Reiki • Holistic • Horses & Humans

Month: July 2022

Ragwort, rewilding and diversity

In a recent post, I described the Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), as one of the plants most toxic to horses. In this post, I look at a related issue, concerning Ragwort and Rewilding.

Description:

Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is a biennial plant, abundant in Britain. It can grow from 30cm to a meter in height. Ragwort has bright yellow flowers, and the rough lobed leaves which give it its name. This plant was classed as injurious under the Weeds Act, 1959. Landowners may be subject to prosecution if they leave Ragwort on their land.

But Ragwort possesses benefits too!

The dangers of Ragwort are well-known. Especially to livestock owners, and equestrians. Yet Ragwort has many benific properties. What is less widely known is that Ragwort supports a thriving community of insects. Seven species of Beetle. Twelve species of flies. One Macro moth, the cinnabar moth. Seven micro moths. It is a source of nectar for 30 species of solitary bees. Eighteen species of solitary wasps. And fifty different species of insect parasites. According to Isabella Tree (Wilding), 177 different species of insect feed on Ragwort.

Isabella Tree devotes her entire chapter Eight (Wilding) to the subject of Ragwort. The problem is of size. One issue she discusses concerns the BEVA report of 2002. BEVA is the British Equine Veterinary Association. They reported that 6,500 horses died in 2002 due to Ragwort. Yet only 12 years before, data showed that only 10 horses succumb to the plant per year. This previous data came from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As such there was a huge discrepancy between the two reports. Isabella Tree has argued that the BEVA report used data from only 4% of BEVA members. They claimed on average three cases each of Ragwort poisoning. This figure was then extrapolated to the entire membership. It is clear there is a need for reliable data.

The reason I explore this in detail is that Ragwort inflames passions. And the plant – despite toxicity – has considerable benefits for a large number of insects.

Rewilding Britain and Ragwort

Rewilding Britain has also published a report on this plant. As they point out: ” The species is an important source of nectar and pollen. It’s a food plant for many insect species, including the cinnabar moth. However, ragwort is deemed to be toxic to livestock when taken in high doses. Animals will naturally avoid ragwort when grazing unless pasture is overgrazed and there’s a lack of food, but they can’t detect ragwort that’s present in hay. A large amount of ragwort — estimated to be around 5 – 25% of total body weight for horses and cattle — has to be ingested for it to be poisonous”. 

In terms of control, they suggest that action may need the use of herbicides. These are generally damaging to the environment. Cutting and removing the plants is labour intensive and expensive but is kinder to the land. In rewilding projects, patience is essential. It takes time to allow natural succession. With time, different species will replace Ragwort.

In the case of the Knepp estate, they maintain a topped 50m boundary. This prevents any possibility of Ragwort seeding neighboring land.

Wicken Fen National Nature reserve has tried a variety of methods. Ground cover is established to minimize the spread of Ragwort. This includes natural regeneration, seeding and hay spreading. Results have been mixed. No single measure prevented Ragwort seed from drifting onto neighboring land.

Seeding and seed dispersal

Studies have been carried out on seed dispersal in Ragwort. Seed carried by the wind tends to be lighter and also infertile. For a plant making 30,000 seeds, 60% will fall at the base of the plant. 39% will fall within 4.5m (15ft), and at 36m (120 ft), less than 0.005% of the seed can be detected. That is, less than 2 grains of 30,000. This study confirms that wind-borne seed transport is highly limited in Ragwort.

Conclusion:

In the end, I believe the best stance is truly difficult to determine. On the one hand, these plants are clearly toxic. On the other, they provide sustenance for at least 177 species of insect. To eradicate by hand (and I have done this myself, to protect horses), is one approach. At the same time, I am acutely aware of the insect habitats I have personally destroyed.

Can one maintain a 50m topped boundary? Wind studies show that seeds tend to disperse in a small area, local to each plant. If a boundary is not possible, eradication may be the better solution for neighbors.

This may be critical if hay or haylage is cropped close by your land. One of the most common causes of equine poisoning is dried Ragwort contaminating hay. Horses generally steer well clear of this plant. Its odor is unpleasant to them. But it can escape their attention if dried and baled with the hay. It is essential is to check one’s hay carefully. And if hay is produced on land bordering your own, I would control Ragwort very closely.

