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Ragwort Pulling at Kingcombe Meadows

June 24, 2008

Lots of ragwort, cows and even a dead squirrel – just another day in the busy life of the V-Team!

Today the V-Team’s mission was to pull out as much ragwort as we could from the meadows at the Kingcombe Reserve. Kingcombe Meadows is a chalk grassland reserve, which provides the habitat for many wild flowers and plants, some of them quite rare. The meadows are grazed by cattle as this keeps the grass under control without destroying the wild flowers as mowing would (cows prefer just grass).  Unfortunately it isn’t just the wild flowers that like this habitat, as ragwort also flourishes in these conditions. Ragwort is very poisonous to cattle and all other livestock too as it contains toxins that can cause extensive liver damage (for more detailed information about ragwort, you can visit: http://www.defra.gov.uk/farm/wildlife/weeds/index.htm).

Above is a photo of a Common Ragwort plant.

Today the V-Team was made up of Dan, Jared, Kerry-Ann, Lucie and Ross and we were also joined by Mark for the day. We drove over to Kingcombe in the V-Team Truck, where we would be meeting Neil, the warden who we would be working with.  Once we had discussed the plan for the day, we then set off to the fields on the reserve where we would be ragwort pulling, with Neil following behind in the tractor and trailer. This turned out to be not such a good idea in the end as we somehow managed to get lost on the way, despite being given directions! We waited in the field that we thought was the right space but there was no sign of the tractor and trailer! So we moved on and ended up going down some very narrow lanes and did get to see a lot of lovely cottages that we decided we would love to live in, but we were still in the wrong place! As we were practically out in the middle of nowhere, we couldn’t get a phone signal either, not until Mark got out of the truck and climbed a hill. Finally, we were able to phone Neil and we were so relieved when we did eventually meet up in the right field!

Ragwort pulling is surprisingly hard work, especially as these plants were particularly tough and well-established. It is important to wear gloves when pulling up the plants as ragwort can irritate the skin, and gloves also help prevent blisters – something that Lucie and Kerry-Ann found out the hard way! Ross decided that pulling ragwort up by hand was too much like hard work and so tried digging it up with a pitch fork. This seemed to work quite well – until he managed to break one of the spikes right off of the fork!

Even though it was hard work, it was actually a great way to spend the day, in a beautiful meadow surrounded by cows in the hot sun. The cows were quite timid to begin with and unsure of all these strange people in overalls and wellies, but they gradually got used to us and became quite inquisitive. Many times we would be working and get the feeling we were being watched, only to look up and see the cows were really close by, staring at us!

We certainly all worked up an appetite for lunch and nobody really minded that we were all very sweaty and smelling of the cow-pats that everyone had inevitably managed to step in! After lunch, it was back to work and we found that it was quite hard to know when to stop. We would each think to ourselves, ‘ I’ll just pull up that patch over there and then I’ll finish’, except that we would then find another little patch to do! We eventually stopped when we saw how many piles of ragwort we had pulled up and realised we would be there all day and into the evening collecting it up into the trailer if we didn’t start soon.

Before we left, there was just time for us to go with Neil to have a look at the Barn Owl box that had been set up in an ancient oak tree on the reserve. As we all sat expectantly at the foot of the tree while Neil climbed up the ladder, we hoped we might be lucky enough to see something. We certainly weren’t expecting to find that the box was ‘inhabited’ by a grey squirrel that had crawled into it and died! If there is one thing we have learnt so far from our volunteering, it’s that conservation work is full of surprises!

 Neil up the ladder ….

The dead squirrel wasn’t quite what we were expecting!

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