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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 9th April 2013

Last week, my Google alert for Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, took me to the newsletter of a website dealing with anything related to caring for horses. It is not clear who is behind this site. It describes itself as ‘Free Information, Help & Advise [sic] For Equestrians’ and it clearly is not linked to any magazine. The URL ‘housecarecourses’ suggests it may have something to do with someone offering training but there is nothing on the site to confirm that.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea),
common ragwort

The newsletter was about preparing pasture for the summer grazing season and included a link to a page, on the same site, about ragwort. I’ll come back to the newsletter later but I wanted to start with the ‘All About Ragwort’ page because it is the first time I’ve come across a ‘horsey’ website trying to deal fairly with this subject.

The page has plenty of photographs to assist with identification at all stages and even shows what the plant may look like after cinnabar moth caterpillars have been feeding. That in itself is something a little special because many of the hysterics about ragwort pretend that the idea of a caterpillar being totally reliant on ragwort is a myth.

There is a warning about handling ragwort because ‘some people have an allergic reaction’. I wonder what the reaction of people who insist on believing ragwort can be absorbed through the skin is to reading that.

Under the pictures of the plant, interspersed with information on growing habit, identification and removal, are a number of questions. These explain that horses need to ingest up to 25% of body weight to be fatally poisoned, that horses will avoid eating the growing plant because of the taste, that ragwort is not poisonous to humans unless eaten and that there is no law requiring removal of ragwort.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea),
common ragwort

The myth of the 6,500 deaths is also dealt with including mention of the Advertising Standards Authority’s finding that this claim was untrue and should not be used in advertising for ragwort removal products. In fact, the unknown author goes on to say that ‘There have been 10 confirmed deaths by Ragwort poisoning between 2005 and 2010’ demonstrating that all the talk of mass deaths is nonsense.

It is not completely perfect, however. It says that all ragwort plants produce 150,000 seeds when, in fact, this is the very highest of a range that goes down to about 30,000. It also says there is a 70% germination rate. This may be true under ideal conditions but, in practice the rate is much lower. But these are minor points when read as part of what is a very honest and realistic article about the threat ragwort poses.

I said I’d come back to the newsletter. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the Google alert and the newsletter is not linked to on the site. That means I can’t give you the chance to read it yourself and must ask you to trust my memory of it.

Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock

Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock

As above, the piece was about what owners need to do before letting horses out onto pasture for the summer. What really struck me was that, as well as talking about Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, readers were advised to look out for and take action against Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock.

Broad-leaved dock is one of the five weeds named in the 1959 Weeds Act. Ragwort is another.

Broad-leaved dock is toxic if eaten. Just like ragwort.

Broad-leaved dock is an opportunist plant. It will flourish in poor quality pasture. Just like ragwort.

There have been a very few documented accounts of livestock being killed as a result of ingesting broad-leaved dock. Just like ragwort.

Its taste is appalling and a firm discouragement to ingestion if there is other food available. Just like ragwort.

So, why does it not result in the same hysteria as ragwort if anyone dares to speak its name within hearing of most horse-owners?


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