Ragwort and butterflies
Sir, – Your Editorial of August 18th focused on the common ragwort, the presence of which on roadsides is described as a national disgrace: “The central reservation of the dual carriageway [near Dublin airport] . . . is instead bereft of any floral adornment, or even a modest attempt at beautification. Instead some process of malign neglect has allowed a lethal weed to flourish and to blight the landscape.”
The Editorial outlined the toxic nature of the plant, quoted the 1936 Noxious Weeds Act and called for the National Roads Authority to act against ragwort or face prosecution for not doing so.
Common ragwort is a native plant that is widespread in Ireland and especially suited to disturbed soils such as those found on sand dunes, limestone pavement, quarries, road verges, eskers, heavily grazed areas and gardens. It feeds the larvae of nine macro-moths, notably the striking cinnabar moth, and the distinctive blooms are a tremendous nectar source for bees, hoverflies and lepidoptera species.
All the butterflies on the wing when the plant is in flower will take its nectar. I have especially seen it used by common blue, small copper, small tortoiseshell, comma (very rare in Ireland), meadow brown and hedge brown butterflies. The latter species has a very short proboscis (6mm), meaning that it relies on open, flat flowers for food.
The idea of beautifying dual carriageway medians, presumably by the provision of showy metropolitan floral arrangements favoured by polite society, is of little value to hungry wildlife. Most species rely on native plants for breeding.
The real danger to livestock caused by ragwort is an issue of good husbandry for livestock owners. Cattle and sheep certainly avoid living ragwort but will eat the plant if it is in hay. It needs to be uprooted prior to hay saving.
However, there is no livestock to worry about on road verges. Road verges are increasingly important reservoirs for biodiversity, especially with the intensively farmed land throughout most of Ireland.
Surely we can spare these strips for our butterflies and moths? – Yours, etc,