Ragwort: the unwanted survivor

By Wendy Talbot on 14 March 2017

While the grass may be struggling to flourish in many parts of the country because of the hot arid conditions the reverse is true for ragwort. This highly poisonous plant is a real survivor. Seeds that have been lying dormant can take advantage of any space in the field and ragwort can soon become the most proliferating plant left on your horse’s pasture. This is a major concern because ragwort can cause potentially fatal liver disease.

But horses don’t eat ragwort do they? 

It’s a myth that horses hate ragwort. While most will avoid it, unfortunately a hungry horse will try to eat almost anything green. In fact some horses can develop a taste for fresh ragwort and it becomes more palatable in dried form such as in hay. Be in no doubt, Ragwort intoxication is a real and serious threat to horses. 

What will ragwort do to my horse?

Ragwort contains toxic compounds that will cumulatively poison horses and other livestock. It is highly dangerous whether eaten in large quantities in a short period or in small quantities over a longer period. Clinical signs may not be seen for weeks to month after ingestion by which time the poison has irreparably damaged the horse’s liver. Some of the side effects of this are lethargy, sensitivity to sunlight, weight loss, and breathlessness. Particularly distressing signs include neurological symptoms such as circling, wobbliness, aggression and loss of sight.  Eventually, in severe cases coma and death result.

Identifying ragwort 

Ragwort is a yellow flowering plant. It is very hardy and deep-rooted and has several distinct stages of growth. 

Seedlings usually appear from autumn until June and have spade shaped leaves with notches at the top.

Rosettes develop from the seedlings. The leaves become very distinctive with irregular jagged edges. The plants are usually dark green but can contain some purple.

Ragwort flowers from May until around October and the plants can grow up to two metres in height. They tend to have large, flat-topped heads of dense yellow flowers.

Ragwort plants shed their seeds in the late summer and just one plant has the capacity to produce thousands of seeds, which can lie dormant for years. 


Getting rid of ragwort

Ragwort must always be removed from your horse’s grazing area, without exception. Ideally it should be removed before it flowers to prevent plants from shedding their seeds.

Keep a vigilant eye out for any new plants every time you walk though your horse’s field, making it a part of your daily poo-picking routine.

Ragwort is also harmful to humans so it’s important to wear protective gloves when handling the plant and to keep arms and legs covered too.

When plants are small they can often be pulled up cleanly by hand or with the help of a specialist ragwort fork. As much of the root as possible should be removed to prevent the plant from regenerating.

Paddocks with a proliferation of ragwort can be sprayed but the fields will need to be rested for several weeks afterwards and the dead plants must be cleared before the field is safe to be grazed again. It’s best to speak to a local agricultural merchant for advice.

Ragwort plants must be disposed of very carefully. Ideally they should be burnt – but it’s best to speak to Defra for specific advice for your area.

Prevention is the safest option with ragwort: don’t allow your horse to graze in fields containing it and always be sure to buy your hay or haylage from a reliable supplier who guarantees it to be ragwort-free. If you think your horse may have eaten ragwort it’s important to speak to your vet as soon as possible.






Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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