HL Deb 12 November 2003 vol 654 cc1507-20

10.55 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Control of ragwort]:

The Lord Bishop of Hereford moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 5, leave out "prevent the spread of and insert "reduce the risk of horses dying from eating

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I expected a certain exodus at this stage. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, if she has been caused anxiety by my amendment. There is undoubtedly a problem of horses suffering and dying after eating ragwort, but the scale of the problem is very unclear.

At Second Reading, evidence to support the contention was produced in a very muddled and inadequate way. As reported in Hansard at cols. 1239–40, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, underlined the need for proper scientific evidence to support legislation. That need was strongly affirmed by the Wildlife and Countryside Link, a consortium of nature conservancy bodies of great expertise. We do not believe that that evidence has been brought forward.

Supporters of the Bill have made some sweeping assertions, unsubstantiated and unreconciled, over the alleged spread of ragwort and the number of horse deaths. There is no mention of mortality trends. One would have expected comparative figures for several years to establish an increasing risk of ragwort poisoning, if that is indeed the case. Uncertainty about the distance that seed can travel—from several miles to 14 metres depending on whom we believe—and about the distribution of ragwort itself, conflicts with the evidence of the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora published as recently as last year.

A number of questions were raised and not effectively answered at Second Reading. There is a confusing and not very convincing picture of a problem, although clearly there is a problem. There is a real danger of overlooking the importance and the value of ragwort as a significant plant in the food chain, supporting very large numbers of insects including the beautiful and none too common cinnabar moth, with its wonderful orange and black football sock caterpillars that are so distinctive and characteristic. The answer to the problem lies in good pasture management and a careful scrutiny of forage by suppliers and by horse owners who buy it in, because ragwort in forages is even more poisonous than ragwort on the ground. Suppliers of forage should guarantee that their product is ragwort free. It is certainly incumbent on those who sell forage to horse owners to take this provision very seriously indeed.

Prevention of the problem is better than any kind of possible cure. There are three possible cures—through culture, chemicals or biological control. Of those, biological control is much the most desirable from the ecological point of view. In any case, the objective must be, as my amendment tries to make clear, to reduce the risk of horses dying from eating ragwort, rather than to reduce substantially the amount of ragwort, which plays such an important part in sustaining biodiversity. We should be highly selective in any method of control, concentrating on pasture, preferably by alternating grazing by horses with grazing by sheep. The National Trust, which cares a great deal about good pasture management and encourages its tenant farmers to practise it, has not been aware of a ragwort problem.

An important point needs to be made about amenity land and highway and railway verges, because those are places where ragwort is frequently found and is alleged to be increasing in quantity. There is a real risk of overkill control by spraying with an indiscriminate broad-leaved herbicide, which could seriously damage and diminish the range of broad-leaved plants, not only ragwort. Unfortunately, there is no specific herbicide which tackles just ragwort.

My fear is that the Bill, as it stands and simple as it is, conceivably might encourage cowboy sprayers to consider that they have carte blanche to go out and kill ragwort, and a great deal of other valuable material at the same time. It is in those places—that is, amenity land, roadside and railway verges, cuttings, and so forth—that ragwort should be left alone as a valuable food source. In the code of practice, apropos railway land, there is a reference to, danger to the travelling public

in passing trains, which is quite preposterous.

I also must admit that the revised code of practice has many virtues; not least, its emphasis on the need to prevent the problem rather than to treat and control it and its acknowledgement of the very great care that is needed for sites of special scientific interest, in particular. There is also the need to consult widely, especially with English Nature, before any control of ragwort is attempted on such sites, although, of course, such sites—SSSIs—make up a very small proportion of the total landscape that we are considering.

There are safe, good and careful safeguards written into the code about any use of chemicals. A well made point in the regulatory impact assessment in paragraph 27 states that, a code with statutory backing should also reduce pressure on the Government to take a tougher regulatory stance in relation to the control of ragwort. Increasing enforcement activity under the Weeds Act to deal with the proliferation of ragwort would be more burdensome and costly to Government and to other statutory bodies than the introduction of this legislation".