This subject is extremely complex. The discussion by Nogués-Bravo et al. (2016) makes this patently clear. Each situation must be studied on its own merits. I hope, however, that this reflection serves to remind that Ragwort has many benefits in the ecosystem. And that we need to find a balance between the needs of herbivores on the one hand. And the hundreds of insect species that this plant supports, on the other.

References:

Isabella Tree:
Wilding: The return to nature of a British Farm. Picador. 2018

Rewilding Britain:
Quick Guide to Ragwort:
https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/start-rewilding/quick-guide-ragwort-and-dealing-with-the-challenges

Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation
David Nogués-Bravo, Daniel Simberloff, Carsten Rahbek,
and Nathan James Sanders.
Current Biology, Volume 26, Issue 3, 8 February 2016, Pages R87-R91
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982215015754

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Plants toxic to horses: Hemlock

Which plants are most toxic to horses? In this series of posts, I continue to describe the most common plants that are toxic to horses. Here we look at the Hemlock.

Description:

Hemlock (Conium Maculatum) is an erect, branched biennial plant. It can reach 2m in height. It is common in waste ground, in ditches, and by roadsides. It is common in Europe, but rare in West and Central Scotland. In the US, Hemlock is also known as Musquash Root and Spotted Cowbane. These plants are considered amongst the most toxic of plants, and a deadly poison. One mouthful can apparently kill an animal in 15 minutes.

What the herbalist says:

The herbalist Culpeper tells us that: the common great Hemlock grows up with a green stalk, four or five feet high, or more, full of red spots sometimes, and at the joints very large winged leaves one set against the other, dented about the edges, of a sad green colour branched towards the top, where it is full of umbels of white flowers, and afterwards with whitish flat seed; the root is long, white, and sometimes crooked, and hollow within. The whole plant, and every part, has a 1trong, heady, and ill-favoured acent. It grows by walls and hedges throughout all parts of this country. It flowers and seeds in July, or thereabout. Saturn claims dominion over this herb. Hemlock is exceedingly cold, and very dan­gorous, especially to be taken inwardly. It may safely be applied to inflammations, tumults, and swellings in any part of the body, as also to St, Anthony’s fire, wheals, pushes, and creeping ulcers that arise of hot sharp hu­mours, by cooling and repelling the heat; the leaves bruised and laid to the brow or forehead, are good for red and 1wollen eyes; as also to take away a pin and web grow­ing there; take a small handful of this herb, and half aa much bay-salt, beat together, and applied to the contrary wrist of the hand, removes it in two applications. The root roasted and applied to the hands, helps the gout.

The active agents:

The poisonous agents in Hemlock are alkaloids, and these can be extremely toxic. They are more concentrated in the stem and leaves than the root, apparently. Paralysis and convulsions may result from ingesting Hemlock. Hemlock is best known in human history as the poison that was handed to Socrates in 399 BC.

Herbal Medicine

In herbal medicine, Hemlock has been used as a sedative and for cough relief in bronchitis.

Poisoning with Hemlock?

Horse DVM, offers some interesting insights. Hemlock was native to Europe and western Asia. It was however introduced into North America in the 1800s as an ornamental. It then escaped cultivation. It is now widely distributed across much of the United States. It is present in Canada too. As a biennial, poison hemlock produces leaves as a basal rosette in year one. This develops into an upright flower stalk during year two.

Poison hemlock contains eight piperidine alkaloids. Y-coniceine and coniine are the most abundant. These two are the predominant cause of acute and chronic toxicity in horses. Coniine is similar in structure and function to nicotine. These toxins have a direct effect on the horse’s nervous system.

Whilst all parts of the plant are toxic, the most toxic parts are the fruits when they are still green, and stems.

The best way is to remove Hemlock is before seed production. If you are hand-pulling, wear gloves as the plant is highly poisonous. If Hemlock is growing freely on your land, remove it, safely. Please ensure that your horses cannot come into contact with this deadly herb.

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I hope this article has been helpful. Other articles about plants toxic to horses appear on my blog and are linked to my Professional Facebook Page. If there is a plant that you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts.

Quarterly Holistic Newsletter

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Bibliography:
Keith Allison: A guide to Plants Poisonous to Horses. J.A. Allen. Revised edition, 2011.
John Gerarde: The Herball or General Historie of Plantes, 1636.
Culpeper: Index Of Herbs By Nich. Culpeper, Gent. Student in Physick and Astrologie, 1616, 1654
Sandra McQuinn: Horse owner’s Guide to Toxic Plants. Skyehorse Publishing. 1996, 2020.

