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Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, ragwort is already classified as a noxious weed and Clause 1 introduces only one new element; namely, that there should be a code of practice to provide guidance on how to prevent the spread of ragwort. Of course the code does not exist because the Bill has not yet been passed.

I want to stress the words, "prevent the spread of" ragwort. That is a fairly modest aim. However useful the code of practice may be, it is hardly conceivable that either ragwort or the cinnabar moth will vanish from the countryside. I have to say, since we are dealing with the amendment of the right reverend Prelate, that I am not attracted to his proposed wording. It might imply that the code of practice should go beyond the control of ragwort itself to, for example, guidance on the inspection of horses' feed or even veterinary advice. It would widen the entire field which might be covered by the code of practice. That could give rise to many difficulties.

I hope that the Bill will go forward in the form in which it has been presented to the House.

Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, I declare an interest in that we have a small number of Welsh black cattle. While with great regret I must oppose the amendment of the right reverend Prelate, I do so because of its over-concentration on the interests of horses. In our view, and in the view of our vet who has attended the corpses of some of our cattle, ragwort is a killer for cattle.

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If noble Lords visit the Library of your Lordships' House, they can consult that inestimable work, Black's Veterinary Dictionary, now in its 20th edition. On page 432 it states that ragwort poisoning,

    "causes losses among cattle and sheep in Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand"—

and goes on to refer to South Africa. Ragwort poisoning causes,

    "cirrhosis of the liver, inflammation of the fourth stomach, and other lesions".

I hope that, at this hour, noble Lords will not ask me to go further into the damage done to various parts of the anatomy of cattle. However, it is clear that ragwort is a serious cause of disease, mainly via the liver, for many other forms of livestock.

Because the amendment moved by the right reverend Prelate is limited to horses, I would urge noble Lords not to accept it.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I have not intervened in the debates on this Bill because I had considered it to be a relatively minor piece of legislation which would go through the House without amendment. All noble Lords understand that any amendment agreed today would ensure that the measure would not reach the statute book.

The right reverend Prelate is correct to identify ragwort as one of the major hazards of the horse world. Ragwort, in particular when it is mixed in with hay, can be fatal in many instances. That is even more the case when the weed has wilted; it seems then to become extremely toxic to animals. I daresay that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, understands that it is probably the hay eaten by his cattle that contains ragwort in its toxic form.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, that is not strictly so. Ragwort is absolutely poisonous to horses, cattle and humans when it is green, but in that form it tastes disgusting to animals, so they do not eat it unless it is the same height as the grass on which they are cropping. Animals eat it with pleasure only when it reaches the hay stage. I hope that my noble friend will excuse me for butting in.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I think that my noble friend has reinforced what I was saying. It is when ragwort is mixed in with hay that animals seem to eat it with some pleasure, and that is when in many instances it becomes fatal. Very often sheep can graze ragwort with impunity and, over a period of time, eradicate it from various fields.

As my noble friend Lady Trumpington said, it is set aside and the recent farming practices that have seen the spread of this rather dangerous weed.

The Bill sets out that a code of practice may be introduced to stop the spread of ragwort. That is the only purpose of this small Bill. But the BHS has written to me to say that it has no intention to press for the eradication of ragwort but supports this attempt to see it controlled. So any idea that the Bill seeks to eradicate ragwort is entirely wrong.

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I urge the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, who has also tabled an amendment, not to press their amendments to a Division at this rather late stage in the Bill's passage through Parliament. It provides a useful measure which can go some way towards alleviating a problem that the BHS and many horse owners recognise as being fairly devastating for the horse population and will help ensure that it is not exacerbated.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate made some important points in regard to biodiversity and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply on that issue. However, I hope that the right reverend Prelate will not press his amendment. Like other noble Lords, I believe that there is some point in the Bill going through, although I wonder whether the suggestion I made in Committee about forage being certified as ragwort free might be more vigorously pursued.

The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, made a fair point—horses do indeed graze verges in some circumstances—but, as she went on to say, they do not choose to eat the ragwort when it is growing at that height.

