Warning over poisoning threat to sheep

SAC Vets are warning sheep keepers their stock risk death if they eat rhododendron leaves.

Following the recent heavy snow falls there are reports of sheep being poisoned after feeding around rhododendron bushes. Whether to commercial flock masters or those keeping sheep for a hobby the message from SAC is the same, keep sheep clear of the toxic shrubs.

Brian Hosie, SAC consulting veterinary services group manager, said: “Sheep will usually avoid rhododendron bushes if other sources of food are available but in winter it is not unusual for sheep to break into ornamental gardens and woodland or nibble on green leaves as the heavy snow bends rhododendron branches within reach. SAC Disease Surveillance Centres have confirmed several cases of poisoning since the snow storms began. In most cases little can be done to treat the sheep affected”.

Rhododendrons contain a poison which, amongst other things, slows the heart and lowers blood pressure. The symptoms affected sheep show include drooling, vomiting, pain and distress. They stagger and collapse before dying.

Other plants in the rhododendron family, such as Azalea and Pieris, are also toxic, as is the yew tree, another plant that can be problematic in severe winters.

Cattle, horses and man can all suffer rhododendron poisoning. One of the earliest human cases recorded involved Greek soldiers who, around 400 BC, were reputedly killed by pure rhododendron honey. Such cases are rare, while bees can work around rhododendron flowers they normally chose the sweeter nectar of alternative plants like clover, flowering at the same time.

Brian Hosie recommends keeping sheep and shrubs apart. “I suggest shepherds inspect field boundaries and move sheep from fields where there is a danger they will get access to rhododendrons.”