Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Herbal remedies for foot-and-mouth disease

Foot-and-mouth disease (Aphthae epizooticae) is a highly contagious viral disease of cloven-hoofed animals, such as cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and deer.  Since the virus rapidly evolves and mutates vaccination is not considered to be adequate to prevent the disease, so in the United Kingdom the disease is controlled by the culling of infected and possibly infected animals, and the restriction of movement within areas where outbreaks occur. Thus farmers see their herds killed, and subsequently burnt, and the country economy suffers as ramblers and others are banned.  Thousands of animals are slaughtered, and an outbreak in 2001 is estimated to have cost £8 million; the last outbreak in the U.K. occurred in 2007.

Rather surprisingly a number of herbal remedies for the disease have been recorded.

According to Roy and Ursula Radford, writing of the West County, an area which they defined as stretching from Cornwall to the Cotswolds, ‘feeding ash [Fraxinus excelsior]-leaves to cattle suffering from foot-and-mouth disease was a way of curing them’ [1].

Allen and Hatfield record that stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) was used to treat the disease in Leicestershire in the nineteenth century [2].  They also note that Mary Thorne Quelch in her Herbs for Daily Use (1941) mentions that Russian comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum) was similarly used [3].

The Norfolk naturalist E.A. Ellis recalled: ‘An old drover in the Norwich area once told me of the miraculous healing power of ivy [Hedera helix] in relation to cattle suffering from foot-and-mouth disease when he was a young man in the days before it became the rule to slaughter all animals affected with this illness …   A sick animal, in his experience, would seek out the nearest available ivy on a tree or hedge, as if by instinct’ [4].

Onions (Allium cepa) were believed to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth:

‘During the disastrous outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on British farms in 1968, on one Cheshire farm which escaped, although in the midst of raging infection, the farmer’s wife laid rows of onions along all the windowsills and doorways of the cow-sheds and attributed the farm’s escape to this’ [5].

1. R. & U. Radford, 1998, West Country Folklore: 5.

2.  D.E. Allen & G. Hatfield, 2004, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: 352.

3.  Ibid,: 357.

4. E.A. E[llis], ‘Green medicine’, Eastern Daily Press, undated cutting, ?January 1975.

5.  M. Baker, 1975, Discovering the Folklore of Plants: 53.

Image: ivy, St Matthew’s Row Garden, Bethnal Green, London Borough of London Hamlets; December 2016.