I accept that the Bill may be the lesser evil in the sense that it is a small step in the direction of meeting a problem that exists for horse owners but also, particularly in the code of practice, recognises the ecological importance of ragwort and the nature conservancy need to be very careful in any control measures that are undertaken.

I probably should say that the British Horse Society, which has made the running in producing the Bill, may not be entirely aware of the considerable importance of ragwort in terms of nature conservancy and biodiversity. I shall listen carefully to what the Minister says in response. Meanwhile, I beg to move.

11 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I believe that I am right in thinking that the right reverend Prelate will be retiring in a few weeks' time. If I am right, perhaps I may take this opportunity to wish him a very long, happy and ragwort-free retirement.

Last weekend, I stayed in a friend's house near Newmarket. She has about 15 horses, mostly eventers. She is assiduous in getting rid of any ragwort growing on her land. Yet, every year, back it comes. Of course, there is ragwort growing on neighbouring land on set aside, and on the sides of roads. In due course, when seeds land on my friend's land, the merry-go-round will start again.

I am really conscious of an increase of ragwort on the sides of roads. I would submit to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that gypsy horses and ponies do graze in such places. I have read the eloquent speech made by my noble friend Lord Brooke at Second Reading very carefully. Of course, I see his point of view and I understand some of his worries. However, I have learnt that the cinnabar moth also loves to eat and lay its eggs on groundsel. Therefore, I cannot help feeling that, like the cinnabar moth, the 86 different creatures which eat ragwort already have alternatives up their sleeves, or wherever.

Curiously, hardly any mention was made at Second Reading about the very real danger to humans who, unless they wear gloves when touching ragwort, can develop liver sickness resulting in death. I hope that my noble friend Lord Rotherwick's pal by the name of Cookie wore gloves and is in the pink of good health at present.

I could not help but think that perhaps there is a parallel between ragwort and stinging nettles. Both are beloved by butterflies, but while a few are tolerated, who would want stinging nettles all over their garden? It may be that a code of practice will be able to prevent the spread of ragwort while at the same time recognising that this beastly plant, to some degree, is here to stay.

I have to say that, with the best will in the world, I believe it is impossible to get rid of ragwort. I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on bringing forward this timely Bill. Clause 1 is reasonable and realistic, and I hope that the Bill is passed without alteration. If any changes are made, the measure will fall because there is no time left to change it.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, ragwort is already classified as a noxious weed and Clause 1 introduces only one new element; namely, that there should be a code of practice to provide guidance on how to prevent the spread of ragwort. Of course the code does not exist because the Bill has not yet been passed.

I want to stress the words, "prevent the spread of" ragwort. That is a fairly modest aim. However useful the code of practice may be, it is hardly conceivable that either ragwort or the cinnabar moth will vanish from the countryside. I have to say, since we are dealing with the amendment of the right reverend Prelate, that I am not attracted to his proposed wording. It might imply that the code of practice should go beyond the control of ragwort itself to, for example, guidance on the inspection of horses' feed or even veterinary advice. It would widen the entire field which might be covered by the code of practice. That could give rise to many difficulties.

I hope that the Bill will go forward in the form in which it has been presented to the House.

Lord Neill of Bladen

My Lords, I declare an interest in that we have a small number of Welsh black cattle. While with great regret I must oppose the amendment of the right reverend Prelate, I do so because of its over-concentration on the interests of horses. In our view, and in the view of our vet who has attended the corpses of some of our cattle, ragwort is a killer for cattle.

If noble Lords visit the Library of your Lordships' House, they can consult that inestimable work, Black's Veterinary Dictionary, now in its 20th edition. On page 432 it states that ragwort poisoning, causes losses among cattle and sheep in Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand"— and goes on to refer to South Africa. Ragwort poisoning causes, cirrhosis of the liver, inflammation of the fourth stomach, and other lesions". I hope that, at this hour, noble Lords will not ask me to go further into the damage done to various parts of the anatomy of cattle. However, it is clear that ragwort is a serious cause of disease, mainly via the liver, for many other forms of livestock.

Because the amendment moved by the right reverend Prelate is limited to horses, I would urge noble Lords not to accept it.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I have not intervened in the debates on this Bill because I had considered it to be a relatively minor piece of legislation which would go through the House without amendment. All noble Lords understand that any amendment agreed today would ensure that the measure would not reach the statute book.

