4 June 2019

Ethnoveterinary medicine: Can you help?

In the British Isles, local farmers used to use plants to treat their livestock. Information was passed from one generation to the next but often not written down. How much of the knowledge now remains?

Bright yellow flowers of gorse

Ethnoveterinary medicine is widely used across the world. For many years scientists have collected information from farmers in various countries such as India, Ethiopia and Uganda to study the effect on treating animals with medicinal plants. 

In the Amazon, I recorded the use of Aspidosperma macrophyllum by the Yanomami to treat maggot-ridden infected wounds in dogs (cutaneous myiasis). Some medicinal 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.

Close up of Yarrow white flowers
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is used to treat diarrhoea in rabbits in Norfolk.

Knowledge from the British Isles

The Ethnoveterinary Medicine Project aims to record the remaining knowledge, from across the British Isles, before it disappears. Some data have already been collected. For example, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition recorded 125 plants and fungi in Britain and Ireland used for veterinary remedies, based mainly on published information. Our aim in the current project is to record ‘live’ information, to complement earlier recorded data.

From my own experience, I collected data on ethnoveterinary treatments in Scotland, through the Flora Celtica project. Some of these data were previously published, but we also interviewed rural people for existing knowledge. 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 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.” 

Yellow flowers of gorse
Gorse (Ulex europaeus) was excellent food for horses and sheep and are said to increase the milk yield of cattle. Credit RBG Kew/William Milliken.

How can you help?

During the project we will 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. However, 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 send an email to ethnovet@kew.org.


Allen D.E. & Hatfield, G. (2004). Medicinal Plants in folk tradition. An ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press, Cambridge.

Lans, C., Turner, N., Khan, T., Brauer, G. & Boepple, W. (2007). Ethnoveterinary medicines used for ruminants in British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 3(1): 11.  

Milliken, W. & Bridgewater, S. (2004). Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn, Edinburgh.

Postnote 588 (2018). Reducing UK Antibiotic Use in Animals. Houses of Parliament Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

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