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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1223—continued

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that we are talking only about the common ragwort and not about other varieties of the plant, such as fen ragwort and Oxford ragwort? Do they contain the same poisonous alkaloids?

Mr. Greenway: 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

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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 the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (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

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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.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his important Bill. I have seen for myself the horrendous spread of ragwort along verges next to agricultural land on which horses graze. It is especially insidious because the weed can be harvested with the hay and is equally poisonous when it is dried out. Can he confirm that people who pull up ragwort should wear gloves, because it can be damaging to the human liver to pull it up with bare hands for prolonged periods?

Mr. Greenway: I can confirm that. It is amazing how one's hon. Friends who intervene can anticipate the very next paragraph in one's speech.

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Mr. Wiggin: Sorry.

Mr. Greenway: There is no need to apologise; the intervention was timely. I was about to say that no matter what method is employed to control ragwort, operators need to be fully trained and protected with suitable clothing, such as gloves, because the poison from ragwort can enter through the skin. Pretty the plant may be; pretty deadly, it most certainly is.

What is the Bill about, and what are we trying to achieve? We lack a structure within which land occupiers can work to control ragwort. We want not to impose new burdens on public authorities and landowners, but to make life easier by setting up a structured system that occupiers may follow to deal with what I believe is a moral obligation to ensure that the weed is not on their land. A code of practice to control ragwort is being produced and may provide the mechanism that will allow people to comply with the Bill. Public landowners support the process, and I have had letters and representations of support from Hampshire county council, which takes the issue seriously because of the many wild horses and ponies in the New Forest, and from Oxfordshire county council. An Oxfordshire member sits on the code of practice steering group, as does a member from Network Rail.

I was glad to receive from Oxfordshire this week a letter from the area engineer, Colin Carritt, which outlines the work that the county council is doing to deal with the problem. I shall read several paragraphs from that letter because they show precisely what we think the code of practice—guidance to help the authorities—might contain. The letter states:

As a former member of North Yorkshire county council, I know only too well the truth of that. It goes on:

That may sound amusing, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since you, like me, represent a rural area, you will understand that it provides an extremely effective way of making use of people in the community at effectively no cost to the Government or to local authorities.

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The letter goes on:

I hope that the House will forgive me for quoting from that letter at such length, but I hope that I have illustrated very precisely the point that the Minister and I discussed in his office on Monday morning. I think that it was his very first meeting of the week—it was certainly mine.

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