Weeds that are a joy for insects

Yes we all hate ragwort for the damage it can inflict on our horses, cattle and sheep. 231 species of insect think it is just one of summertime’s unmissable treats.

This photo I took last week in my garden. Three ragwort plants established themselves on a patch of bare soil where the pheasants eat their crumbs and tail corn and I let the plants grow over the two years from rosettes in the first year to six foot stems in the second season.

My father might have been horrified. On his Norfolk farm of long ago in the war during the food crisis England faced from U-boat blockades, weeds were banned.

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As small children we were encouraged to go out into the fields in the summer holidays and at weekends, with a thistle-spudder to yank out any thistle, dock, burdock or ragwort which dared show its foliate.

Father had written about flowers and butterflies in his many country books of the 1920s and ‘30s but they were all things of the past.

A particularly fine story called “A Weed’s Tale” in one of his Devon Village books telling of the struggle which a solitary dock endured outside Granfa George’s back door showed a deep empathy for wild things and their struggle to survive.

Tarka the Otter’s adventures and Salar the Salmon’s escapes from the jaws of seals and conger eels were also part of his huge understanding of the hardships natural life endures.

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But when the human race was threatened with survival in that awful war, father rallied the cause for humans against nature.

When his farm was declared ‘A’ status by the War Ag. he was probably more pleased than he was for receiving the Hawthornden Prize for Tarka.

He used to help me in the 1960s clearing ragwort from Kingley Vale and took great pleasure in burning huge piles of the weed lighting small fires to twigs under the stinking stems with all the skill he had learned with fire lighting in the cold winter months of 1914 near the Front Line of the Trenches in Plugstreet Wood.

Nowadays all has changed. We have prairie farms in order to feed the growing numbers of humans but farmers understand much more about the ways nature can help us, providing nectar plants for bumble bees and hoverflies both of which pollinate the crops of fruit.

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Benign members of the thistle family such as hardhead can be tolerated on headlands where they give sugars to butterflies in prodigious amounts. Some West Sussex arable field edges are home to rare poppies, fumitory and heartease pansies which do no harm to any crop.

But ragwort? Under control, it is in my eyes a glorious burst of colour, which I am enjoying very much as butterflies such as this comma, also peacocks, red admirals, brimstones and green-veined whites have enjoyed too, together with bumble bees, soldier beetles, snipe flies . . . the list goes on.

Father surely would have understood. The war is over.

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