The general public as well as landowners and farmers should be aware of or have an understanding of the legal implications outlined in the Weeds Act 1959 and what obligations you have if ragwort is found to be growing on your land. The law states that you may be legally obliged to clear and prevent the spread of ragwort. Failure to do so is a criminal offence and you may face legal proceedings as a result.
Ragwort is a significant problem particularly for horse owners because this hazardous weed is poisonous to animals including certain horses especially if it is consumed in the right quantities.
Once consumed the weed can result in serious health concerns for the animal.
The government and organisations such as the Environment Agency are able to issue a notice to the owner or occupier of a piece of land instructing them to clear the ragwort. Ragwort is a poisonous weed which can be dangerous to animals, particularly horses and cattle. It is even more potent in dry form so if it comes into contact with hay, it can cause contamination and prove fatal to horses. Sometimes hay becomes contaminated when the hay has been standing in a field that horses use for grazing.
Farmers must also take reasonable precautions to ensure that any hay they sell to other farmers for their horses is not contaminated with ragwort.
One of the main problems with ragwort is that it tends to spread very quickly because it has a long lasting seed. Once a piece of land has been affected it can take many months and often years to eradicate ragwort completely.
Farmers & Landowners
Farmers and landowners must understand that you have legal obligations to treat and remove ragwort from your land. If it spreads on neighbouring land, the landowner can take legal action if you allow the weed to spread.
Each ragwort ‘plant’ produces thousands of seeds which are carried by the wind. The spread of ragwort can also be attributed to the movement or spread of contaminated soil during building work.
The weed can be easily removed from the ground due to its shallow root structure. The flower and the stem should be burned or if there are no seeds it can be removed and composted. For areas that have been heavily infested by ragwort the only remedy is the use of a strong weed killer which may need repeat applications over a period of time.
Legislation relating to ragwort is governed by the Ragwort Control Act 2003 and the Weeds Act 1959. Under these two pieces of legislation there are specific rules and powers that the Secretary of State has to control the spread of this problematic weed.
The Weeds Act 1959
In particular, The Weeds Act 1959 provides the Secretary of State the power to serve a written notice to a landowner where ragwort is growing ordering them to take the required action to prevent the species from spreading. The Secretary of State can make this order and instruct the land owner to comply within a certain period of time. If a notice is served on the occupier of the land but they fail to comply this is a criminal offence punishable through a fine.
Once fourteen days has elapsed from being convicted and the land owner still has not complied with the instructions contained within the notice an additional criminal offence is committed and a further fine can be issued.
When the Secretary of State decides to take action on the occupier, they can also seek to recover all reasonable costs required for doing so. If, for some reason this is not possible and the land is not owned by the occupier, the Secretary of State can seek to recover their costs from the owner of the land instead.
Once reasonable enquiries have been made and the Secretary of State cannot confirm the name and address of the land owner, they can make an application to the High Court or County Court for an order to impose a land charge. Commonly referred to as a local land charge, the Secretary of State will aim to secure the payment in relation to the claim.
If the land owner has been asked to pay the fee due to the actions of the occupier, the land owner can seek to recover this amount from the occupier.
Power of Entry
The Secretary of State has the ability to provide authorisation to allow an individual or local authority to access land in order to exercise their powers under the Weeds Act 1959. This notification should detail the date the inspection will be undertaken and should be served on the occupier of the land at that time.
A criminal offence is committed if the occupier or any individual attempts to obstruct entry for the person who has been given suitable authorisation. Committing this criminal offence will result in a fine.
Ragwort Control Act
In 2003, the Ragwort Control Act was introduced and it provided certain powers to the Secretary of State. These powers allowed the Secretary of State to create a code of practice to outline how the growth of ragwort could be prevented, reduced and where possible stopped.
These codes of practice can be used in court as evidence where action is taken by the Secretary of State.
There has been one major code of practice published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which detailed how to prentice the spread of ragwort. This document provides specific guidance on how ragwort can be identified, key factors to consider when undertaking a risk assessment and identifying ragwort control measures. These include environmental issues, health and safety concerns and methods of control.
The code of practice does not aim to eliminate ragwort but to simply control the weed in locations where it could pose a risk to animal welfare.
Ragwort is a serious problem and it cannot be left in the hope that it will go away. The longer it is left the more it takes hold and the more severe the consequences will be.