The silent killer lurking in a bale of hay
That fount of equine knowledge, Ted Walsh, can be widely entertaining in a radio interview, as well as being deadly serious about a real danger to the welfare of horses very visible at this time of year.
Ted was speaking about ragwort, a noxious weed and the bane of farmers, widely perceived as the responsibility of local authorities as it persists on road verges, traffic islands and abandoned public places.
At one time, farmers who neglected fields, usually as being uneconomic, were prosecuted over weed control. The Department of Agriculture began policing this area; in these days of intensive agriculture, there are few neglected corners.
Ragwort (senecio jacobaea), or bulkishawns, bulterins or builleachain buidhe, is the yellow peril of grazing animals, especially horses who ingest its withered remains in the depths of bales of hay.
The poisons it contains attack the liver, causing cirrhosis and painful death. It is estimated as the cause of almost half of all farm stock poisoning.
It is a deceptive plant to most people, appearing as swathes of gold to the casual observer and to walk through an infested field can feel more transgressive than a careful walk through wheat or barley, as insects and those harvesting them abound.
The plants are havens for bees and butterflies, hoverflies and moths feeding on the pollen and nectar, the most attractive residents being the yellow-striped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth.
There is more life in a patch of ragwort than in the fields around it.