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The largest provider of equine grants in the UK, the Home of Rest for Horses, has awarded a substantial grant to the University of Liverpool to help continue its urgent research into ragwort poisoning.

The biennial weed is believed to be one of the most common causes of poisoning in horses and cattle, killing thousands every year, and its effects may be cumulative, so that small intakes over a long period of time have the same effects as a large intake.

Ragwort contains alkaloids, which are poisonous to livestock as well as humans, and causes potentially fatal liver damage in horses. Symptoms include loss of condition, poor appetite, lethargy and photosensitisation (sunburn).

Dr Derek Knottenbelt, head of ragwort research at the University of Liverpool, explained that his team will be refining and developing their current test to make it of more use to the general public. In its present state the test is laborious, involving a considerable amount of laboratory work.

The money provided by the Home of Rest for Horses, along with the funds raised throughout this year, will be used to fund a full-time two-year project, aimed at developing a commercially viable test. The test will be able to determine the extent of ragwort poisoning before any clinical signs develop.

Dr Knottenbelt expressed his gratitude and delight at receiving such a generous sum which will allow his team to research this problem thoroughly. He said: “We are very grateful to all of those who have donated money to this cause; the general public, as well as the ILPH, Dodson & Horrell and the Bransby Home of Rest for Horses.”

The project is due to start in March, although preliminary aspects of the research are well under way. Paul Jepson, director of the Home of Rest for Horses was keen to stress that there will be no vivisection involved. Instead, the research will focus on how the toxin binds on to haemoglobin molecules in red blood cells.

“This is pioneering stuff”, Mr Jepson told HHO. “I am very optimistic that at the end of it we will have something tangible that we can use.”

There is still great speculation regarding the number of horses that die from ragwort. Mr Jepson highlighted the difficulty vets face in convincing horse owners that ragwort is a killer, since it is considered likely that on occasions, toxicity resulting from the consumption of ragwort weakens animals to the extent that they are killed by something unrelated that they could usually withstand.

“If we can demonstrate that horses are damaged [by ragwort], there would be a much greater incentive to do something about it,” he explained.

Dr Knottenbelt was realistic about the permanents effects of ragwort poisoning, emphasising that the blood test will provide a protocol for the prevention of further ingestion of ragwort. He stressed the clear need for a mechanism which could be used on a day-to-day basis.

“We visualise that the test will be used on a random sample of horses in a yard every four weeks or so. That would be truly great progress in battling against this killer weed,” he told HHO.