Equine Welfare (Ragwort Control) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:41 am on 21st March 2003.

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Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale 11:41 am, 21st March 2003

We are talking only about the common ragwort. I am not aware that the varieties of ragwort to which the hon. Lady refers cause a problem. Perhaps some other species of ragwort are rare and need to be protected, but I am talking about the common ragwort that one sees on grass verges, sprouting beautiful yellow flowers.

The main problem with common ragwort's effect is that many animals may appear to die from other or similar diseases. Unless there is a post-mortem, there is no way of knowing whether the animal is already suffering the effects of ragwort ingestion. Due to the insidious nature of ragwort, advanced damage to the liver can take many years to occur—sometimes, as many as 10 to 15 years. Given the conservative estimate, in 2002, of 1,000 deaths a year, and if no action is taken to control the growth of ragwort, how many horses will die in 2012 or 2017? That does not bear thinking about. Given the Minister's responsibilities within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he will know that some of the illnesses and diseases that have affected our livestock over the years start in a small way, but can quickly escalate because of the time that it takes for the symptoms to show.

The horse industry's value to the economy is estimated at £2.5 billion. It is a hugely important industry in my constituency. At the last count, we had some 28 racehorse trainers and several breeders. One need only go to the Ryedale show each July, which has no fewer than seven rings for gymkhanas and horses, to realise just how important the horse is to the rural economy. I know that the Minister, whose responsibilities include the horse, recognises this only too well. Indeed, I am very grateful to him for the manner in which he has discussed this issue with me, and for being here today—on a Friday—to respond to my Bill.

There are some 900,000 privately owned horses in the UK, and a further 65,000 professionally owned animals. Almost 1 million horses are therefore at risk. With farmer diversification and riding increasing in popularity—some 26.5 million riding lessons took place in 1999, the last year for which figures are available—the use of the horse for all manner of leisure pursuits will increase. If we do not do something now to control the growth of ragwort, the number of horses dying from its poison will increase.

Why has the Weeds Act 1959 failed to protect these animals? Under it, it is not illegal to allow ragwort to grow. The Act allows the Secretary of State to serve a notice on an occupier of any land on which one of the five specified injurious weeds is growing. They include the common ragwort, but not the other types referred to by Shona McIsaac. The notice requires the occupier to take action to prevent the weeds from spreading. The Act also permits DEFRA officials to enter the land to establish whether an enforcement notice has been complied with. Only if the occupier has unreasonably failed to comply with the notice can he or she be found guilty of an offence.

By its own admission, the Department does not investigate a complaint unless it relates to agricultural land, or to agricultural land that has diversified into horses. The process is reactive, not preventive. In 2002, DEFRA stated that 1,212 initial reports resulted in 490 complaint forms being issued, just 200 of which were returned. No notices were served in 2002 or in the previous year. The failure of the 1959 Act is that it only empowers the Secretary of State to take action; it does not require him to do so. It provides no structure to enable landowners, particularly public authorities, routinely to establish a mechanism through which they can deal with this problem.

I turn now to control and why the weed is so pernicious. There is no quick and easy way to control ragwort. Several methods are available, but no single one suits all scenarios. One of the main problems has been that ragwort control often takes place when the plant is highly visible, during the flowering season of July and August. It is too late then, because the seeds are already on their way. Each plant can produce between 150,000 and 250,000 seeds that, once airborne, can travel up to 10 miles. The seeds can lie dormant for 20 years in the soil before germinating.

New motorways being built now—although there are not many, given the Government's transport policy—and other new developments disturb the soil, through the creation of embankments, and will produce a forest of ragwort in the next few years. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suggest that you drive from the top of the M1 in north Yorkshire to Brent Cross and Staples Corner in April and May, because you will see a 200-mile carpet of dandelions. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes will have used the road and she will know what I mean. The same potential problem exists for the dreadful ragwort. Crawley in Sussex is apparently rife with new ragwort, as developers snap up land and leave it for future development, awaiting the go-ahead for the thousands of new homes proposed by the Government.

Control methods for ragwort need to be applied in the spring, during April and May, when the plant is at the rosette stage of growth. Current methods of cutting do not destroy the plant. It will grow again the next year, more prolifically than before. Hand pulling must ensure that the whole root is removed, otherwise it will return. Hand pulling or digging is labour-intensive. Spot spraying with herbicides is a popular method of control, but operators need to be trained to know which plant they should be spraying. Biological methods of control, such as using the cinnabar moth, are under investigation. I understand that a report on that issue will be presented to DEFRA soon.

During my research, I have discovered that there are now fewer cinnabar moths around than there used to be. That may be one of the reasons why it is more difficult to control the spread of ragwort. The moths are a natural predator for the plant and it has been claimed that if we get rid of all the ragwort, we will have no cinnabar moths. However, the spread of ragwort is so great at the moment that I regard that prospect as extremely unlikely.