Ragwort makes fields of gold, and to walk in them feels far more transgressive than a bucolic stroll through wheat or barley. Unlike the pale, safe, beige of ripening cereal crops, the ragwort is bold as brass. Unlike the slim pickings in the stashes of mice (and men), the ragwort swarms with life.
The insects, and those creatures who feed on them, are harvesting a crop that is toxic to humans yet the antidote to the intensive agriculture that harms insects.
Ragwort is seen as a sign of moral turpitude; it’s what happens when we stop sweeping out the corners. This particular small field, levelled from quarry spoil and a haven for butterflies and bees, has not been grazed for years and is gradually changing from limestone grassland.
This year, and it feels sudden, it is full of common ragwort. Among the butterflies there are commas, red admirals, meadow browns, common blues, gatekeepers, small heaths and large skippers, their flight a folding-unfolding origami in the air.
Cinnabar moth caterpillars, like items of lost games kit – a sock, a sleeve – in wasp-stripe warnings of toxicity feed on ragwort leaves. A fantasia of hoverflies, robber flies, solitary bees, bumblebees and beetles feed on ragwort pollen and nectar.
A harvestman spider – a full-stop on improbably spindly legs – hunts ragwort visitors, as do the house martins swooping above. A flattened patch is evidence of a deer lay-up; and dusk will be batty with nocturnal tribes. There is more life in one acre of ragwort than a hundred in surrounding arable fields.
The common ragwort, Senecio jacobaea – the name suggests there is something of the radical Jacobin about it – is a dangerous daisy with more myths (or alternative truths) about it than you could shake a Ragwort Control Act 2003 at.
The flowers are golden and glorious, and despite, or maybe because of, its outlaw reputation as a pernicious weed and our centuries of trying to root it out, the plant has an irrepressible spirit.
We have misjudged these heathens if we thought them repatriated to the heaths of the past. They turn up in street ends, traffic islands, abandoned fields. New places of ignominy.