The right reverend Prelate is correct to identify ragwort as one of the major hazards of the horse world. Ragwort, in particular when it is mixed in with hay, can be fatal in many instances. That is even more the case when the weed has wilted; it seems then to become extremely toxic to animals. I daresay that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, understands that it is probably the hay eaten by his cattle that contains ragwort in its toxic form.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, that is not strictly so. Ragwort is absolutely poisonous to horses, cattle and humans when it is green, but in that form it tastes disgusting to animals, so they do not eat it unless it is the same height as the grass on which they are cropping. Animals eat it with pleasure only when it reaches the hay stage. I hope that my noble friend will excuse me for butting in.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I think that my noble friend has reinforced what I was saying. It is when ragwort is mixed in with hay that animals seem to eat it with some pleasure, and that is when in many instances it becomes fatal. Very often sheep can graze ragwort with impunity and, over a period of time, eradicate it from various fields.

As my noble friend Lady Trumpington said, it is set aside and the recent farming practices that have seen the spread of this rather dangerous weed.

The Bill sets out that a code of practice may be introduced to stop the spread of ragwort. That is the only purpose of this small Bill. But the BHS has written to me to say that it has no intention to press for the eradication of ragwort but supports this attempt to see it controlled. So any idea that the Bill seeks to eradicate ragwort is entirely wrong.

I urge the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, who has also tabled an amendment, not to press their amendments to a Division at this rather late stage in the Bill's passage through Parliament. It provides a useful measure which can go some way towards alleviating a problem that the BHS and many horse owners recognise as being fairly devastating for the horse population and will help ensure that it is not exacerbated.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate made some important points in regard to biodiversity and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply on that issue. However, I hope that the right reverend Prelate will not press his amendment. Like other noble Lords, I believe that there is some point in the Bill going through, although I wonder whether the suggestion I made in Committee about forage being certified as ragwort free might be more vigorously pursued.

The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, made a fair point—horses do indeed graze verges in some circumstances—but, as she went on to say, they do not choose to eat the ragwort when it is growing at that height.

As noble Lords have mentioned, the other key solution lies in good pasture management. Beyond publishing the code, the Government should give serious thought to that aspect when they come to consider reforming agri-environment schemes as areas become less stocked. Such approaches will make a difference.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing forward the amendment but I, too, hope that he will not press it. I understand why he has introduced it. The death of horses and cattle is very unpleasant and we all wish to see the number of deaths reduced as far as possible.

As for parliamentary timing, I understand that if any amendment is pressed today the Bill will not proceed further. I believe that all noble Lords speaking to the Bill want it to get through but, to a certain extent, that will depend on the code. Having listened carefully and read in Hansard the report of the previous occasion when my noble friend Lord Rotherwick guided the Bill through on behalf of our Front Bench, I understand that the code cannot come into being until this has been agreed.

Having heard what has been said—I believe we are all on the same wavelength, if I may use that bad phraseology—perhaps I may add one further comment. Having kept horses and ponies—and scrubby ones at that—on many occasions over the years, I believe that, to a certain extent, it is up to those of us who have cattle and horses to do our best to ensure that ragwort is not found within the eating areas of our animals. I know that that is more difficult in the bigger public domain than in small paddocks.

As to the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, I tremble in my boots at the thought of the regulation involved in searching for ragwort in hay bales. There are genuine concerns but I hope that the code will overcome those expressed in the House today.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I support my noble friend's Bill. It is a very pretty little Bill and it is not very far reaching. It does not say that it will eradicate all ragwort or all cinnabar moths or any other insects. I think the ragwort fairy in the fairy book is very pretty and attractive. There will still be ragwort, but not near horses. This is a very modest little Bill, so I hope that the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, will not press their amendments.


Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the House knows, the Government strongly support this Bill and would not wish to see an amendment. However, it is important to stress to the right reverend Prelate and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who will speak shortly, that the Bill does not envisage the eradication of ragwort, as the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, has just indicated. It is about the control of the spread of ragwort and about putting the responsibility on landowners and land managers to ensure that it does not spread.

