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Volunteers join in to outfox the foxtail barley in southeast Calgary

Mahogany resident Malissa Sargent has put up a fabric covering on the inside of the chain link fence at her home in the southeast Calgary community.

Sargent’s home backs on to the pathway and storm retention wetland area in that part of the neighbourhood.  She hoping to avoid another $10,000 vet bill after her Bernese Mountain Dog had gobbled up a foxtail.

Foxtail barley is a plant that may look beautiful as it waves in the summertime breeze – but it’s a major hazard for pets. It has 180 seedlings attached to the stalk and each seed has a series of fine spikelets that helps carry them off to another germination point.

It’s those spikes that, when inhaled or eaten, prevent the plant from being regurgitated.

The foxtail barley plant (late stage). DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY
The foxtail barley plant (earlier stage). DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Two years ago, Sargent’s dog was eating grass, licking the carpet, the floors and they couldn’t figure out the problem. They put him in the dog run to observe; it just has gravel in the run.

“That evening, he was really sick,” she said.

“We took him into the pet emergency, and he had eaten five pounds of gravel trying to get the foxtail clear from his throat.”

Sargent’s vet bill totaled $10,000. It wasn’t covered by insurance.

That’s not an uncommon story in parts of Calgary – particularly those where there’s new development. It spreads in disrupted land near new communities.  Pets in these areas are vulnerable.

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer was out Tuesday with a handful of volunteers to hand pick the foxtails. He said it became a bigger problem two years ago.

“There were a couple massive fields that grew foxtails and caused an awful lot of problems for a couple of key areas within the neighborhood,” Spencer said.  

“Since then it’s kind of propagated out.”

Volunteers picking foxtails

LiveWire Calgary joined the effort to pick the foxtails Tuesday morning in Mahogany. Volunteers covered about a 500 metre section of pathway on the southeast side of the pond.

Bonnie Wild was armed with her picking gloves, some water and a kneeling board. Wild said she’s been fortunate enough that her dog hasn’t had a run in with the spiked plant. Still, she thought it was important to get out and help the effort to curb the problem.

“It’s such an issue for our pets,” she said.  

“It can lead to infections in their nasal passages and their respiratory systems and huge vet bills. And it’s nice to be able to bring our pets into this wetland area to have their exercise, but we want them to be safe.”

While the city recently mowed roughly six feet on each side of the path to help keep the foxtails under control, there was still plenty to pick.

Wild said her effort was part of being community-minded and having a stake in the health of the neighbourhood.

“You can’t just expect everyone to do everything for you. You need to be involved,” she said.

“We have the right to a nice environment, but we have a responsibility to help make it that environment.”

Community effort is important

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer gets a firsthand look at the efficacy of Malissa Sargent’s fabric covering on her back fence. He’s picking the foxtail seeds out of it. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Sargent said last year she tried to organize volunteers to get out on the pathway. There was limited success, mainly because of the size of the job.

“It’s just an ongoing thing, constantly, every single year with Mahogany, unfortunately,” she said.

Coun. Spencer said there are a lot of pet owners in the southeast, so they’re taking the issue seriously. That’s part of the reason his office rallied volunteers to pick.

He acknowledged they aren’t the first group to do it. They won’t be the last. What they realized, however, was that they couldn’t use a scorched earth approach. It would be far too costly and resource intensive for the city.

Lots of things are under consideration, including local legislation of some sort to help control it. Others in the community are lobbying to have foxtails declared a noxious weed.

Spencer said they’re working with developers on potential mitigation. He said it’s on their radar as well. They’ve sprayed some open fields to control the grasses, others they’ve tilled.

For now, he wants to continue to mobilize community members to help take care of the problem one stalk at a time. His office is going to continue to build an ongoing volunteer network to help with the problem. People can sign up on his Facebook page.

“It’s a two-pronged education and then also mitigation approach to try and keep foxtail under wraps for the residents down here in the southeast Calgary,” he said.