Reiki • Holistic • Horses & Humans

Category: #Rewilding

Establishment and management of Herbal Leys

Photo from the Herbal Leys: Establishment and management course at Farm-Ed.

Herbal Leys Workshop

I spent yesterday at Farm-Ed near Chipping Norton, on a one-day course on Herbal Leys: Establishment & Management. The aim of the day was to build understanding around the Herbal Ley. In simple terms, a herbal lay is a parcel of land that has been sown with grass, legume, and herb seed. Bringing together up to 17 species, it enriches the soil, and offers highly nutritious grazing for cows or sheep.

My own interest is of course pasture enrichment for horses. I note the paucity of species varieties on many paddocks, along with a dominance of Rye-grass. The problems with a quasi-monoculture are threefold. First, the plant roots are all the same depth so they exploit the same layer in the soil profile. Second, such plants require the same nutrients: this exhausts the soil. Third, with few legumes, there is no natural enrichment with root nodules, and the symbiosis with Rhizobium species, which fixes nitrogen.

The ley replaces the need for spraying. The variety of plants stimulates each other’s growth. There is a natural symbiosis, as species number increases. With legumes present in the mix, one can fix up to 250kg of available nitrogen per hectare. Farmers are now looking back to these traditional techniques because the price of artificial fertilizer has increased from £85/tonne in 2000, to over £1000/tonne in 2022. That is an increase in the cost of 1200%.

The ley is generally used in an eight-year rotation. 4 years of herbal lay, four years of root or cereal crop to follow, before a return to ley. This of course is part of the agricultural cycle. My own interest is in how herbal leys could be helpful in the enrichment of horse paddocks.

Seeds for Herbal Leys

This photo shows a typical mixture of seeds for a herbal ley. It is clear that some are large, and others are tiny. There is a real art to formulating mixtures so that the final growth is diverse among the species present.

Photo of seeds from a Ley Seed pack.

Some mixtures are made with only legumes and herbs. These are specifically for “over-seeding” applications. In over-seeding, the legumes and herbs will be sown onto a grazed or topped grass cover. As there is already grass present, grass seed should be absent in the mix, to give the legumes and herbs the best chance possible. The sown ley can continue to be grazed for between 5 to 7 days before the herbs and legumes come up, so reducing the growth of the over-seeded pasture.

Species suitable for Herbal Lays

Grasses sown tend to be: Cocksfoot / Festulolium / Hybrid Ryegrass / Italian Ryegrass / Meadow Fescue / Perennial Ryegrass and Timothy. Legumes that are used are: Alsike Clover / Birdsfoot trefoil / Lucerne / Red Clover / Sainfoin / Sweet Clover / White Clover. Herbs include Burnet / Chicory / Ribgrass / Sheep’s Parsely and Yarrow. The photographs below were taken yesterday as we explored one of the Herbal Leys on the farm. This ley is currently in year 4.

Photo of the herb Sainfoin
Sainfoin in a four-year Herbal Ley at Farm-Ed.
Photo of Herb Burnet
Herb Burnet in a four-year Herbal Ley at Farm-Ed.
Photo of Herb Yarrow
Yarrow in a four-year Herbal Ley at Farm-Ed.

Perspectives for the equine community

The workshop was absolutely fascinating and it was great to see that so many younger farmers are getting to grips with these techniques. Soil quality is of massive importance. Worms are of massive importance. Mycorrhizal interactions (that is, plant-fungi) are of massive importance. All three are impacted by the continual use of spraying and chemical fertilization. Herbal leys go back to the time of pre-industrial farming. My intuition is that equine pastures could be seriously improved by bringing Herbal Leys into the cycle of pasture management.


I hope this article has been useful. Farm-Ed run regular courses for farmers and people working with the land. You can find more information on the courses at Farm-Ed,

Many other articles about horses and holistic practice appear on my blog. They are also linked to my Professional Facebook Page. If there is an issue or plant that you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts. I would love to hear from you!

Quarterly Holistic Newsletter

If you have enjoyed this article, please keep in touch and sign up for our Quarterly Holistic Newsletter.

Ragwort, rewilding and diversity

In a recent post, I described the Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), as one of the plants most toxic to horses. In this post, I look at a related issue, concerning Ragwort and Rewilding.


Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is a biennial plant, abundant in Britain. It can grow from 30cm to a meter in height. Ragwort has bright yellow flowers, and the rough lobed leaves which give it its name. This plant was classed as injurious under the Weeds Act, 1959. Landowners may be subject to prosecution if they leave Ragwort on their land.

But Ragwort possesses benefits too!

