Ragwort – the silent killer

Prevention is better than cure; or in the case of ragwort, there is no cure, just prevention.

Here are Learn2Horse we’ve been really busy over the last couple of days digging up ragwort. We never used to have a problem, but it has started to sneak in from somewhere. We’re religious about getting rid of it all each year, but the thing about ragwort is that the seeds can lay dormant in the ground for several years then germinate at will.
In our experience once it has come onto your land from wherever (perhaps via birds, hay, seeds blown in from a neighbouring field – who knows?), it is extremely difficult to completely get rid of. So you have to keep on top of it year in year out, just keep digging it up by the roots whenever you spot it.

Different views of ragwort

So why all the fuss? I remember having this conversation with my brother many years ago when I spotted the colourful yellow plant in his garden. I got on my soap box and spouted at him that under the Ragwort Control Act 2003 he had a duty to control the spread of ragwort.

Now my brother and I have always enjoyed lively discussions (some might call them arguments) throughout our lives, and if I said white was white he would counteract that with no actually it’s black. So it was no surprise when he came back at me stating that actually that particular act does not look to get rid of ragwort completely, just control it when there is a threat to the health and welfare and animals.

And as he lived on a housing estate with no grazing animals nearby, he was going to keep his ragwort thank you very much. And did I know that ragwort supported the Cinnabar Moth and as such was an important part of the ecological system? At that point I got up and went and made a cup of tea.

Ragwort and horses don’t mix

But back to my original question – why is it so important to control the spread of ragwort? Luckily I have never seen a horse die of liver failure and I never want to. I would rather keep pulling up the ragwort.

The thing with ragwort poisoning is that it is a slow build-up of toxins which can’t be reversed. Then it’s like the straw that broke the elephants back – one more clump of ragwort and boom! The horrible symptoms are then triggered and it’s too late to save your horse from a painful death. And if a horse eats a lot of ragwort in one sitting, the effects will be much quicker. Ingesting 5-10% of their bodyweight is enough to cause serious poisoning.

Generally horses don’t eat a mature living plant as they are bitter and unpalatable. However, the pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the plant which cause the damage unfortunately survive the drying process. Ragwort is more palatable when dried so if found in hay or left on fields when pulled up the horse will happily munch it. Horses may eat living ragwort if there is absolutely nothing else on the field to eat, so never leave your horse in a bare paddock where only ragwort grows.

Some hope in the early stages

If you suspect your horse has eaten some ragwort, get him blood tested. If his liver is newly damaged, certain enzymes will leak into the blood stream which will not normally be present. If this damage to the liver is detected early enough, it is possible that there could be enough reserve cells to allow the liver to carry on functioning. With extremely careful dietary management that allows the liver to carry out as few functions as possible, your horse may then go on to live a reasonably normal life. Just don’t get your hopes up too much – nothing is guaranteed with liver damage.

Signs of liver failure

Remember, by the time your horse shows symptoms of liver damage it is too late, but you can help him have a less painful death, so it is worth knowing what to look out for. These include:

  • Weight loss – even if your horse has been eating well
  • Lethargy and yawning
  • Depression
  • Blindness
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Abdominal swelling and pain (colic)
  • Jaundice
  • Head pressing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Skin photosensitization

Dig it up

So it all comes back to prevention. Get rid of those plants and burn them. Using a ragwort fork (Fynalite Multi-Weeda Ragwort Weeding Fork) is the most effective method as it helps pull them up by their roots. Pull them before they seed to stop the spread. One plant can give birth to 100,000 seeds – now there’s a scary thought….

Spray it

If your field is completely overcome by this toxic weed, there are certain herbicides on the market that treat ragwort in its early stages, when it is a rosette growing close to the ground (Barrier H Ragwort Control 5 Litre – Environmentally friendly, agricultural herbicide that destroys ragwort in record time). After a field has been sprayed don’t put any horses on the paddock for at least 6 weeks, but if unsure leave off longer or contact DEFRA for advice. The problem with spraying is that when the plant is in full flower and the problem has become obvious, it is too late to spray them.

Ragwort is poisonous to us humans too, so wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly.

Don’t wait to see your horse die of liver failure to become convinced – act now and get rid of that ragwort.

NB – DEFRA code of practice can be found here

Photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach / Foter / CC BY

9th July 2015

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