Plants toxic for Horses: Oak

Which plants are most toxic to horses? In this series of posts, I continue to describe the most common plants that are toxic to horses. Here we look at the mighty Oak.

Description:

Oak (Quercus spp.) is a tree, native to Britain, and commonly found in woodland, parkland, and near pastures. Oak is also widespread across North America. The oak may live for hundreds of years. Trees often have their lower branches lopped, which reduces the life of the tree. In the normal cycle, the Oak puts out lower branches which then support the tree in later life. Without these lower limbs, the tree can end up splitting. Farmers often cut the lower branches so they can plough around the tree. This may plough more of the field. But it compacts the soil around the surface roots and also does the tree no favours.

What the herbalist says:

The herbalist Culpeper tells us that: This tree grows to a vast height, spreading out into innumerable and irregular branches. The leaves are oblong, obtuse, deeply sinulated, and of a dark green. The flowers are both barren and fertile on the same tree ; the former are collected into loose catkins ; the latter are seat­ ed in the buds, and both sorts are small and inconsiderable, The seed is oval-formed, of a leather-like coat, which ap­pears as if rasped at the base, and is fixed to a short cup. It is too common to require a particular spec1fi­cation of the place of its growth. The flowers appear in April, and the acorns are ripe in October and November. Jupiter owns the tree. The leaves and bark, and the acorn cups, bind and dry much. The inner bark and the thin skin that covers the acorn, are used to stay the spitting of blood, and the flux.

The active agents:

The poisonous agents in Oak are the tannins, and these can be extremely toxic. Nonetheless, information on the toxicity of oak appears confusing. On the one hand, some horses have apparently died from Oak poisoning. On the other, there exist reports of horses eating acorns with little or no ill effect. In my own experience, I have seen certain horses of a herd enjoying fallen acorns. Others will graze around them. No member of that herd suffered any consequence in the three years I managed them.

Herbal Medicine

In herbal medicine, Quercus has been used as an astringent and an antiseptic.

Poisoning with Oak?

Cynthia Gaskill, American Board of Veterinary Toxicology, has written about the Oak. She explains that acorn poisoning has been well documented in cattle. Very few cases have been confirmed in horses (in the US). Symptoms of acorn toxicity include depression and loss of appetite. There may be digestive-tract issues: colic, gastric upset and diarrhoea (often bloody). Kidney and possibly liver damage are possible. The more acute the symptoms, the higher the likelihood of death. Horses that experience a gradual onset of symptoms are more likely to survive.

In November 2013, a large number of horses died in the New Forest, in the UK. An article in Horse and Hound states that 31 ponies roaming on the New Forest died, along with 12 cattle. In a normal year, many fewer animals die each autumn. 2013 was a “mast” year, when oaks and apple trees produced plenty of fruit. As such, extreme prudence is necessary.

As with many toxic plants, horses are more likely to eat them if they do not have enough grass or hay. Imagine several horses are being kept underfed. An oak tree in the paddock drops a large number of acorns. It is possible that some of the horses might now eat a large number of acorns to supplement their food.

It is important to note that the amount of Tannins varies during the year and season. As such it is difficult to predict how toxic the leaves/acorns might be. If you have an oak in your pasture, the best strategy would be to fence it off. This ensures that it will be out of grazing range for the herd.

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I hope this article has been helpful. Other articles about plants toxic to horses appear on my Professional Facebook Page. If there is a plant that you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts.

Quarterly Holistic Newsletter

If you have enjoyed this article, please keep in touch and sign up for our Quarterly Holistic Newsletter.


Bibliography:
Keith Allison: A guide to Plants Poisonous to Horses. J.A. Allen. Revised edition, 2011.
John Gerarde: The Herball or General Historie of Plantes, 1636.
Culpeper: Index Of Herbs By Nich. Culpeper, Gent. Student in Physick and Astrologie, 1616, 1654
Cynthia Gaskill: Are acorns poisonous to horses?
Horse and Hound: A huge rise in equine deaths due to acorns.

Plants toxic for horses: Foxglove

Foxglove is one of the many plants poisonous to horses.

Which plants are most toxic to horses? In this series of posts, I continue to describe the most common plants that are toxic to horses.

