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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 12th July 2011

I hadn’t intended to return to Senecio jacobaea, ragwort, so soon but the British Horse Society’s (BHS) ‘Ragwort Awareness Week’ seems to have started quite a bit of turmoil. As I drafted that sentence, I remembered reading, probably back in the ‘60s, one of those columns where one publication collects together unintentionally funny sentences from other newspapers and magazines. This one was the opening to a column written by one of those middle-aged, upper middle class women beloved by ‘quality’ magazines as their agony aunts.

In some ways, I suppose, those ‘60s agony aunts were the witches of their day. If you read yesterday’s blog entry you’ll understand what I mean. Anyway, the column that I remembered began ‘I’m sorry to return to premature ejaculation but my postbag is full of it’.

Senecio jacobaea, common ragwort

These days, of course, we have search results rather than postbags to tell us how much interest there is in a subject and those results, at the moment, are full of comment, from both sides, about the BHS campaign. But just so you know it is not just one of those things that gets bloggers going, I’ll start with the Daily Telegraph. Its Environment Correspondent wrote about Buglife’s attempt to correct the perception of ragwort being given by the BHS.

Buglife, The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, is, according to its website, ‘the first organisation in Europe devoted to the conservation of all invertebrates’. It asked the Advertising Standards Authority to look into claims being made by some chemical companies offering herbicides that up to 6,500 horses and ponies a year were dying from ragwort poisoning. These claims were based on information in a leaflet published by the BHS. The ASA reached what it calls an ‘informal resolution’ of the case which resulted in the companies concerned removing the information from their sites.

According to Buglife, the last figures for deaths from liver failure in horses are from 2005 and show 13 deaths in total. The Telegraph reports this as ‘since 2005’ which is an error leading to an understatement of the problem but, if 2005 was typical, then less than 100 horses have died in the past six years, somewhat fewer than 6,500 a year.

The Telegraph article sparked a letter from a reader, published today, that, amongst other things, called ragwort ‘an illegal…non-indigenous plant’. In a superb piece of irony, the letter writer claimed that ‘There is huge ignorance about this plant’ and then went on to demonstrate it.

Similar ignorance is also evident on a number of blogs and forums related to equine matters. ‘Catrin’ in a forum on the ‘Intelligent Horsemanship’ website wrote, ‘Don't forget if it's in grass verges and roadsides this must be reported to County Council Highways Depts’. Dave Finkle, the farm manager on the TV series ‘Jimmy’s Farm’ says on his blog ‘If you find it, remove it …’ even though he has previously correctly stated the dried form is more likely to get eaten.

The Equestrian Directory quoting the results of the 2010 BHS survey says that 13,189 horses had been observed grazing in ‘ragwort infested pasture’. The full survey claimed that ‘approaching 20,000’ cattle and sheep were also grazing in fields with ragwort in them. With those sort of number I think a Jerry Maguire Test (2nd July) is called for because so many animals present with ragwort is proof that the living plant does not cause problems.

The website ragwortfacts.com has an interesting analysis of the 6,500 deaths claim.  The figure was extrapolated from the 283 suspected poisonings reported in a survey of equestrian vets using methods which it believes are of dubious validity. The same site also has an article about the BHS Facebook campaign page that includes people confessing to what are illegal acts under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Unfortunately, the misinformation about ragwort being put about by the BHS can lead to supposedly conservation minded organisations behaving in an anti-conservation way. On 3rd July, Solent Youth Action proudly reported on its website that the Eastleigh Countryside Volunteers had spent a day removing ragwort from the margins of a local reservoir.

Lee Hackett, Head of Welfare for the BHS, is reported to have said that ragwort is known to cause a great many deaths of horses even though there are no records. How you can know something without records escapes me but, the more important point is, why are there no records? The reason why Buglife has to go back to 2005 for an indication of deaths from liver failure in horses is that the problem was clearly so small the government discontinued collecting the data after then.

Rather than a misguided campaign based on incorrect information and likely to encourage the illegal removal of wild plants, the British Horse Society should be collecting data on the number of horse deaths and whether liver disease is suspected or identified by post mortem examination. Now, liver failure in horses can be caused by things other than ragwort but some sort of number for liver disease would be a starting point. But, perhaps, the BHS knows that number would be very small.

I may well have to return to this topic, again, but, at least, my postbag won't be full of it.