The dangers of Ragwort are well-known. Especially to livestock owners, and equestrians. Yet Ragwort has many benific properties. What is less widely known is that Ragwort supports a thriving community of insects. Seven species of Beetle. Twelve species of flies. One Macro moth, the cinnabar moth. Seven micro moths. It is a source of nectar for 30 species of solitary bees. Eighteen species of solitary wasps. And fifty different species of insect parasites. According to Isabella Tree (Wilding), 177 different species of insect feed on Ragwort.

Isabella Tree devotes her entire chapter Eight (Wilding) to the subject of Ragwort. The problem is of size. One issue she discusses concerns the BEVA report of 2002. BEVA is the British Equine Veterinary Association. They reported that 6,500 horses died in 2002 due to Ragwort. Yet only 12 years before, data showed that only 10 horses succumb to the plant per year. This previous data came from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As such there was a huge discrepancy between the two reports. Isabella Tree has argued that the BEVA report used data from only 4% of BEVA members. They claimed on average three cases each of Ragwort poisoning. This figure was then extrapolated to the entire membership. It is clear there is a need for reliable data.

The reason I explore this in detail is that Ragwort inflames passions. And the plant – despite toxicity – has considerable benefits for a large number of insects.

Rewilding Britain and Ragwort

Rewilding Britain has also published a report on this plant. As they point out: ” The species is an important source of nectar and pollen. It’s a food plant for many insect species, including the cinnabar moth. However, ragwort is deemed to be toxic to livestock when taken in high doses. Animals will naturally avoid ragwort when grazing unless pasture is overgrazed and there’s a lack of food, but they can’t detect ragwort that’s present in hay. A large amount of ragwort — estimated to be around 5 – 25% of total body weight for horses and cattle — has to be ingested for it to be poisonous”. 

In terms of control, they suggest that action may need the use of herbicides. These are generally damaging to the environment. Cutting and removing the plants is labour intensive and expensive but is kinder to the land. In rewilding projects, patience is essential. It takes time to allow natural succession. With time, different species will replace Ragwort.

In the case of the Knepp estate, they maintain a topped 50m boundary. This prevents any possibility of Ragwort seeding neighboring land.

Wicken Fen National Nature reserve has tried a variety of methods. Ground cover is established to minimize the spread of Ragwort. This includes natural regeneration, seeding and hay spreading. Results have been mixed. No single measure prevented Ragwort seed from drifting onto neighboring land.

Seeding and seed dispersal

Studies have been carried out on seed dispersal in Ragwort. Seed carried by the wind tends to be lighter and also infertile. For a plant making 30,000 seeds, 60% will fall at the base of the plant. 39% will fall within 4.5m (15ft), and at 36m (120 ft), less than 0.005% of the seed can be detected. That is, less than 2 grains of 30,000. This study confirms that wind-borne seed transport is highly limited in Ragwort.


In the end, I believe the best stance is truly difficult to determine. On the one hand, these plants are clearly toxic. On the other, they provide sustenance for at least 177 species of insect. To eradicate by hand (and I have done this myself, to protect horses), is one approach. At the same time, I am acutely aware of the insect habitats I have personally destroyed.

Can one maintain a 50m topped boundary? Wind studies show that seeds tend to disperse in a small area, local to each plant. If a boundary is not possible, eradication may be the better solution for neighbors.

This may be critical if hay or haylage is cropped close by your land. One of the most common causes of equine poisoning is dried Ragwort contaminating hay. Horses generally steer well clear of this plant. Its odor is unpleasant to them. But it can escape their attention if dried and baled with the hay. It is essential is to check one’s hay carefully. And if hay is produced on land bordering your own, I would control Ragwort very closely.

This subject is extremely complex. The discussion by Nogués-Bravo et al. (2016) makes this patently clear. Each situation must be studied on its own merits. I hope, however, that this reflection serves to remind that Ragwort has many benefits in the ecosystem. And that we need to find a balance between the needs of herbivores on the one hand. And the hundreds of insect species that this plant supports, on the other.


Isabella Tree:
Wilding: The return to nature of a British Farm. Picador. 2018

Rewilding Britain:
Quick Guide to Ragwort:

Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation
David Nogués-Bravo, Daniel Simberloff, Carsten Rahbek,
and Nathan James Sanders.
Current Biology, Volume 26, Issue 3, 8 February 2016, Pages R87-R91


Other articles about plants appear on my Professional Facebook Page.
If there is a plant you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts.

Quarterly Holistic Newsletter

If you have enjoyed this article, please keep in touch and sign up for our Quarterly Holistic Newsletter.

Cover image of Quarterly Newsletter