Why did I become a landscaping contractor?
The Answer – Ragwort poisoning!
There was no other reason than the fact my former employer Bill Cragg from Romney Marsh Kent and I were tempted up to the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire Fens by almost unlimited free sugar beet tops to graze sheep on along with virtually free grazing behind cattle fields on the marshes. This was in the late 50′s and erly 60′s but a year or two later – we became all to aware of the reason why the land was so cheap.
That first year though was a great success! I believe it was 1959 – we had a tremendous drought followed by torrential rain making the marshes flood early. The sheep went on to the marshes for about a month and then onto Rye grass and sugar beet tops. The Ewes and lambs had developed well and they went back to Ashford Market earning us a good deal of money.
Hot on this success I went back to Kent to go to college and afterwards was offered a job as head herdsman in charge of over 200 Ayershire cows – but after two years, I got a yearning to return to the Fens and contacting my old boss to see if he had any work there.
Bill got back to me with wanting help with an ailing flock – they didn’t seem to want to eat the sugar beet tops – after seeking advice it was decided that the beet must be too green or too bitter.
When I arrived back in Norfolk, these sheep were in a sorry state – many died and the post mortems were inconclusive with some dying of pneumonia others of cirrhosis of the liver. Of the surviving sheep – some obviously had dropsy – others seemed to get better and later were sold for slaughter. However we were then contacted saying that some of these had been condemned due to organs welding themselves together. The vets couldn’t really explain these problems but we were becoming more and more suspicious that it was Ragwort poisoning despite being told that it wasn’t.
A few years later we grazed a large number of sheep on the marshes moving them frequently from field to field where there was plenty of free grazing. We began to lose a few and it was becoming clear that the first thing the sheep would do in each new pasture was to eat the Ragwort rosettes right down to the roots. I mentioned this to the vet feeling ever more sure that Ragwort was the problem and yet again the vet told me it was not and that sheep in Ireland live amongst Ragwort all the time and they are fine.
When the sheep were moved on to sugar beet tops, they just stood there with very little appetite. Their condition started to deteriorate and we tried them with hay but it was no good – even those who did eat didn’t fatten – nothing seemed to work and we started to lose a lot.
This had a massive knock on effect with severe financial losses and relations became very strained between us.
I stayed up in Norfolk and bought a few hundred sheep of my own and did a little contract work but it was becoming patently clear that a pattern was forming - if the sheep were moved across on to the marshes, a month or two later they failed to thrive and I had losses.
To get a living I did a bit of sheep shearing and also some self employed contracting including subcontract landscaping that eventually would bring me to where I am now.
During this time I was asked to shear some sheep for a local woman who had put her flock on the marshes. They were in perfect condition and the woman was very proud of them – however a month or two later when she took them back to her farm, they wouldn’t eat, their stomachs went in and she was prosecuted due to a vets report stating she had maltreated them.
The vet who told me that my problems were not Ragwort induced bought a flock of sheep himself and put his on the marshes too – I told him not to as he would get the same problems as us. He told me his sheep would be fine as he would look after them properly – his sheep all died.
It took this for him to realise what was causing this enormous problem and held a meeting with all the local landowners stating his opinion that all landowners should be responsible for eradicating Ragwort.
Another local farmer when the flood came moved his cattle temporarily into fields full of mature Ragwort. They would normally eat around it but that was all that was there so they ate it and he lost 46 mature cows.
I could quote and quote these instances that have happened over the years and still they go on.
Now I am no longer a farmer and own Giles Landscapes – part of our work is conservation and I have learnt over the years that Ragwort under the correct conservation conditions harbours some 30 to 40 fungi and insects.
Although my experiences with Ragwort sound horrific (and they were) I do not want to see Ragwort eradicated completely and as for the letter in the Daily Telegraph stating that sheep should be used to eradicate Ragwort – I have the following to say:
If sheep are to be used to help eradicate Ragwort from fields, this needs to be restricted so they don’t ingest too much. The problem is they become addicted to it. Yes sheep, cattle and horses do walk through fields with mature Ragwort in them and graze in between with no apparent harm but it is because they don’t like to eat the mature plants and it is tempting fate to leave them in fields where there are mature plants, as you will no doubt find young plants too.
The original ministry leaflets were misleading and I would go as far as to say they were flawed! I am on the side of the horse society that states that thousands of horses die each year through Ragwort poisoning.
There should be proper codes of conduct in place whereby the government puts the onus on landowners who let out pastures for hire to be duty bound to give tenants guidance on how to cope with the problem ensuring that Ragwort is kept under control.
So what became of my old boss Bill Cragg – well he became a leading strawberry grower and pig farmer of a herd of pigs that remained virus free for 26 years! But after our problems he did not manage any more sheep. I went down to Kent for his 90th birthday recently and as usual we reminisced over the disasters of the past. I have kept firm friends with him ever since and he still pops in when there is a bit of fen skating going on and stays a night or two.
He has even lent a hand with our show gardens – taking me around rural Kent on a fence hunt for our Chelsea Gold medal winning Fenland alchemist garden – the fencing we found really added something to the garden!
In my last blog you would have read how we had Ragwort in our Sandringham garden but decided against it for our Chelsea garden – just as well – If my old Boss Bill Cragg had seen it – there would have been hell to pay!