How edible trees can help with farm animal health

, 19 August 2019
How edible trees can help with farm animal health
Hazel nuts © Derek Middleton

By Fran Southgate

Living Landscape Advisor

Livestock farmers know how important trees and hedges are for providing shelter and shade for their farm animals but the importance of hedgerow forage is a lesser known art. Research shows that cattle self-medicate with plants which are rich in certain minerals and nutrients if they are given the chance, and they will actively seek out Ivy, Hazel and a whole range of other plants and ‘edible’ trees when they need to. 

Tree and shrub leaves, berries and bark offer an important source of dietary protein, as well as trace elements like zinc and copper, and even water. Other health benefiting compounds such as salicylic acid (an aspirin derivative found in Willow and Meadowsweet) and tannins found in tree bark and leaves, can help hugely with animal pain relief, tooth and gut health, and reducing their internal parasite burdens. There is even evidence that selenium (eg from Willow) and copper (eg from Hazel) can help with resistance to bovine Tuberculosis.

Trees contain much higher levels of condensed tannins (CTs) than the usual high sugar content agricultural grasses. These CTs have been shown to help deliver a high-quality protein to the small intestine of cows as well as being an effective parasite control, to which worms can’t develop any resistance. Tannins are found in the following trees and shrubs, and can be effectively incorporated into livestock diets to improve their health :-





Corylus - Hazel

Malus – Crab apple

Populus - Poplar

Prunus – Blackthorn, Damson, plums, cherries

Quercus - Oak

Salix - Willow

Calluna - Heather

Ribes – including blackcurrant and redcurrant

Rubus – i.e. blackberries

Vaccinium – i.e. cranberry, blueberry, bilberry


Fruit and nut trees such as pear, apple and Hazel provide amazing dietary boosts for animals too. Hazel nuts are rich in proteins, unsaturated fats, magnesium, calcium and vitamins B and E. They are good for the heart and aid in muscle, skin, bone, joint and digestive health. Sweet Chestnuts too can help animals to eliminate parasitic internal worms – and animals will actively seek out and break open the spikey shells to eat them. 

For most farmers, a key question is whether tree fodder can realistically be incorporated into modern agricultural practices? The answer is yes. Edible trees can help to reduce your feed supplement, forage, fertiliser and water costs, as well as your medical bills – and when you consider how much time and effort it takes to trim hedgerows, why not let your animals to help to trim them down too? When grass is scarce or when early-season leaves and bark are still palatable to animals, the daily intake of tree browse by cattle, sheep and goats can be as much as 55%, 76% and 93% respectively - saving on the need for farmed feeds and stored hay. Outside the tree growing season, tree hay can be produced by cutting and storing tree limbs to provide a winter hungry gap boost in nutrients.

It’s possible that animals may not put on as much fat as quickly as they do on the sugar rich grasses, but the quality and the health of the animals that eat tree forage as well as grass, tends to be far superior to purely grass farmed animals. More importantly, the animals have a choice about what diet they want and need to eat, rather than being given an enforced mono-diet. As well as all these benefits to the animals and the farmer, tree growth on the farm provides a whole range of additional benefits including climate resilience, natural flood management, soil quality enhancement, carbon storage, a pollinator boost, biodiversity benefits, and a bit of nice shade and shelter on a sunny/blustery day. 

The Afinet project, led by the Organic Research Centre and Abacus agriculture, is working with the Farm Woodland Forum to further develop the use and knowledge of the dietary and medicinal benefits of tree forage. Have a look at Agroforestry Innovation Networks (AFINET) for more information.

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  • Kally:

    So fascinating! Thank you great article! There is so little out there on animal self medication. It’s a shame we don’t use their wisdom more.

    08 Oct 2021 10:48:00