Description:

Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea) is a biennial plant that reaches about 1.5m in height. Its flowers are bell or helmet-shaped and they may be either purple or white.

What the herbalist says:

The herbalist Culpeper tells us that: This hath many long and broad Leaves lying upon the Ground dented about the edges, a little soft or woolly, and of a hoary green colour among which rise up somtimes sundry Stalks, but one very often bearing such Leavs thereon from the bottom to the middle, from whence to the top it is stored with large and long hollow reddish Purple Flowers, a little more long and eminent at the lower edg, with some white Spots within them, one above another, with small green Leaves at every one, but all of them turning their Heads one way and hanging downwards, having some threds also in the middle, from whence rise round Heads pointed sharp at the ends, wherein smal brown Seed lieth. The Roots are many smal Huskie Fibres, and some greater strings among them; The Flower hath no scent; but the Leavs have a bitter hot taste. Vertues and Use. This Herb is familiarly and frequently used by the Italians to heal any fresh or green Wound, the Leavs being but bruised and bound thereon; and the Juyce therof is also used in old Sores, to clens, dry, and heal them. The Decoction hereof made up with some Sugar or Honey is.

The active agents:

The poisonous agents in Foxglove are several. They are known as cardiac glycosides. These include digitalin, digitoxin, and several others. If ingested, abdominal pain, irregular pulse, tremors and convulsions may follow. Foxglove is not usually ingested by animals. It is easily avoided when growing in pasture, but more dangerous when it is incorporated in hay.

Herbal Medicine

In herbal medicine, Digitalis has been used in the treatment of internal bleeding, in inflammatory diseases, in epilepsy, and delerium tremens. Digitoxin is commonly used in heart medication for humans and horses but in tightly controlled doses.

Poisoning with Foxglove?

According to Simon Constables Equine Vets, these plants are thankfully unpalatable to horses and are rarely eaten as a fresh flower. If they are caught up in hay or haylage they can however be accidentally eaten. The effects on the heart increase the strength of heart contraction but slow conduction between the top (atrium) and bottom (ventricle) parts of the heart. This shift can lead to a fatal arrhythmia where the heartbeat becomes irregular. When the dose is sufficient, it may cause cardiac arrest. Treatments involve binding the digitoxin with activated charcoal. Oral liquid paraffin and fluids are given to reduce toxin absorption. If caught early enough, suitable drugs include atropine and lignocaine which help to reduce arrhythmia.

Whilst it is not suggested that the plant be removed from pastures (unless in great quantity), it is important to inspect hay/haylage. In this way, we can ensure that traces of Digitalis have not contaminated our horse’s staple.

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Other articles about plants appear on my Professional Facebook Page.
If there is a plant you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts.

Quarterly Holistic Newsletter

If you have enjoyed this article, please keep in touch and sign up for our Quarterly Holistic Newsletter.


Bibliography:
Keith Allison: A guide to Plants Poisonous to Horses. J.A. Allen. Revised edition, 2011.
John Gerarde: The Herball or General Historie of Plantes, 1636.
Culpeper: Index Of Herbs By Nich. Culpeper, Gent. Student in Physick and Astrologie, 1616, 1654

Plants toxic for Horses: Yew

Plants toxic for Horses. Yew. An image of the Yew Tree.

Which plants are most toxic to horses? In this series of posts, I continue to describe the most common plants that are toxic to horses.

Description:

Yew (Taxus baccata) is an evergree tree, native to Britain. It can grow to 20m in height. It grows in gardens, and churchyards all over Britain. Some trees reach 600 years old.

What the herbalist says:

The herbalist Culpeper tells us that: Yew grows to be an irregular tree, spreading
widely into branches. The leaves are long, narrow, and placed with a beautiful regularity.
The flowers are yellowish, and the berries are surrounded with a sweet juicy matter. It grows in woods, and in gardens. This is a tree of Saturn. The leaves are said to be poisonous; but the wood, if it grew with more regularity, would be very valuable. This tree, though it has no place among medicinal plants, yet it does not deserve (at least in our climate), so bad a character as the ancients gave it, viz, a most poisonous vegetable, the berries of which threaten present death to man or beast that eat them; many have eaten them in this country and survived.

