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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1230—continued

Richard Younger-Ross: And he was the Minister who was responding at the time, rather than the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, who is before us today. Incidentally, I do not see why we have a change of Minister.

Alun Michael: It is very easy to explain. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I share an interest in the issue. He has a lot of interest in animal welfare issues, and of course the impact of ragwort extends not just to horses but to other animals. I have specific responsibilities, including responsibility as Minister for the horse, so between us we make up a strong team and I think that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point.

Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the Minister for those comments.

At that time, we received the response that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—would take action if ragwort was growing on farmland, but was very unwilling to take any action if it was growing at a purely equestrian establishment. One of the strengths of the Bill is that it will do away with that discrimination and it will require action across the board, whatever the nature of the establishment.

Since then, I have visited the mare and foal sanctuary just outside Chudleigh in my constituency, which does excellent work in looking after distressed horses and ponies. When I visited, the sanctuary had a pony that was recovering from ragwort poisoning, and I am pleased to say that the staff were able to restore the animal to health by using traditional herbal remedies. What is fascinating, however, is that the poor pony was addicted to the weed, so if it was growing in the field where he grazed, he would dig it up. Before the workers could let the pony out, they had to walk the field to make sure that no ragwort was coming up. The weed would re-emerge, even though a pair of workers walked the field daily.

Ragwort comes from a number of sources, and it is often found where there is development. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, it is found alongside the

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highways and byways. It is important that it is removed so that it does not contaminate land, particularly where there are horses and ponies.

It is important that in Committee we address arguments about biodiversity, which are of concern to Members. There is confusion between common ragwort and other forms of the plant, and the difference needs to be made clear. That, too, can be dealt with in Committee.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman said that he does not want the Bill to be a burden on local authorities. That is worth emphasising. The highways authority in Devon has recently had £8 million cut from its budget, so the last thing that Devon wants is any extra burdens, and I am sure that council tax payers do not want extra burdens on them, however reasonable the cause. I wish the hon. Gentleman every success with the Bill.

12.26 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): I am delighted to be able to take part in the debate as I was one of the Members who stayed in the Chamber to listen to the Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) early last year. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) was also present, so we had a complete complement of the northern Lincolnshire MPs in the House that night. We feel that this is a serious issue. Although we have urban areas in our constituencies, there is a rural hinterland where, as hon. Members have explained, ragwort poses a serious problem for the welfare of horses.

Ragwort is particularly poisonous to equines, but we should not overlook the fact that common ragwort is poisonous to other species of animal, including bovines. Sheep are also affected by the poisonous alkaloids in the plant. However, agricultural practices mean that many sheep and cattle are slaughtered before they begin to show symptoms of or die from ragwort poisoning. The poison tends to take effect slowly in those animals; the process is much quicker in horses.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on introducing the Bill. He has articulated very well the fact that the increase in this problem lies not only in the spread of the perennial plant but in the fact that ragwort poisons horses because it ends up in their forage, where its existence cannot be detected by the person purchasing it.

The ragwort plague, as it has often been described, was a serious problem throughout the 1990s, but less so during the '80s. There are many reasons for its increase, including changes made to farming practice over the years. Farming is becoming less labour intensive, which means that ragwort plants are not pulled up in and around paddocks and on verges and roadsides.

Yes, of course, development has an effect by turning soil, so that seeds in very low soil layers can be brought to a level at which they begin to germinate. The fact that they can remain dormant for 20 years demonstrates the seriousness of the problem.

Neglect is another contributory factor to the plague of ragwort. An awful lot of former agricultural land has become neglected and the weeds take hold, and no one is dealing with those pastures. That is something else that we have to consider in controlling ragwort.

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The main thing that I wish to talk about is the lack of effective predation—something about which I may disagree with the hon. Member for Ryedale. The cinnabar moth caterpillar is common ragwort's only effective predator. He said that, if the effect of controlling ragwort was the destruction of that moth, it was fine by him.

