Grazing ecology of sheep and its impact on vegetation and animal health on pastures dominated by common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea L.) : Part 2: Animal Health
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea L.) naturally occurs on species-rich grasslands. Containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA), it endangers livestock health through contaminated feed. Although in vitro studies showed a detoxification capacity of PA in sheep, few field data are available on the ability of grazing sheep to cope with ragwort. During two grazing seasons on a ragwort-rich pasture, we studied: (1) To what extent do sheep voluntarily ingest ragwort and (2) What impact their grazing behavior has on animal health. Ragwort intake was monitored by counting missing plant parts and calculating their weight. From 70 sheep, seven were slaughtered at the beginning and in six-week intervals at the end of each grazing period to monitor blood parameters and liver tissue. Sheep continuously preferred ragwort. The daily intake was above the currently assumed lethal dose, varying between 0.2-4.9 kg per sheep. Clinical, hematologic, and blood biochemistry parameters mostly remained within the reference limits. Initially elevated liver copper content declined over time. The liver of all 70 animals displayed slight to moderate hepatitis, fibrosis, and proliferation of the bile ducts, but no morphological signs of liver cirrhosis. Sheep preferred and tolerated ragwort, making their grazing an option to control ragwort from both an animal health and nature conservation perspective.