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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 18th May 2014

A news story about apparent plant poisoning in sheep, as usual, leaves me with questions that I don’t expect to find answers to. The story appears to have originated in ‘The Land’ a ‘rural news website’ for New South Wales, Australia, but was then picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald before spreading overseas to the likes of the Mail Online.

The reports I’ve seen have retained ‘The Land’s’ headline ‘Crazed sheep die like ‘heroin addicts’’. I’ll come back to the headline later because that’s a different story.

The opening paragraph talks about hundreds of sheep dying because of an exceptional growth of Darling pea following widespread bushfires last year. Further down, Darling pea is identified as plants in the genus Swainsona. There are a number of species of Swainsona all called Darling pea or some variation of that name and all, from what I’ve read, toxic to livestock. There are plenty of case reports and studies in the literature but none, that I’ve found, affecting such a large number of animals.

Though the article begins with the word ‘Farmers’ it actually reports only the experience of one couple on a single property. So, my first question is  - did this occur throughout the area and, if not, what makes this one property different from the others?

The Knights, who farm ‘Tannabah’ are said to have ‘lost’ 800 sheep. ‘Lost’ is often used as a euphemism for death but I’m not sure that is the way it is being used here because it says ‘”We counted 800 missing wethers at shearing time,” Mrs Knight said.’ Given that there is reference to fences being destroyed in the bushfire my second question is – could some of the 800 missing sheep have strayed because they were no longer fenced in? I know sheep can get hefted to an area meaning they don’t roam even if there are no fences but can hefting overcome hunger if the normal grazing has been destroyed by fire?

I also wondered about the comparison with previous years. How many sheep would normally be missing at the end of the annual round-up?

The poisoning has not, so far, proved fatal to all the animals affected by it because the piece talks about the difficulty of mustering affected animals because of their physical and mental symptoms. But there is no mention of any of these animals being examined by a vet to confirm the cause of the problem nor, for that matter, is there any mention of carcasses being subjected to post mortem examination.

Actually, there’s no mention of carcasses at all. I realise how large an area Australian sheep farms can cover but I still find it surprising that the report makes no mention of the problems of disposing of so many dead sheep.

Not does it say what action, if any, is being taken to control the plant. The article says that Darling pea is an endangered plant so I would have thought there would be controversy over what should be done about it. Actually, I would have thought there would be consideration of how an endangered species could suddenly thrive to such an extent given that is has become endangered in an eco-system where bushfires followed by regeneration have been going on for millennia.

It may be that it’s just my particular interest that is not being satisfied by this account of the incident but I have a larger concern that incompletely understood incidents like this can lead to unnecessary hysteria about the potential harms of the plant leading to action to eradicate it wherever it occurs.
I said I’d come back to the headline. My concern here has nothing to do with this individual incident but is rather to do with the media in general. The media likes ‘the size of Wales’ comparisons. Things have to be like other things. So, when describing some remote area of the world that finds itself in the news it will be said to be ‘X times the size of Wales’.

This desire for comparisons means that the symptoms being demonstrated by the poisoned sheep cannot be left to stand alone. They have to be ‘like’ something.

In the article an expert, North West Local Land Services regional veterinarian Bob McKinnon, says the behaviour of the animals is ‘similar to that of a drunk’. Mrs Knight says ‘it’s like dealing with a thousand heroin addicts’. I don’t know how many heroin addicts Mrs Knight has seen and it is, of course, possible that an Australian called Bob has never seen a drunk but, reading the reported symptoms, suggests that Mr McKinnon is giving the better comparator. It is, however, no surprise that the headline chooses to opt for the heroin comparison because that is what the media do.

Follow-up

For more information on this story, especially the chemistry of the poison, see the always excellent Nature's Poisons blog.

Follow-up 2

I'm not sure which is more depressing; that newspapers always go for the click bait headline or that, if my Google Alert is any indication, lots of people fall for it and re-report the story.

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