Australian sheep get high and die on weed

2014-06-05 07:31

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Sydney - When Australian farmer Tony Knight first saw a purple-flowering plant growing across the bushfire-scarred terrain where his sheep grazed, his first thought was that it looked like "good stock feed".

But the "pleasant-looking plant" was far from the nutritious food his livestock needed after their paddocks were razed bare by the fires that swept through the northwest region of New South Wales state last year.

Instead, the native weed known as "the Darling Pea" contained a toxin that affected the sheep's nervous systems, killing hundreds by triggering mental and physical deterioration.

"To start with, they will do quite well when they first get on to it and their condition will pick up", Knight said from his farm near the town of Coonabarabran.

"But once it gets them addicted, it's just a drug, it goes from becoming their best friend to their worst enemy."

Knight said he had lost almost 100 merino sheep out of an 800-strong flock to the noxious pea in recent months, while his sister-in-law Louise, who lives on the farm next door, said 800 of her sheep from a total of 14 000 had died after eating the plant.

A confluence of events enabled the outbreak, with the weed growing in an area where bushfires had wiped out its competition.

The destruction of fences during the bushfires, which devastated 54 000Ha of land, meant it was difficult to rotate the livestock on to non-affected fields as the animals roamed the mountainous terrain, chewing the weed as they went.

Australia's sheep flock is estimated at 74 million with about 79% of them Merino, bred for their high-quality wool which is used in top-of-the-range clothing.

Australia is the world's leading wool producer and exporter, accounting for 24% of global production, with annual exports valued at more than $3bn. China is its biggest customer.

'Spaced out'

Knight, whose family has lived on the land beside Warrumbungle National Park for generations, said the affected sheep were easy to spot.

"You will see them in a paddock, usually they are on their own”.

"They do a lot of star gazing. They do a lot of trotting around with their heads in the air. The dogs get very confused because [the sheep] don't behave like they should."

As the sheep become more affected by the toxin, they lose control of their hind legs.

"They didn't know which planet they were on. They were all spaced out", Knight said of several sheep he had to load on a truck during the shearing season as they could not walk.
Read more on:    australia  |  animals  |  plants  |  environment

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