The weather has finally turned and the lovely warm, sunny days have inspired soggy, empty verges to bloom. The fields too are rapidly turning from muddy quagmires to lush, green meadows filled with wild flowers. Although horses grazing knee deep in golden yellow buttercups might look like idyllic, it’s actually not a desirable situation at all.
Far from being harmless, buttercups are actually very poisonous to horses. All parts of the ranunculus species, which includes buttercups, crowfoot, marsh marigold and spearwort, contain the glycoside ranunculin. This forms an irritant substance called protoanemonin and all domestic animals, including horses, are at risk from protoanemonin poisoning.
It’s true to say that buttercups do have an unpleasant bitter taste which does deter horses from eating them but when the pasture is overrun with the plants; it’s all too easy for them to be eaten along with other more appetising herbage. When the buttercups are flowering in late spring, the concentration of protoanemonin is at its highest.
Symptoms of buttercup poisoning
The best treatment for poisoning of any kind is prevention; do not turn your horses out on a field that you know contains large quantities of buttercups and do not allow your horse to snatch mouthfuls of wildflowers from the verges when you are riding out. If your horse does ingest buttercups in any quantity, there are some symptoms you should be aware of:
· excess salivation
· mouth ulcers; difficulty eating
· swollen face
· blistering of the skin
· discoloured urine
· loss of coordination; the horse may stagger
· impairment of hearing and sight
In very rare cases, buttercup poisoning may result in the death of the horse if the symptoms go untreated for any length of time and the animal is unable to eat or drink.
Buttercups in hay
But what about buttercups which may be contained in your hay or haylage? Fortunately, the plants are only toxic when fresh and the dried plants are harmless.
Removal of buttercups
Buttercups are notoriously difficult to eradicate. They are extremely invasive and thrive in the poor quality, compacted soil which is typical of pasture which is horse-sick and overgrazed. Begin by harrowing the soil to aerate it and improve the drainage. Buttercups spread readily by means of long runners and harrowing the soil helps to break these runners down, therefore reducing the number of plants.
You can also use weed killer to get rid of them but this can be even more dangerous than the plants themselves because buttercups become more palatable to animals following the use of weed killer and you horses may be even more likely to eat them. If you do decide to use herbicide, always leave pastures ungrazed for at least two weeks, preferably longer.
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