By Wendy Newing
To our usual fears regarding the poisoning of our horses by oak leaves and acorns this autumn we were faced by a new terror, sycamore poisoning. Also known as atypical myopathy it is a life threatening illness affecting more and more grazing horses, mainly in the autumn and spring. It is a muscle disease with high rates of mortality and veterinary surgeons believe it is caused by hypoglycin A, which is a toxin contained in seeds from sycamore trees. The toxin is not always present in every seed or every sycamore tree but has been found in high concentrations in all the horses affected by this illness. In every case sycamore trees were present. In America it is found in box elder and causes deaths in horses there too. They call it Seasonal Pasture Myopathy. It is thought that the problem here has been intensified by our weather conditions, i.e. a really wet weather for months, and unusually for us, a nice hot summer with lots of dry sunny days. This has increased the concentration of the toxin within the plant.
Vets are warning that if your paddocks are bare beware! Fence off the tree and feed lots of forage in the form of hay or haylage. These seeds travel across fields carried on the wind, so even if you do not have sycamore trees in your hedges you need to check. They can also travel in via streams and rivers. To keep my horses safe I fenced off the trees and then spent back breaking hours collecting these seeds but it was ineffective, rather like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble with a hole in the bottom of it. I tried raking, but that was nearly as bad.
During these painful hours I thought longingly of a lottery win where I could buy my own equestrian establishment and a ride on paddock vacuum and um … chop the ruddy trees down! Sorry conservationist. With vacuuming still in mind I thought of gardens and leaf blowers and wondered if they sucked as well as blew?
Investigations revealed that they do and the cordless ones range in price from £95 up to £460. Off I went to my local DIY store and acquired a petrol driven one for £95. I have to confess that it is heavy and uncomfortable for this horse mad female to use. I think men with their stronger frames would be more comfortable, sorry to sound sexist but there it is. It is big and awkward but it is a much more efficient system than my other methods. As it is still a time-consuming process it is more efficient to fence off a paddock with electric tape and with that as clear as possible then work outwards over time sucking up the seeds and leaves until you have your whole field back. And to think I used to regard acorns as a problem. At least squirrels, rats and pigs eat them. Nothing wants to eat theses sycamore seed pods, which of course is why they designed themselves to fly. They are still on the ground months after leaving the trees, so we cannot ignore them and hope they will just go away. The problems in the spring probably occur when they germinate and get eaten with the grass.