Sycamore seed toxin linked to 200 horse deaths
Horse owners have been warned about an agonising autumn disease which killed more than 200 horses and ponies here last year.
The little-known, but fatal, toxin is contained in sycamore tree seeds - and led to record levels of mortality in ponies and horses which ate the seeds while grazing.
The seeds - which are not thought to be harmful to humans - are often called 'helicopter seeds' because of the way they spiral down from the trees in the autumn.
There has already been one fatal case of equine atypical myopathy recorded in Ireland earlier this year, but autumn is the red-alert time for the highly poisonous seeds.
Equine veterinarian Don Collins said the fatal nature of sycamore seeds for horses has only been identified in the last decade.
He said: "It is a newly recognised disease. If they eat enough of the toxin in the seed, they will die quickly - within days. It's distressing to see.
"Anyone whose horse was affected by it will never forget, but people who haven't been affected are probably not as aware as they should be.
"It affects the muscles. They can be weak and unable to move and eventually collapse. They can have difficulty breathing and they can have heart issues and problems eating and swallowing. It's not a pleasant end."
While there was only one case reported in 2013, it is thought a perfect storm of a wet summer and high winds last year caused a bumper crop of seeds, which sadly killed hundreds of horses and ponies.
The former chairman of the equine branch of Veterinary Ireland said horse owners can take simple steps to make sure their animals stay safe.
He said: "If you have the sycamore seeds on your land, you can clear them off and collect them and get rid of them. If the horses have plenty of green grass, they are less likely to eat them."
He said the deaths were all over the country last year.
He said: "It didn't discriminate. There were probably more cases where the pasture wasn't the best quality, but there were reports even on well-run thoroughbred farms."