The right reverend Prelate's amendment would effectively restrict the effect to where horses were involved. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said, this is a problem not only for horses: other livestock are involved. It would also mean that the responsibility was shifted away from the landowners on to the horse owners. Although I accept the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that horse owners have some responsibility in this area, responsibility for the limitation of ragwort must rest with the landowners or the land managers. That is what the Bill states at present and what the code of practice will turn into a real power and responsibility.

I therefore hope that the right reverend Prelate will not pursue his amendment. Along with the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, I doubt whether this is the right reverend Prelate's last intervention in this Chamber. Nevertheless, I join her in my respect for his interventions in these rural debates and offer him best wishes for his retirement.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I hope that what I am about to say will help the right reverend Prelate. Ragwort is the silent killer. Ragwort poisoning kills hundreds of horses every year, often with little or no warning, and there is no known cure. It is vital, therefore, that farmers and landowners stay vigilant and take immediate action against this lethal plant.

At least 500 horses a year die from the natural born killer. Dr Derek Knottenbelt of the equine division of the University of Liverpool thinks the figure is much higher.

Cattle are about halfway between horses and sheep in terms of the effects of ragwort poisoning. They need protecting too. Humans may be affected through cows' milk and bees' honey. The World Health Organisation has reported on this.

I have been concerned that some very experienced country Members of your Lordships' House have been picking ragwort with bare hands, not wearing protective gloves. Ragwort is toxic: the toxins in ragwort are alkaloids, which cause huge liver damage by attacking the DNA. Ragwort poisoning is an end-stage liver disease. Nothing can be done to save horses and other animals once it reaches 75 per cent, and nobody knows when this level is reached.

This Bill, which needs protecting tonight, will help to educate many people throughout the country about the devastation which ragwort poisoning can cause, especially to horse owners. The Bill will not eradicate ragwort; it aims to control it.

I thank all noble Lords who have supported the Bill this evening. I hope that the right reverend Prelate, for whom I have great respect, will not insist on his amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I thank those who have taken part in this brief debate. I certainly do not want to prolong matters at this late hour.

I had hoped to hear rather more robust support for the nature conservancy cause, particularly from the Minister. I tabled the amendment because there is a great deal of unease about the possible consequences of the Bill—small and modest as it seems—in tipping the balance in favour of the eradication of ragwort, although the Minister said that was not the intention, and is probably not possible. There was a good deal of unease in nature conservancy circles when the Bill was published, and a sense that the importance of ragwort as an ecological or food plant had not really been recognised.

I suspect that most noble Lords who have spoken in the debate have probably not read in full the draft code of practice, which I read this afternoon. I was personally reassured by it, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that the form in which it now exists—I know that it is only a draft—is the form in which it will be published, with proper safeguards from the point of view of nature conservancy. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville moved Amendment No. 2: Leave out Clause 1.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, if the attendance of some noble Lords at this hour owes anything to alarms and excursions evinced by either the British Horse Society or the ILPH because of my own actions, I can only apologise to them. I understand that my notice of seeking to leave out Clause 1 was treated as a wrecking amendment by the British Horse Society, but I must say that the society did not get in touch with me to inquire my purpose. The amendment was agreed with the Minister as a device to enable us, in the remaining stages, to carry on with him the dialogue embarked on at Second Reading about the underlying principles of the code of practice, which lie at the heart of the legislation.

We veterans of the Second Reading have been joined this evening by, among others, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who in one of his final speeches in your Lordships' House shared a number of my concerns. I echo the words of my noble friend Lady Trumpington towards him at this moment in his career in your Lordships' House.

I believed that I had made it clear on Second Reading—not once but three times—that I wished the Bill and horses well. As other noble Lords have said, since amendments of any sort carried at this time in the Session, whether wrecking or otherwise, would kill the Bill, I suggested that we proceed by way of dialogue rather than hostility or confrontation. We are doing that on Report rather than in Committee simply because of a request to me from the Front Benches of both sides that the Committee stage should be concluded undebated. With the right reverend Prelate in the Chamber, I hesitate to embark on theology, but the lack of vocal state of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on that day implied that a silent Committee stage was an example of divine providence.

