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Vet: Animal cures of old – Ivy, holly & garlic cloves

In this article, University College Dublin veterinary medicine graduate, Austin Donnelly, MVB, tells That’s Farming’s readers about animal cures of old in the first of a four-part mini-series.

Veterinary medicine, as we know it, has not always been available in all areas of Ireland.

It was the arrival of mandatory Tuberculosis testing of all cattle in the 1950s that helped bring veterinary services to the smaller towns and villages.

Before vets, those who treated sick animals were termed ‘cow doctors,’ whilst herbalists, chemists, clergymen, farriers and locals with cures and charms were often called upon too.

Interestingly the term veterinarian roughly translates from Latin as ‘cattle doctor,’ a term perhaps a little outdated today.

Here I look at some of the folk cures used, and these can be roughly categorised as either:

  • Herbal;
  • Magico-religious;
  • Surgical.
Herbal remedies

When it comes to herbal remedies, often weeds of cultivation found around the crop fields were used.

In Co Wicklow, stockmen used wood sorrel to treat fleas and tick infestations on sheep. A cure for heather blindness (causing a red sore eye) in sheep in Co Donegal was to roast willow saplings and blow the powder into the impacted eye with a straw.

There was some primitive science in this cure as willow bark contains salicin, which is a chemical closely related to the drug aspirin and, therefore, had some pain-relieving properties.

Many will recall encountering holly bush cuttings hung high above cattle in barns and byres.

This was a remedy for ringworm (a fungal infection of the skin), and preference was for the larger leaves of the male holly bush (the female holly bush has berries.)

In some areas, this practice was so widespread that the holly bushes became scarce.  It is thought that the leaves drop an anti-fungal powder on the cattle as they wilt.

The use of holly in this way is still seen on some farms today.

Ivy was used in Co Offaly to treat colic in sheep (a digestive upset) and was widely used throughout Ireland as an appetite stimulant in convalescent cattle and sheep.

Again, this practice of feeding ivy to sick farm animals is still seen today.


Transference – is a common theme in folk cures. This is where the ‘evil’ that was causing sickness was transferred to a plant or a material and that was thought to resolve the condition.

An example of this was the tying of a gut knot in a length of string over an animal that had a suspected obstruction of the intestine.

When the knot was untied, this was believed to relieve the obstruction.

Many stockkeepers had concerns that when strangers arrived on their farms, some had the ability to ‘blink’ an animal with an evil eye: that could bring about disease.

One way to ward this off was to tie red ribbons on sheep and cattle, especially before trips to the markets.

Striking red colours were thought to help keep malevolent faeries away also.

There was a cure recorded for a blinked cow, and that was to give a drench of mixed garlic and soot.

Magico-religious cures often combined prayers. Foul in the foot is a painful infection between the hooves in cattle, particularly in wet fields in summer.

Turning of the sod

One cure used in many parts of Ireland was the ‘turning of the sod.’

Although there were variations on how to do this, the affected animal was watched in the field.

When the farmer identified an imprint of the bad hoof in the ground, they would then use a pen knife to cut out the sod.

In some areas, this sod was turned and replaced along with prayers.

In Co Meath, the sod was taken to the edge of the field and thrown, where possible, onto a white thorn bush with a prayer.

Garlic cloves

Cattle suffering with difficulty standing after calving were thought to have a ‘worm in the tail.’

Treatment here involved placing garlic cloves under the skin at the tail.

With milking cattle receiving this treatment on a morning, it is said the garlic could be tasted in their milk that night.

Milk fever

When it comes to early cures for milk fever (where cattle become dangerously low in calcium from the overproduction of milk), it was not unusual for a farmer to inflate the cow’s udder with air from a bicycle pump to help stop milk production.

There was some science in this, as this allowed the cow to conserve calcium in those days before our modern calcium supplements.

In the next article on That’s Farming, I will look at more animal folk cures, including the charm to stop bleeding. Thanks to all the farmers and vets who contributed to this article.

Note for readers:

Please always consult your vet for animal treatment and advice – This article should not be used as a substitute for the advice of a medical professional and is for informational purposes only. No material is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Donnelly’s book

For some veterinary tales, read about Donnelly’s adventures as a vet, who has travelled from his native Ireland to the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand, in his book, Whiskers Feather and Fur – Veterinary Tales.

You can purchase the book via this link – available in audio, Kindle and paperback.

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