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New hope for horse lovers as effective control for killer ragwort is proposed

Scientists propose developing an environmentally-friendly fungal spray that would specifically target Ragwort, infecting and killing the weed at a critical growth stage. This spray will contain a host-specific, plant pathogenic fungus as the active ingredient and will have no side-effects on non-target organisms and pose no threat to the environment. It would therefore provide a quick, safe and effective means for controlling Ragwort.

Ragwort is a common British weed which thrives on wasteland, road verges and railway land. The weed spreads easily to pasture land and is poisonous to horses, ponies, donkeys and other livestock, causing death through liver disease. It is estimated that over 6,500 horses are killed each year from Ragwort poisoning.

While current methods for controlling Ragwort, such as pulling, mowing and cutting, can be effective in the short term, they may actually promote future growth. Chemical herbicides can also be effective, but their lack of specificity means they tend to kill off surrounding vegetation and would be unsuitable on sites designated for nature conservation or as special scientific interest. Herbicides can also create spray drift hazards and leave residues in food commodities.

In order to start phase one of what could develop into a three phase project, CABI, a not-for-profit organisation, is looking to secure funds from a consortium of interested stakeholders. An anticipated budget of less than 20,000 would help fund the initial feasibility study, involving research into whether a suitably specific and damaging native fungus occurs on Ragwort and can be exploited to control the plant.

Phase 2 will involve finalising the fungal active ingredient, formulating it into a spray and conducing field trials. In phase 3, the spray will be registered and launched as a commercial product. CABI plans to set up this project as a market-driven venture and to re-invest any income generated by the commercialised spray back into its other projects and consultancy work.

Ragwort is subject to the Weeds Act 1959. Under this Act, occupiers are required to prevent the spread of Ragwort (and other injurious weeds) where they represent a risk to animal welfare and agricultural activities. The legislation was further strengthened in 2003 with the introduction of the Ragwort Control Act followed by a Code of Practice in 2004. As a result, large land owners such as Network Rail and the Highways Agency have a vested interest in finding the most effective control method available.

World-renowned for its extensive work and successes in using living organisms to control pest species, CABI is well placed to develop a natural control alternative for Ragwort. One example of CABIs work is the LUBILOSA project, which developed Green Muscle, a highly successful fungal product used to control locusts and grasshoppers in Africa. Mycoherbicide options for other UK weed species such as Buddleia, Rhododendron and Japanese knotweed are also being investigated.


Contact: Lynsey Sterrey

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