I make it clear now, beyond peradventure, so that any noble Lord who wants to leave now can do so, that I do not intend to seek to divide the House. I have three questions to ask, and one observation to make. I shall get the latter out of the way first. I attach no blame to the Minister and suppose that I am blaming Murphy's law, but two things went wrong with the support arrangements on the Bill.

First, the department wrote on 24th October, a week after Second Reading, to the outside interested parties, including the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which in particular had provided briefing on Second Reading, telling it of the revised regulatory impact assessment, to which I shall refer henceforward as the RIA. The Minister referred to it on Second Reading. The communication with outside parties implied that it was enclosed with the letter. I cannot speak for others on the departmental mailing list, but a copy of the revised RIA was not enclosed to the link and, with the current postal difficulties, a copy was secured only by a personal visit to Defra on the eve of the Committee stage.

Simultaneously, the revised RIA in the Library, which the Minister said that he had caused to be placed there on Second Reading, turned out in the event to be the original RIA. I pressed the Library on whether that was correct, and was told that it had arrived on 16th October, on the eve of Second Reading. I realise that the mistake may have occurred in the Library, but the other case suggests that the balance of probability lies elsewhere.

As I say, I do not blame anyone for that series of events, but it has made it a little more difficult to scrutinise the Bill efficiently and, most importantly, timeously.

My first question refers to the revised RIA. On Second Reading, I said that the link was anxious to see more detailed proof of the scale of the problem in terms of equine deaths through ragwort poisoning. The Minister referred in his speech on Second Reading to the RIA, or indeed the revised RIA, which increased the estimate of deaths by extrapolating them from a 4 per cent return to a survey by the British Equine Veterinary Association. I cannot help feeling that that may have been an advance in numbers from 4,000 in the original RIA to a new figure of 6,500, but on the slender basis of the 4 per cent return, that was done at the expense of credibility. I do not know whether any further essay is intended on the scale of the problem but would be interested to know. I repeat that I am not challenging the fact of poisoning itself.

Secondly, I have as a result of Second Reading become aware of the draft code of practice. I am grateful for the opportunity afforded since then, not least through the right reverend Prelate, to be able to read it. I congratulate the department on its comprehensiveness. I am, however, conscious of the continuing anxiety of the Link about the dangers to non-target species from control by a non-ragwort-specific herbicide which I will refer to, for the purposes of this debate, by the ugly word ragworticide. I have noted the cautionary paragraphs in the draft code. I am thinking of paragraphs 144, 151, 153 and 158–160, winding up with table 3 on page 22.1 am also conscious that, on Second Reading, the Minister indicated that he would revisit the draft code in the aftermath of the Second Reading debate.

I am also conscious that the British Horse Society supports in writing the principle of the Government undertaking an environment impact assessment in relation to the code. But I am not clear if the Government explicitly accept that need, or whether they feel that what they have already put into the code adequately reflects the potential impact of control through herbicides on non-target species and indeed what those non-target species affected by ragwort control would be.

Finally, but at a lower order of importance, because truth presumably lies between the two extremes that I quoted at Second Reading, which the right reverend Prelate quoted again tonight, I wonder whether the Minister has anything to say about how far ragwort seed can travel. I calibrated the extremes which the right reverend Prelate quoted on Second Reading, at col. 1240 of the Official Report, I should be entirely content if it were easier for the Minister to write to me about that than speak to it tonight. However, the one price I would exact in exchange is for him to say tonight whether, in response to what my noble friend Lord Rotherwick said indeed I said myself, he intends to expand the references to pasture management, to which the right reverend prelate also referred tonight. The principle of pasture management seem potentially the most effective methods of ragwort control of all and a rather more would seem to me to be helpful.

In conclusion, I hope that the Bill gets on the statute book. I congratulate all those whose efforts have gone into making that possible. I am delighted that the voice of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has returned.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, knows that I cannot accept his amendment. So I am very pleased that he is not going to press it. As the Bill must leave your Lordships' House intact, as we are running out of time, that is absolutely vital. However, I thank the noble Lord for giving us a chance of further debate even though it is very late. I thank everyone for staying at this late hour.

