VET’S DIARY: Rhododendron risks for sheep

As you take a walk through the beautiful hills and coastline of our stunning county, you will no doubt be aware of the prominence of a striking purple-flowered plant, the rhododendron, writes Steve Carragher.

This, among other common plants, whilst providing joy for many, can cause devastating loss of life in animals.

Livestock are generally quite wise regarding eating poisonous plants and will take a wide berth. However, sometimes they can be tempted or tricked into eating them with fatal consequences.

Several years ago I was called to look at some sheep which were demonstrating strange behaviour.

The journey was memorable as the snow lay thick across the county’s narrow minor roads, making progress slow.

On arrival at the farm the shepherd advised me to leave the car by the roadside and head off into the Cheviot hills on quad bike.

Several miles later, the quad bike could go no further and the last half mile needed to be covered on foot.

The snow drifts had piled up over the tracks and accumulated around walls and fences, allowing sheep to wander across fields and into woods in search of shelter and food.

On arrival at a wood we found several hundred pregnant ewes, seemingly contented to have found a warm, dry place to shelter. However, on moving the sheep it was evident all was not well.

Over 30 ewes were staggering around as if leaving the pub following too many beers. Some were even vomiting, which is highly unusual in the rumenant species.

This projectile vomiting is a tell-tale sign for rhododendron poisoning. The detective skill of Sherlock Holmes was not required when surrounded by the glossy leaves of this abundant plant.

Unfortunately, as with many poisonings, treatment is not so simple. Bizarrely, strong, cold tea is the treatment of choice as the tannins tend to bind the toxins in the gut allowing them to pass through without absorption.

However, when livestock are presented with clinical signs it is clearly too late as the toxins have already been absorbed.

The affected sheep were housed and nursed with supportive therapies. Although many died, some were nursed back to full health.

The recent drifting snow sends a timely reminder of this devastating poisonous plant.

Last week there were some reported cases in the county, proving that livestock will eat this poisonous plant when the opportunity is provided.