Mr. Greenway: I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I was saying that some people have suggested that there would be no cinnabar moths if we got rid of all the ragwort, but there is sufficient ragwort to ensure that the cinnabar moth will survive.

Shona McIsaac: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has clarified that point. Although all hon. Members have constituents who are worried about the welfare of their horses and other animals, we also have constituents who are very keen on butterflies and moths, and we would probably upset them if there were any suggestion of their extinction.

Ragwort is important to biodiversity in this country. It is vital to the survival of the cinnabar moth. So we begin to discover how the plague started in the late 1980s. In fact, 1988 was a particularly good year for the cinnabar moth. What happened was that the cinnabar moth caterpillar munched far too much ragwort. Although that sounds like a good thing, the following year, there was nothing for the caterpillars to eat, the moths did not lay their eggs and the predator population of cinnabar moth caterpillars plummeted, so we began to see an increase in common ragwort in the late 1980s.

We have to look seriously at the effect of biological controls on ragwort to try to re-establish the cinnabar moth, the existence of which is precarious in Britain at the moment. It is simply not reaching sustainable levels, so apart from all the other methods that can be considered to control common ragwort—systemic pesticides, digging out the roots and so on—the cinnabar moth is crucial to the argument. Some companies are now looking at such biological controls.

A few years ago, some of us laughed at the idea of buying nematodes to use as a biological method of controlling slugs in our gardens, but they are now commonly used. That method is more natural and it is also very effective. I hope that we can enlist the support of the cinnabar moth to contribute to reducing equine deaths.

One cinnabar moth caterpillar can eat a ragwort flower in about three minutes. When the moth lays its eggs and the caterpillars hatch, the brood will demolish the flowers on a plant in a day, thus getting rid of the seeds that could be released into the wind. Those caterpillars will consume about 30 plants before they turn into moths. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, those plants can produce between 150,000 and 200,000 seeds, so we can see the effect that the cinnabar moth could have on beginning to reduce the ragwort population to a level where it is less of a threat to equines, bovines and other species, while still contributing to the biodiversity of the United Kingdom's environment away from where animals are kept. I would not wish to see the plant totally destroyed. It looks wonderful away from pasture and paddocks, where it is no risk to animals.

Richard Younger-Ross: There is a lot of ragwort in the fields, as all of us in the Chamber have said. There are

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also cinnabar moths, but they do not appear to be growing in vast numbers. Therefore, there must be another cause for the decline of the cinnabar moth. We must be able to address that problem before we can use and rely on that control method for ragwort.

Shona McIsaac: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. A lot of work has been done on this subject. To extend it, we must look at predation on the moths. Some people are doing research on the dramatic decline in numbers of cinnabar moths after the population explosion. The level of predation on the moth does not allow it to get to a level at which it can establish itself and thus become an effective predator on ragwort. Their numbers are low, and if the moths' natural predators—bird species and so on—keep taking the caterpillars, it will not manage to meet the thresholds at which it can become a viable population.

To return to the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ryedale, it is an excellent measure, and I know that many of my constituents will be pleased to see it come into force. The Clee saddlery in my constituency, for example, does a lot of work via its website to educate horse owners and other owners of animals in my constituency about what the flowers actually look like: as has been said, some people see it as just a pretty yellow flower without realising its dangers. The saddlery sells what is called a "Rag Fork" to dig out the roots of the plant, and it also posts messages on its website from people in the area about what has happened to their animals.

Other Members have read out sections of letters and so on, and I shall just read out a few of the words from a message on Clee saddlery's website. It said:

Those words summarise the nature of the problem. The hon. Member for Ryedale mentioned some other cases, and the hon. Member for Teignbridge mentioned in his Adjournment debate the sad case of a pony called Topic who died from ragwort poisoning.

I support the Bill. I hope that it proceeds through its Committee stage speedily, so that we can offer more protection to owners of horses in the UK in the future.

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