A PROJECT at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is seeking to collect traditional country lore and animal remedies before they disappear.

The project headed by Dr William Milliken is hoping older farmers and country folk will be able to contribute their own knowledge of plants used to treat livestock and/or pets.

Plants have been used for thousands of years in the British Isles to treat animals, or as feeds to improve their health," said Dr Milliken.

"This information was passed from one generation to the next and was often not written down. How much of this knowledge remains in the population?

"The Ethnoveterinary Medicine Project, established by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, aims to collect the remaining information before it is lost: an important part of the traditional rural culture."

However Dr Milliken believes the knowledge could also be used practically in animal management (livestock, pets), to improve their health and the economy.

The use of wild or cultivated plants as animal medicines (Ethnoveterinary Use) is common across the world. For many years, scientists have collected information from farmers in India, Ethiopia and Uganda, for example, and studied the effect on treating animals with these plants. Some species used by farmers in British Columbia also exist in the British Isles. For example, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is used to treat mastitis and sternal abscesses, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) to treat zinc deficiency, Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) to treat wounds, and Juniper (Juniperus communis) to treat endoparasites and liver fluke in ruminant animals.

The Ethnoveterinary Medicine Project, established by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, aims to record the remaining knowledge, from across the British Isles, before it disappears. Some data have already been collected, mostly previously published information from the past. However, but we also interviewed rural people for existing knowledge.

Elder was traditionally used as a medicine to treat foot-rot in cattle (Norfolk), yarrow to treat red-water fever in cattle (Caernarfonshire), and foxglove to treat mange or fleas in dogs (Gloucestershire).

Duncan Matheson, from Kyle of Lochalsh, explained that the rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium), which used to be rare, is now extremely common. “The root is very valuable if you boil it down, particularly for healing wounds on horses. Horses are extremely delicate: cuts and saddle burrs are very difficult to correct. But this stuff is particularly good for it.”

Similarly, wild plants used as feeds were thought to influence the health, behaviour or flavour of the meat or milk.

Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) was used in the past as a fodder plant in South Uist, and it was said that a cow that ate well on this plant would ‘take the bull’ more easily, and earlier in the season.

On the Isle of Colonsay, sea plantain (Plantago maritima) was thought to improve the cream and butter yield of cows and was also gathered as food for domestic rabbits.

Kate Anne MacLellen, from North Uist, explained that in the past they would boil cow tang (Pelvetia canaliculata), a seaweed, in large pots with potatoes, ears of corn and sometimes oatmeal. “If you had a cow that calved, it would leave the milk rich and more abundant as well. They also used to give it to the young beasts, and they would get this lovely sheen off their coats.”

Dr Milliken said that during the project they would be collecting data through websites, letters to local newspapers, agricultural and veterinary communications and subsequent interviews of knowledgeable people.

"We need to record this information, which forms part of the traditional rural culture, before it is lost," he said.

"This knowledge could also be used practically in animal management (livestock, pets) to improve their health and the economy.

"Over-use of antibiotics in veterinary use, for example, can generate antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

"Finding new plant-based treatments could also help support Soil Association organic standards, which restrict the use of antibiotics and chemically synthesised allopathic veterinary medicinal products for preventive treatments.

"Some companies in Britain are already supplying plant-based treatments for animals, including nettle (Urtica dioica), plantain (Plantago major), eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), elderflower (Sambucus nigra) and thyme (Thymus spp).

If you have any information about ethnoveterinary medicines, feed supplements or other information relating to plants/fungi and animal health from the British Isles, please contribute by sending an email to ethnovet@kew.org. Or alternatively, write to William Milliken, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Wakehurst Place, Ardingly, RH17 6TN.