The arrival of spring tempts me into the garden to look into areas which have enjoyed freedom from any intervention on my part since the autumn.
And how has the wildlife reacted to my leaving parts of my garden free from human scent and free from any form of chemical treatment, giving them freedom to make it their own? Well, one wildlife charmer decided that it was an excellent place to relieve itself of the contents of an upset digestive system and left behind an impressive amount of now rock-hard diarrhoea, a mini cowpat of unwanted waste which, I suspect, the animal was as pleased to be rid of as I am displeased to find it! Dispassionately, I wonder what animal deposited the pile: but I am far from dispassionate about whatever stomach bug was afflicting it; and I am devoid of goodwill towards the fox … for that seems to be by far the most likely culprit … which was suffering from, “a persistent purging or looseness of the bowels,” to quote The Chambers Dictionary.
I have no idea how animals … particularly wild animals with no access to the skilled services of a veterinarian … deal with gastric upsets. Dogs, I seem to remember being told at some time, eat grass when they are constipated; and if eating grass has a similar effect on dogs as it does on cattle, you can see why! But what about a treatment for the opposite of constipation? Do dogs … and their close relatives, foxes … have an innate sense of what to add to their diet to deal with this problem? Our own ancestors, I learn from Tess Darwin’s wonderful book, The Scots Herbal … subtitled The Plant Lore of Scotland … must have suffered frequent gastric upsets for they had a veritable apothecary’s cabinet full of herbal treatments for diarrhoea. “Recent excavation of Jedburgh Abbey,” I read, adding that the book was first published by the Mercat Press in 1996, “produced clear evidence of the medicinal use of one plant: great quantities of pollen from Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) were found with the eggs of whipworm, an unpleasant parasite which causes severe diarrhoea. … It can safely be assumed that it was being used for its astringent properties to treat the diarrhoea caused by whipworm infestation.” Among many other references I learn that Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) was “prescribed for diarrhoea, jaundice, rheumatism, bladder infections, dropsy and scurvy”; and that Elder berries, Orpine, Blaeberry, Oak bark, Water mint, Purple looserife, White water lily and Knotgrass were all used by our forefathers to treat diarrhoea … and Tess Darwin lists many more plants found growing wild in Scotland which were used for this same purpose.
The fact that our ancestors had recourse to a wide range of plants to treat diarrhoea suggests that the affliction was very common throughout Scotland. Presumably wildlife was not immune; and it seems to me to be entirely reasonable to assume that our native animals had recourse to locally-available plants with medicinal properties to treat the problem. What they would not have been able to do, however, is to make up this recipe from another splendid book on herbal treatments, A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve, first published by Jonathan Cape Ltd. in 1931. “Infants’ Diarrhoea Syrup: ingredients - 1 oz. Bistort root; ¼ oz. Cloves; ½ oz. Marshmallow root; ¼ oz. Angelica powder; ¼ oz. best Ginger powder. Method – Bruise the root and cloves small. Add 1½ pints boiling water and simmer down to a pint. Then pour boiling mixture upon the powder, mix well and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to get cold, strain and add lump sugar, sufficient to form a syrup, boil up again, skim and when cold bottle for use. This may be given to children in a little Raspberry Leaf Tea, 3 to 6 teaspoonfuls daily, according to age of child.” I don’t know if it works; and I am not suggesting that you try it!