Friday, 5 June 2015

The Donkey Sanctuary's poor ragwort information

I regularly blog about the nonsense around about ragwort. This particular entry is prompted by the Donkey Sanctuary putting inaccurate information on their website. and by a twitter discussion involving another charity The Donkey Breed Society which was passing on the Sanctuary's dodgy information.

They got a telling off from a nature expert who called it unethical. Read on and you'll maybe see why.

There are many experts on nature who are deeply annoyed and upset by the torrent of pseudo-scientific nonsense about ragwort that we are immersed in daily in the world of social media.

The Donkey Breeds Society  replied that ragwort is poisonous and that it is of concern to donkey owners. Well let's examine these.

I had a discussion recently with a conservationist colleague who happens to be a GP.  ( for foreign readers GP = General Practitioner = Family Doctor) We weren't talking about ragwort, but about critical thinking and I mentioned people googling symptoms and getting daft answers. Her view was that people in general don't understand risk and chemistry, which is precisely the problem with ragwort.

Let me explain it with a well-known "poison" or at least something which can cause something akin to poisoning. This stuff can kill if enough is taken. I genuinely know someone who nearly died as a result. He was discovered lying on the floor of his home by a relative who had become concerned at not getting answers to phone calls. He had slipped into a coma and spent days in intensive care recovering consciousness.
You can find information on line about it under the name DHMO. It is used in nuclear power stations, in the manufacture of styrofoam, in the preparation of GM crops. It has been used as an instrument of torture and it kills hundreds or may be thousands of people every year.

There are documented examples of politicians trying to ban this substance because they believed these stories.

If you are like me you would not be taking this at face value as I didn't with the ragwort stuff and look a little deeper. This rather advisable, because DHMO
is rather less harmful than the stories suggest it would be.

DHMO stands for DiHydrogen MonOxide which those of you who know chemistry would realise is a fancy chemical name for water!

Everything I said about it is true. The unfortunate individual who ended up in a coma had some complex medical problems which led to issues regulating his water intake.

This is the dose that makes the poison! This is one of the most fundamental questions and as I mentioned in my last blog entry. This has been erroneously described in the case of ragwort by exaggerating the toxicity by around TEN THOUSAND TIMES!.

There are as I said in that last entry crazy things being said about ragwort to quote some of  what I said:-

We have had them claiming, falsely that it is a serious risk to public safety, a serious threat to dogs, that it is killing off the cinnabar moth  which actually relies on it for a food supply and that it is a serious problem in South Africa, where in fact there is no record of the plant occurring!

What is more the number of deaths of animals has been so grossly exaggerated that advertisers repeating the claims have had to stop making these claims after action by the Advertising Standards Authority.

We have guidance from Defra that bases the risk on an innumerate use of statistics that makes them entirely invalid and that turns out to be based on figures that don't seem to even  be  real when you ask the source for them!

Is it any wonder that the nature experts who understand the science are crying foul?!

It is of concern to horse and donkey owners largely because of campaigning misinformation and we have an instance here of a donkey charity acting on these concerns and in doing so promoting more misinformation.

Let's deal with the Donkey Sanctuary's claims. as I am compiling this I notice some helpful tweets from another nature expert one of which expounds the general point that it doesn't really matter if something is toxic, it is how toxic or how dangerous. As we have seen even water can be dangerous in overdose, so even by talking up the danger the Sanctuary's stuff can mislead  but as people have been telling the Donkey Breeds Trust there are definite factual in accuracies in the Sanctuary's webpage which the Trust have been promoting on-line.

Aside from the fact that it talks about ragwort in unjustified alarmist tones there are factual inaccuracies.

Let's start with the problems with the first paragraph:-

Ragwort kills

Ragwort acts as a cumulative poison, eventually destroying the liver. It is a yellow flowering plant and is poisonous both dead and alive. Ragwort can cause serious liver damage over a period of time. It must be pulled with gloves in the early floret stage and burnt. Be very aware of this plant both on your pasture and in the hay. High risk and a common cause of chronic liver disease.

The headline doesn't put the risk into proper context, as with the example above it could have said "Water Kills". Ragwort is only a problem in two circumstances where it is fed in large quantities in hay and where animals that are already weakened by starvation are forced to eat it.

