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A new blood test to recognise ragwort poisoning in equines is expected to be available by the end of next year, thanks to the work of a team of scientists at the University of Liverpool.

Dr Derek Knottenbelt and his team have been working on a test to detect if a horse has ingested the deadly weed for the past couple of years. Currently ragwort poisoning can only be diagnosed through clinical signs, by which time irreparable damage to the horse’s liver has occurred and death is inevitable.

At least 6,500 horses died from ragwort poisoning last year and it is hoped that the new test will significantly reduce the number of deaths by enabling owners to act before it is too late.

“I would like to have the test ready for next spring, but, being realistic, I hope it will be available by end of 2004,” says Dr Knottenbelt.

There was concern earlier this year that the research would grind to a halt due to insufficient funding, but thanks to the generosity of a number of equine organisations, plus thousands of individuals, Dr Knottenbelt believes the end is in sight.

“Earlier this year I thought a lack of funds would prevent us from develop a useable test, but now I’m much more optimistic and extremely grateful to everyone who has donated to the cause,” he says.

“We have just received a significant donation from the Bransby Home of Rest for Horses, which will ensure the work can continue. The efforts of individuals, such as Diane and Fiona Luke of Bury St Edmunds who raised £4,000 for the cause at a charity event recently, are also vitally important.”

Although the immediate future of the research has been secured, Dr Knottenbelt is keen to emphasis that continued donations are necessary if the test is to be successfully delivered.

“Every contribution, no matter how large or small the amount, is important to us. We need to continue to receive funds for the research and the ongoing cost of processing the test results, once it is available.”

The University of Liverpool’s work will be assisted by the new British Horse Society-backed Ragwort Control Bill, which is paving the way for a new code of practise to encourage landowners to manage ragwort on their land.

“The Bill is a real credit to everyone who has been involved — especially the BHS,” says Dr Knottenbelt. “The bill and the new test will go a long way towards preventing these unnecessary deaths.”
To make a donation please send a cheque, made payable to the University of Liverpool (Ragwort HH), to Dr D Knottenbelt, University of Liverpool, Leahurst, Neston, South Wirral CH64 7TE.