Ferns are a common sight in many gardens and natural landscapes and are often prized for their decorative, air-purifying properties.

However, if you own sheep or other livestock, you may be wondering whether these plants are safe for your animals to consume and whether the ferns are toxic to sheep.

In this article, we’ll explore the potential toxicity of ferns for sheep, as well as some considerations for keeping your animals safe.

Fern Toxicity in Sheep: What You Need to Know

There are over 12,000 species of ferns, and it’s not uncommon for livestock to graze on these plants in the wild. However, some types of ferns can be toxic to sheep and other animals. The most common toxic ferns for sheep include:

  • Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum): This fern is one of the most toxic to sheep, and can cause a range of serious health problems. Bracken fern contains a group of chemicals called pterosins, which can interfere with the absorption of vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the body. This can lead to a deficiency known as “bracken staggers,” which can cause tremors, blindness, and ultimately death in sheep.
  • Asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus): This fern, also known as “sprengeri fern,” contains a chemical called sapogenin, which can cause liver damage and birth defects in sheep.
  • Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum): This fern is native to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, and can cause liver damage in sheep.

It’s important to note that these toxic ferns can be found in many different regions, and may be present in pastures, fields, and gardens. If you have any of these ferns on your property, it’s important to keep your sheep away from them to prevent accidental ingestion.

White sheep grazing on a steep mountain side in green gras and ferns in Snowdonia National Park North Wales
White sheep grazing on a steep mountain side in green gras and ferns in Snowdonia National Park North Wales

Other Factors to Consider

In addition to the specific types of ferns mentioned above, there are a few other factors to consider when it comes to fern toxicity in sheep:

  • Dose: As with any toxic substance, the amount of the toxic compound that is consumed can play a role in the severity of the poisoning. In general, the larger the amount of the toxic substance consumed, the more severe the poisoning will be.
  • Age: Younger sheep may be more susceptible to fern toxicity than adults, due to their smaller size and underdeveloped immune systems.
  • Nutritional status: Sheep that are malnourished or have a deficiency in certain nutrients may be more susceptible to fern toxicity.
  • Other plants: In some cases, ferns may be toxic in combination with other plants. For example, if a sheep consumes bracken fern along with ragwort (a poisonous plant), the toxicity may be more severe than if the sheep had only consumed one of these plants.

Preventing Fern Toxicity in Sheep

The best way to prevent fern toxicity in sheep is to keep toxic ferns away from your animals. If you have any of the toxic ferns mentioned above on your property, consider removing them or fencing them off to keep your sheep away. It’s also a good idea to regularly inspect your pastures and fields for any toxic plants, and remove them as needed.

In addition to preventing accidental ingestion, it’s important to ensure that your sheep have a well-balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs. This can help to reduce their risk of toxicity from plants and other substances.

Couple of curious sheep standing on fern covered hillside
Couple of curious sheep standing on fern covered hillside

In conclusion

Ferns can be toxic to sheep, and certain species should be avoided. However, with proper management and prevention, you can keep your animals safe from fern toxicity.

Good pasture management is key to keeping your animals healthy and safe, so make sure to inspect your fields regularly for any potential hazards. Additionally, providing a balanced diet to your sheep can help to reduce the risk of toxicity from other plants and substances. With the right preventative measures, you can make sure that your sheep remain safe and healthy.

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