Then  there is "cumulative poison". It is cumulative in the same way as paracetamol is. The breakdown products of the alkaloids in ragwort are detoxified in a number of ways including by glutathione which detoxifies paracetamol. So it is the dose that matters, and this isn't mentioned.

It says it is a "high risk" and "a common cause of chronic liver disease". In fact it is only a small fraction of liver disease cases in horses that are shown to be associated with liver disease. Freedom of information requests to some of the laboratories show a tiny handful of cases. Maybe even only one or two a decade
at each lab! It may well be that other labs have more cases and there is evidence that this is the case but we know that ragwort poisoning is not particularly common and that the overwhelming number of liver cases do not have a pathology consistent with ragwort poisoning, where they do they will be abuse cases, abuse through feeding contaminated hay in quantity or through cruelly starving animals. It is not a problem just growing in fields because animals avoid it. There are a number of other common plants that contain the same class of problem alkaloids. They are never mentioned. One is used as a cattle feed and another is used in the preparation of an alcoholic fruit cup drink that is popular at high society events.

This material disseminated by these donkey charities seems to be very highly misleading information.

There is then a false claim:

Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is a poisonous plant that is becoming increasingly common in Britain.
In fact it has been surveyed as a part of a government survey on plants and ragwort was found to have been decreasing quite significantly, but of course to say that would not be in keeping with the panic generating, alarmist tone of the piece.

Then we have this piece of nonsense:-
 "Equines (horses, ponies, donkeys, mules) and bovines (cattle) are more susceptible to ragwort poisoning than other livestock;"
It again talks up the risk by saying that it is even more dangerous to the animals that they and their audience care about, but it simply is not true. It is much less toxic to sheep for example, but in other animals it is more toxic. The general succeptiability to the alkaloids is, according to the literature pigs 1; chickens 5 cattle and horses 14;  and sheep and goats 200. 

It goes on in its alarmist way talking about symptoms of ragwort poisoning that are actually the symptoms of liver damage which can have many causes.

Then we have this real give away for poor botanical knowledge
Other species of ragwort, e.g. marsh ragwort (Senecio aquaticus), hoary ragwort (Senecio erucifolius) and Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus) are less common but may still need to be controlled as they may be equally toxic to horses or other livestock.
Oh boy if you have Oxford Ragwort in your pasture you have a real problem.
It doesn't grow in places like that. It is a weed of waste ground. I most usually see it growing in the crack between the pavement and a building.  Why mention it when it doesn't cause problems? It seems to me that they lack the botanical knowledge to know that it isn't a problem.

Then we have this registered charity misleading citizens about the laws that govern us.

  "the occupier of the land, who is responsible under the Weeds Act 1959 and Ragwort Act 2003 (England and Wales only), to remove the ragwort."
My honest opinion is that anyone reading this would believe that the legislation places an automatic responsibility for the occupier to remove the ragwort. IT DOES NOT.

You may in extreme circumstances be ordered to control the plant  but in the absence of an order you need do nothing.

Government charity guidance states:-

Many charities, by the nature of their work and the issues they deal with, will raise issues which some people find emotive. Such charities’ campaign materials will frequently have an emotive content, and this is perfectly acceptable so long as it has a well-founded evidence base and
is factually accurate. However, trustees will need to consider the particular risks of using emotive or controversial materials, which may be significant because of the risk to public perception of the charity.
I think it is quite clear that the charities in question here do not have a well founded evidence base for their claims and they are not factually accurate.

 As I say above ,  a number of claims made by equine charities, when repeated by companies, have led to adverts being stopped after action by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) because they were misleading. The ASA are independent and just look at the evidence and  they won't even take up cases unless there is good evidence that the adverts are wrong.

Producing advertising that misleads customers  is a criminal offence under The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. If companies repeat these falsehoods that being distributed by these charities to sell their products they will be committing a criminal offence.

My honest opinion is that this reflects very badly on the charities concerned and I think it creates a risk to the public perception of these charities that they will be seen as poor organisations that use materials to promote themselves and their aims that are not properly checked and which have the potential to cause criminal acts.
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