As noble Lords have mentioned, the other key solution lies in good pasture management. Beyond publishing the code, the Government should give serious thought to that aspect when they come to consider reforming agri-environment schemes as areas become less stocked. Such approaches will make a difference.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing forward the amendment but I, too, hope that he will not press it. I understand why he has introduced it. The death of horses and cattle is very unpleasant and we all wish to see the number of deaths reduced as far as possible.

As for parliamentary timing, I understand that if any amendment is pressed today the Bill will not proceed further. I believe that all noble Lords speaking to the Bill want it to get through but, to a certain extent, that will depend on the code. Having listened carefully and read in Hansard the report of the previous occasion when my noble friend Lord Rotherwick guided the Bill through on behalf of our Front Bench, I understand that the code cannot come into being until this has been agreed.

Having heard what has been said—I believe we are all on the same wavelength, if I may use that bad phraseology—perhaps I may add one further comment. Having kept horses and ponies—and scrubby ones at that—on many occasions over the years, I believe that, to a certain extent, it is up to those of us who have cattle and horses to do our best to ensure that ragwort is not found within the eating areas of our animals. I know that that is more difficult in the bigger public domain than in small paddocks.

As to the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, I tremble in my boots at the thought of the regulation involved in

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searching for ragwort in hay bales. There are genuine concerns but I hope that the code will overcome those expressed in the House today.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I support my noble friend's Bill. It is a very pretty little Bill and it is not very far reaching. It does not say that it will eradicate all ragwort or all cinnabar moths or any other insects. I think the ragwort fairy in the fairy book is very pretty and attractive. There will still be ragwort, but not near horses. This is a very modest little Bill, so I hope that the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, will not press their amendments.

11.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the House knows, the Government strongly support this Bill and would not wish to see an amendment. However, it is important to stress to the right reverend Prelate and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who will speak shortly, that the Bill does not envisage the eradication of ragwort, as the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, has just indicated. It is about the control of the spread of ragwort and about putting the responsibility on landowners and land managers to ensure that it does not spread.

The right reverend Prelate's amendment would effectively restrict the effect to where horses were involved. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said, this is a problem not only for horses: other livestock are involved. It would also mean that the responsibility was shifted away from the landowners on to the horse owners. Although I accept the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that horse owners have some responsibility in this area, responsibility for the limitation of ragwort must rest with the landowners or the land managers. That is what the Bill states at present and what the code of practice will turn into a real power and responsibility.

I therefore hope that the right reverend Prelate will not pursue his amendment. Along with the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, I doubt whether this is the right reverend Prelate's last intervention in this Chamber. Nevertheless, I join her in my respect for his interventions in these rural debates and offer him best wishes for his retirement.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I hope that what I am about to say will help the right reverend Prelate. Ragwort is the silent killer. Ragwort poisoning kills hundreds of horses every year, often with little or no warning, and there is no known cure. It is vital, therefore, that farmers and landowners stay vigilant and take immediate action against this lethal plant.

At least 500 horses a year die from the natural born killer. Dr Derek Knottenbelt of the equine division of the University of Liverpool thinks the figure is much higher.

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Cattle are about halfway between horses and sheep in terms of the effects of ragwort poisoning. They need protecting too. Humans may be affected through cows' milk and bees' honey. The World Health Organisation has reported on this.

I have been concerned that some very experienced country Members of your Lordships' House have been picking ragwort with bare hands, not wearing protective gloves. Ragwort is toxic: the toxins in ragwort are alkaloids, which cause huge liver damage by attacking the DNA. Ragwort poisoning is an end-stage liver disease. Nothing can be done to save horses and other animals once it reaches 75 per cent, and nobody knows when this level is reached.

This Bill, which needs protecting tonight, will help to educate many people throughout the country about the devastation which ragwort poisoning can cause, especially to horse owners. The Bill will not eradicate ragwort; it aims to control it.

I thank all noble Lords who have supported the Bill this evening. I hope that the right reverend Prelate, for whom I have great respect, will not insist on his amendment.

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