PONIES AND RAGWORT.
The Sussex Pony Grazing and Conservation Trust take very seriously, the well-being of our Exmoor ponies, many of which are characters whom we have cared for since 1999. The Trust offers a specialised grazing service to owners of wildlife-rich sites and operates fully within the Animal Welfare Act 2006. We do not place our ponies where there is an unacceptable risk to them or, where their ‘five freedoms’ are compromised…
Ragwort. This is a biennial, which in its first year only has leaves organized in a low rosette. These can be found throughout most of the year. Ragwort usually flowers in the second year (June till October). After the plant has produced seeds, it dies. Flower-heads occur in clusters, which are bright yellow.
At this time of year Ragwort receives quite a lot of media coverage. Many facts are presented, but also many myths. Fact, that Ragwort is poisonous to mammals, but it is a myth that an animal will die if it ingests only a mouthful. Fact, equines are unlikely to eat living ragwort, it having a cautioning foul smell and taste. Ragwort is currently very common, it liking dry, broken and light soils, as found here at Hastings. Seed of this species is dispersed very efficiently by the wind.
Ragwort can be a perceived significant nuisance to horse keepers but this specie is also a very important source of nectar and pollen. About 150 species of insects, such as bees, flies and butterflies, visit the plant. Therefore, even it were possible, eradicating this plant is not a desirable option. There are no easy solutions to the Ragwort problem, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do.
Frequently Asked Questions.
Q: Is it true that horses usually do not eat fresh Ragwort?
A: Yes, that is right. Only in exceptional circumstances or when there is a food shortage, will ponies eat fresh Ragwort. Ponies however, do not recognize dried Ragwort plants as poisonous and contaminated hay may cause Ragwort poisoning.
Q: Will our ponies get ill when it occasionally eats a mouthful of Ragwort?
A; No, incidentally ingesting small amounts of Ragwort will not result in illness. If, however, our ponies were to eat several kilograms of Ragwort per day, this could lead to irreparable liver damage.
Q: Do the toxins in Ragwort accumulate in a horse’s body?
A: No. The toxins (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) are excreted within 24-48 hours. If an animal consumes pyrrolidizine alkaloids regularly though, liver damage could accumulate and the animal would show signs of illness.
Q: Is it true there are several hundreds of victims each year?
A: The exact number of victims of Ragwort poisoning is unknown. The symptoms of Ragwort poisoning cannot be distinguished from other liver disorders and poisoning can only be confirmed by means of a post-mortem liver exam. These examinations are however, not common practice and reliable data on the number of victims are therefore not available.
Q: Will touching a Ragwort plant result in alkaloid poisoning?
A: No. Ragwort poisoning takes place through the digestive system. In the plant, pyrrolidizine alkaloids are stored in their non-toxic form. Only if these substances end up in the digestive system, they will be converted into their toxic form. There is no scientific evidence that skin contact leads to the conversion of non-toxic alkaloids into their toxic form. Some people may experience an allergic reaction after skin contact (compositae dermatitis).
Q: Why is Ragwort fairly common in poor pastures?
A: Ragwort needs bare earth to germinate. Animals, erosion or vehicles can easily churn up the ground when soft and wet, thereby easily creating the open ground required for seed germination.
Q: If Ragwort plants are growing in a field, what can done?
A: Ragwort is not easy to eradicate. Action such as pulling-up fully by hand or using herbicide, can reduce its occurrence. Mowing, or leaving the roots in the ground after pulling, may increase rather than decrease the number of Ragwort plants at a given site. Best practice is to prevent ragwort from establishing to any significant degree in pasture land.
Q: There’s so much contradicting information about ragwort on the internet. How do I know who is right?
A: The aim of this article is to distinguish facts from myths, by using a scientific approach based on research and advice from biologists, toxicologists, and other experts. In this way, we want to confirm to you that we take very seriously, the well-being of our Exmoor ponies.
Monty Larkin, Grazing Co-ordinator.