How the knowledge of the ancients can help improve livestock health

12 August 2019 | Posted in Fran Southgate
How the knowledge of the ancients can help improve livestock health
Common Centaury © Derek Middleton

By Fran Southgate

Living Landscapes Advisor

The knowledge of how to keep livestock healthy using locally available native plants has been around for millennia. It is both intuitive to the animals themselves, and is held by those who care for them. The application of this knowledge to high-production livestock farming has hugely dwindled in the last century, but regenerative agriculture and agro-ecological farmers are bringing it back to the fore.

Animals have an instinctive knowledge of what they need to eat if they are suffering from a particular ailment. People, too will turn to peppermint tea when they have a stomach upset, so it is natural for an animal to seek out wild plants for the same reasons. However, if we confine them to monoculture grasslands with no hedgerows, then those plants are not available to them. Animals cannot self-medicate, and farmers end up relying heavily on vets, supplementary feeds and artificial medicines to keep their animals healthy.

Ancient texts from the Etruscans (written some 2000 years ago) describe the medicinal benefits of a wide range of plants for livestock management and health. Plants with a high tannin content, like Chamomile, were proven long ago to be effective in reducing internal worm and parasite burdens. In fact, using plants containing condensed tannins as feed supplements can reduce parasite loads by at least 50%. The ancients also used Chamomile to treat pin- and thread worms, peptic ulcers, liver and bladder ailments, gastro-intestinal issues and inflammation of the respiratory and gastro-intestinal tracts. So Chamomile is an all-round winner. Unfortunately for our livestock, it is a plant now so rare as to be nearly non-existent, having been removed in favour of high-sugar monocultures of intensive grassland.

Other species are also well known to help livestock control and eliminate parasites – Sainfoin, Wormwood and Birdsfoot Trefoil all do this. Common Centaury is another ancient remedy, which Pliny mentions. This stunning little flower is not only a habitat for wildlife and a pleasure to look at, it is also used to prevent liver fluke in farm animals. It contains pyridine-type alkaloids, a number of which have been reported to be effective against worm infections.

Some of the older generation farmers that I know, swear by herbal leys and meadows as a means of weaning a healthy lamb flock. Some of the most overlooked plants found in these herbal leys can contribute to fundamental changes in animal health. Hidden gems such as Plantain, Chicory and Clover not only extend the grazing season, but are more drought-resistant than grasses, can boost live weight gains, increase milk production and improve the supply of minerals and trace elements (such as calcium, sodium, copper and selenium) to animals. 

It’s amazing how many other benefits there are of local native herbs and flowers. Pimpernel is used to treat rashes and liver and gallbladder problems. Thyme is a mild anaesthetic for coughs, as well as a treatment for chronic bronchial infections. Bindweed is both a laxative and has been shown to improve skin lesions. Likewise, Valerian is used to treat intestinal problems and eczema, and Wild Feverfew is used as a mild sedative, to reduce inflammation, and to ease arthritis and breathing problems.

The likelihood of animals needing far fewer nutritional supplements, medical treatment, and a great deal less worming is a good argument in favour of allowing farm livestock to seasonally and non-intensively graze different types of natural habitat, such as wood pasture, fen, and herb rich meadow. While vast areas of natural habitat have disappeared in favour of intensive agricultural production, agro-ecologists are now trying their hardest to restore these rare habitats to their agricultural systems. It’s a real pleasure to work with landowners who are passionate about the health of their local environment as well as their animals, and who revel in the added bonus of the buzzing sounds of insects and birds being back in their pastures. 

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