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A breakthrough in veterinarian research has been pioneered at the University of Liverpool, which could seriously reduce the number of equine deaths from ragwort poisoning.

Dr Derek Knottenbelt has developed a test, which detects tiny amounts of the poisonous weed in an animal’s blood, to allow owners to monitor if the poison has entered their horses’ system.

Ragwort is currently such a harmful plant when ingested because symptoms only become apparent once the level of poisoning is high, by which time the animal is usually beyond treatment.

Dr Knottenbelt is hoping that this new test will be preventative, as once small traces are detected in a horse or pony, the animal can be moved, and its environment closely monitored.

According to Dr Knottenbelt, the test will provide an easier way of checking where hay is contaminated with ragwort. “We visualise that the test will be used on a random sample of horses in a yard every 6 – 12 weeks or so,” he said.

“If evidence of the toxin is found in any of the samples, the hay or grazing must be examined for ragwort.

“This test will be a preventative measure that will let owners know their horses are eating ragwort. The affected feed can then be destroyed and appropriate changes in the diet can be made,” he continued.

It is hoped that the test will be available for public use by the end of the year.

The Ragwort Trust, set up by Dr Knottenbelt, is now trying to raise £80,000 to continue the research.