A horse, pony, or cow - it is also poisonous to cattle - that is unfortunate enough to eat ragwort can suffer liver failure leading to possible death.
How many have actually died after eating ragwort appears to be unknown, as poisoning can only be confirmed through a post-mortem examination. One hopes this will be the sort of vital information, along with whether it is a build-up of ragwort, or just one mouthful that it potentially dangerous, which will be discovered from the joint efforts of the BHS and DEFRA.
For a combination of reasons this year, ragwort has been very much in abundance at the edge of roads, along railway embankments and along the edge of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
Growing conditions may have been good. The mild winter, which has seen an abundance of wild raspberries and blackberries, the latter of which may now be destroyed because of the unseasonally cold late summer, may have encouraged growth.
And then perhaps there is not the same amount of attention given to the weed from cash-strapped local authorities, which at one time would have employed people to walk along the edges of roads and canals to spray and to pull such weeds. The Ragwort Control Act of 2003 made it the responsibility of the landowner, which includes local authorities, to control ragwort by preventing its spread onto grazing land.
For those whose business is in horses - whether stabling them or feeding them - the control and management of ragwort is vitally important. Areas of land where effective management has taken place over several years, or indeed generations, can be virtually ragwort free - apart from the boundaries which may well be under the ownership of a local authority.
Sheila and Tim Pilling, who run Wilkinson's Farm Livery Stables at East Marton, have 40 horses on their yard and also produce their own hay and haylage - the control of ragwort is vitally important to them. "Ragwort is not a problem for us, but that is because we are on top of it," says Sheila. "We might get the odd plant, but we are constantly walking around looking for it and all of the people at the yard will keep an eye out for it as well."
Ragwort is seen from spring to autumn and flowers from July to October. It can grow up to three feet and is a biennial, in that it lives for just two years, flowering in its second year. However, if the plant is damaged at its base early on, it can behav e like a perennial, and live on indefinitely.
The Pillings spray their fields for ragwort in the spring and then keep an eye on any plants that survive. "We do let the plants that come through mature because that way we can pull them out completely and not leave any residue behind," says Sheila.
The Pillings have never had any case of ragwort poisoning at their yard, either through the pasture or from their own hay and haylage. But they are taking no chances; it is far easier to manage the weed by keeping vigilant. What is a problem is keeping an eye on their borders. "There is a lot of ragwort growing in verges now, and that does make our job a lot more difficult."
David Coates, of Cravenbale Haylage at Pot Haw Farm, Coniston Cold, says ragwort is also not a problem for him - but then he is also a vigilant and careful manager of the land, which has been managed well for generations before him. "As a forage provider, I have to be very careful.
"If someone was to find ragwort in some of my haylage, they wouldn't come back. But we really don't have a problem with it."
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, ragwort thrives in areas of 'unimproved pasture' and it produces large number of seeds which are dispersed by the winds - which makes the fact it thrives on road verges a problem for anyone close.
In an attempt to highlight this, the BHS has carried out a number of Ragwort Awareness weeks, given out hundreds of rag forks, which pull out ragwort more efficiently, and has also targeted local authorities.
The BHS says it is not looking to eradicate the weed entirely, just to have it controlled where it grows close to grazing animals.
It is indeed loved by bees and other flying insects. Wildlife charity Buglife says there are 30 insect species and 14 fungi species which are reliant on ragwort, including around a third that are classed as scarce or rare. It is also important nectar source for hundreds of butterflies and bees.