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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 1st August 2012

Well, it is the 1st August and I’ve just completed the British Horse Society (BHS) Ragwort Awareness Week (RAW) survey. The survey introduction says ‘The BHS is therefore asking for reports of ragwort spotted during the week of 22 - 29 July’ so you could argue that it is OK to leave the survey open after the 29th July but if you are going to do that, it would be better to stress that you are only looking for reports within the specified dates.

But, I haven’t decided to write yet another piece about Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, just to, again, point out a flaw with the BHS survey. My motivation, today, is more to do with a clear example of the real problems caused by the plant.

A thread on the House and Hound forums entitled ‘Ragwort in Hay’1 was started by someone facing the prospect of having to feed, probably, contaminated hay to their horses. Their livery contract requires them to buy their feed from the yard owner but, the thread originator believes, the field cut to produce the hay had ragwort in it that was not removed.

 Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

Let’s get in the disclaimers. I have no way of knowing if the poster is correct to say that ragwort has been included in the hay they are contractually obliged to feed to their animals but, absent any evidence to the contrary, that seems to be the case.

And that is what I want to consider. Why would someone who makes, at least part of, their living from providing stabling and fodder for horses allow ragwort to become incorporated in hay?

The first possible reason is simple criminal greed. There were over 1,000 prosecutions for animal cruelty brought by the RSPCA in 2010 and, though the RSPCA doesn’t provide a detailed analysis, some of those must be related to deliberate abuse of animals for the sake of profit but considering the number of animals in the country I think it is fair to say that, fortunately, the number of people who intentionally put profit ahead of welfare is pretty small. I would, therefore, be loath to rush to judge this unknown yard owner as in that tiny group.

That leaves ignorance or misjudgement as the possible causes.

It is possible that, in spite of all the attention given to the plant by the likes of the BHS, the RSPCA, other organisations and the media concerned with all things horse, this yard owner is not aware of the potential for ragwort to cause serious illness and death in horses fed the dead plant as part of their conserved forage.

It is also possible that the owner is aware of all that is said by these bodies about ragwort but his own experience of actual harm to animals is so far removed from the dire pronouncements about Jacobaea vulgaris that he believes them to be crying ‘wolf’.

Perhaps he knows of animals who have grazed fields with ragwort in them and come to no harm and, as well as dismissing the hysteria about growing ragwort, has dismissed the idea that ragwort in hay can be deadly.

 Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

If that is the case, he is very wrong. Ragwort in hay can be deadly. But, suggesting that there is equal risk from living ragwort, in all circumstances, is wrong and may be increasing the risk to horses rather than reducing it.

One of the responses to the thread, very sensibly, quoted the Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort2 which says;

‘Any feed or forage that contains ragwort is unsafe to feed to horses and other animals and must be declared ‘unfit’ as animal feed and be disposed of safely. The Agriculture Act 1970 and the Feeding Stuffs Regulations 2000 govern the sale of animal feed and forage. Regulation 14 makes it an offence to sell any material for use as a feeding stuff which is found, or discovered as a result of analysis, to be unwholesome for or dangerous to any farmed animal, pet animal or human being. Trading Standards should be notified if feedstuffs are found to contain ragwort as an offence may have been committed.’
© Crown copyright 2004 (Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

It is, of course, very difficult for an individual horse owner to instigate action against the owner of the yard where their horses are stabled. This owner may decide to bring in safe hay and pay the financial penalty their livery agreement imposes rather than face the prospect of having to find a different yard at short notice.

These are the people the BHS should be supporting. Rather than surveying the prevalence of ragwort most of which is never going to see the inside of a horse’s stomach, the BHS should be looking for information on ragwort in fields destined for hay making and bringing action against any land user who cuts such fields without first removing the ragwort.


1. ‘Ragwort in Hay’ Horse and Hound Forum 31st July 2012  
2. Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort  DEFRA 2004 

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