I hope that ragwort-free hay can be organised in the code of practice. We have a duty of care to try to protect horses and other animals. I hope that the code of practice will help to educate all the people concerned and give information to those who need it. Ragwort is already in the Weeds Act 1959. Therefore, it is the code of practice that is so important for this Bill. The code of practice will have to be laid before Parliament and will give all sorts of groups of people the chance openly to debate the problems. If anything was to happen to this Bill, there would be many disappointed people who are trying their best to encourage good practice.

We need more research into this dangerous weed. I congratulate Dr Knottenbelt of Liverpool University on his work and his enthusiasm in this matter, the British Horse Society on the part it has played in the Bill and the Government on their support. I also, of course, congratulate the mover of the Bill, the Member for Ryedale. I thank the Government for all their support and help on this matter and for the help that will be provided during the rest of the Bill's passage. I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, before we conclude this debate I owe it to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, to make a number of points on behalf of the Government. Clearly, I support the Bill and I very much appreciate the fact that the noble Baroness has brought it forward.

There are only three issues. First, I believe there have been some communications difficulties for which I can only apologise to the noble Lord and anyone else who suffered from the non-communication of the revised RIA. I am sorry if that led to some misunderstanding about the Bill. Secondly, the code of practice is still out for consultation which is why I could not give an utterly definitive reply to the right reverend Prelate. I have explained the structure of our approach, but clearly there are other aspects, including pasture management, which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, raised, which could perhaps do with some further attention. Certainly, views on that will be taken into account before we finalise the code of practice.

Thirdly, regarding the basic issue of the vulnerability of horses and other livestock to ragwort, a straight extrapolation of the survey carried out by the equine vets may reveal only the extreme end of the problem. Nevertheless, the very detailed work that Liverpool University did, and to which the noble Baroness referred, indicates a very serious problem of ragwort poisoning in the equine population. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said, it goes beyond the equine population. It therefore behoves the Government and landowners to do something about the problem.

There is also a biodiversity concern here. We hope that those who approached the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and others, about their concerns on this front are reassured that we do not seek the eradication of ragwort. Ragwort will continue to exist in our countryside, our fields and hedgerows. However, where it is most likely to be eaten by horses and livestock, there is an obligation on landowners to limit its spread. Therefore, the source of habitat and food for moths and other creatures that are dependent on ragwort—quite apart from the species to which the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, referred—will still exist. I believe that the biodiversity concerns have been exaggerated. Certainly, it is the intention behind the code of practice to ensure that those biodiversity concerns are met through the way in which we implement the powers in the Bill.

I hope with that assurance—the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, raised one or two other matters on which I shall write to him—that the noble Lord will not press the amendment tonight and that the Bill will complete its passage through this House to the great relief of many horse owners and other owners of livestock.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is any research being done on the extent of the spread? A reply on that point would be helpful to my noble friend. That question has been asked in another place and in this House. If there is no such research, is it likely that some work will be done on the matter as that would be a huge help in controlling the future spread of ragwort?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, some university research is being conducted on that matter but I cannot say whether there is a project directed specifically at the spread of ragwort. Therefore, I cannot reply to that point. I shall try to cover it in correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I want to press again the question of control by chemicals, and safeguards that need to be built into the code of practice about avoiding non-target species that could suffer if that form of control were ever used. Can some stronger safeguards be built into the code? Chemical control of ragwort needs to be highly specific. That is difficult, granted the nature of herbicides to be used. If there were more safeguards along those lines, we would feel reassured.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, in Yorkshire two years ago, there was an immense amount of flooding. After that there seemed to be an upsurge of ragwort, and it is thought that some of the seeds were carried down in the water in the rivers and spread around. I agree that there is a need for more research.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, normal wind conditions are clearly not the only way in which ragwort seed is spread. That is certainly true. It is also spread by animals and vehicles. We need to take account of all those factors.

The right reverend Prelate made a point about the application of herbicides. The code already talks about targeted use. If we are trying to restrict the effect on any other hedgerow and field plants, we clearly need to ensure that that is as tight as possible. Representations on that front will clearly be taken into account in drafting the final version of the code of practice.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I am not sure whether it is appropriate for me to utter very much, as I have already indicated that I shall not press the amendment. I thank everyone who has spoken, and I particularly appreciate the manner in which the Minister responded to me. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.