The active agent:

The poisonous agents in Yew are toxic alkaloids. Amongst these are Taxine and Taxol. These are absorbed in the gut, and can impact the heart. The alkaloids are not present in the red berries. Rather, they are present in all other parts of the tree. The toxins are not rendered inactive by drying. Clippings of Yew can thus be of danger to animals. Following ingestion, there may be a loss of coordination in the animal, and variable pulse. In some cases, there are no symptoms at all, and the animal collapses a couple of hours after ingestion.

Herbal Medicine

In herbal medicine, tinctures of Yew have been prepared from the young shoots. Skin eruptions, cystitis, headaches, gout and rheumatism.

A Yew in the Paddock?

Looking at forums such as Horse and Hound, it is clear this is an issue for yard owners and users. Some ensure the tree is fenced off, or mown around so that horses will not graze up to it. One yard manager felt that as an evergreen there is no shed. In fact, Yews do shed needles, and some have noticed large reduction of needles. This can take place between every four and seven years. I would look before purchasing land – as a yew is a stately and large tree. It would be a shame to cut down such a tree. If one is on your land, it would seem safer to ensure that it is well fenced off. And all windfall is removed after high winds.

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Other articles about plants appear on my Professional Facebook Page.
If there is a plant you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts.

Quarterly Holistic Newsletter

If you have enjoyed this article, please keep in touch and sign up for our Quarterly Holistic Newsletter.


Bibliography:
Keith Allison: A guide to Plants Poisonous to Horses. J.A. Allen. Revised edition, 2011.
John Gerarde: The Herball or General Historie of Plantes, 1636.
Culpeper: Index Of Herbs By Nich. Culpeper, Gent. Student in Physick and Astrologie, 1616, 1654

Plants toxic for horses – Ragwort

Image of Ragwort, a common plant toxic to horses

Which plants are most toxic to horses? In this series of posts, I describe the most common plants that are toxic to horses.

Description:

Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is a biennial plant, abundant in Britain. It can grow from 30cm to a meter in height. Ragwort has bright yellow flowers, and the rough lobed leaves which give it its name. This plant was classed as injurious under the Weeds Act, 1959. Landowners may be subject to prosecution if they leave Ragwort on their land.

What the herbalist says:

The herbalist Culpeper tells us that: The greater common Ragwort hath many large and long dark green Leavs lying on the ground, very much rent and torn on the sides into many pieces, from among which rise up somtimes but one, and sometimes two or three square or crested blackish or brownish Stalks three or four foot high, sometimes branched bearing diverse such like Leavs upon them at several distances unto the tops, where it brancheth forth into many Stalks bearing yellow Flowers, consisting of diverse Leaves set as a Pale or Border, with a dark yellow thrum in the middle, which do abide a great while, but at last are turned into Down, and with the smal blackish gray Seed are carried away with the wind. The Root is made of many Fibres, whereby it is firmly fastned into to the ground, and abideth many yeers.

The active agent:

Poisonous agents in Ragwort are of the pyrrolizidine alkaloid family. The most toxic of these are known as cyclic diesters. Symptoms of poisoning may not appear immediately. Animals may have to graze the plants for some time before intoxication. The effects are various such as diarrhoea and effects on the nervous system, which range from restlessness to paralysis. In the equestrian world, such intoxication is known as “sleepy staggers“.

Herbal Medicine

In herbal medicine, Ragwort has several uses. Traditionally it is used for the relief of gout and sciatica, and as a gargle for sore throats.

Clearing Ragwort from the paddock:

The dried Ragwort plant retains its toxicity. When I clear Ragwort from paddocks, I take certain precautions. We use a heavy-duty waste disposal sack so that plants do not touch the wheelbarrow or any other equipment. Gloves are essential to avoid self-contamination. I immediately place the plants in an incinerator for destruction by fire. It is important to leave no trace by the incinerator should animals have access. One must dig the roots out. Ragworts seem to be able to regenerate from even the tiniest rootball, so the more rigorous one is, the better.

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Other articles about plants appear on my Professional Facebook Page.
If there is a plant you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts.

Quarterly Holistic Newsletter

If you have enjoyed this article, please keep in touch and sign up for our Quarterly Holistic Newsletter.

Cover image of Quarterly Newsletter

Bibliography:
Keith Allison: A guide to Plants Poisonous to Horses. J.A. Allen. Revised edition, 2011.
John Gerarde: The Herball or General Historie of Plantes, 1636.
Culpeper: Index Of Herbs By Nich. Culpeper, Gent. Student in Physick and Astrologie, 1616, 1654