Foraging for your small furries

Collecting a selection of wild plants is a fun way to feed your small pets a natural and varied diet and may even save you a few pennies. Our in-house vet Dr Suzanne Moyes explains what you need to know before embarking on a springtime foraging adventure...

Posted: 29 April 2019

Foraging for your small furries

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In the wild, fibrevores, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, spend around 70% of their time eating grass and other plants. Foraging and chewing keeps them physically and emotionally stimulated, enables them to express natural behaviours, and is essential to their dental, digestive and emotional health. As well as high quality feeding hay and our specially formulated nuggets for rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, you can help keep things interesting for your small pets by foraging for some tasty titbits yourself. 

Advice for first-time foragers

  • Before you start, it could be worth investing in a pocket-size book, such as Wild Flowers (Collins Gem) to take out with you to help you identify wild plants and make sure you don’t pick anything poisonous.If you’re ever less than 100% sure you know what a plant is, don’t pick it.
  • You’ll also need some kind of receptacle to put your foraging finds in, such as a plastic lunchbox, bucket or basket.
  • Make sure the area you forage is free from chemicals, dog mess and high population of wild rabbits.
  • Pick higher up where possible to avoid risk of disease contamination.
  • Don’t pick any greens with mould or parasite infections.
  • Early summer is the best time to bulk up for dry winter forage – but make sure you rotate any drying forage to allow it to completely dry without it becoming damp and mouldy.
  • Autumn is perfect for getting friends and family to prune back their apple and willow trees.Before you offer any softwood branches to your pets to chew, give them a good clean and bake them on a low heat for an hour.

What’s safe to pick?

Dandelion

The sunny yellow blooms of the common dandelion are easy to spot and are abundant across the UK – they’re also a firm favourite with small furries. Both plants and leaves are safe for small pets to eat – but remember to leave the flowers for the bees.


Plantain

There are two types of plantain – ribwort (narrow-leaved plantain) and rats-tail (greater plantain) that are found almost everywhere in Britain, and both are safe for fibrevores. You can identify them by their single flowering spike, which is surrounded by a ring of creamy stamens. Plantain has traditionally been used to treat a wide number of ailments, internally and externally, so perhaps our fibrevores are on to something here!


Herb-Robert

This is a low-growing plant, with small, five-petalled pink flowers that can be found in shady spots in woodland, hedgerows and coastal areas. It has a reddish stem (a red stem usually means ‘avoid’, but not in this case) and its deeply divided, lobed leaves are also tinged with red and emit a rather unpleasant, burning tyre smell. Traditionally, Herb-Robert was used to treat nosebleeds and headaches, as a tonic for tummy upsets, as an antiseptic to help heal wounds, and even as a mosquito repellent.


Cow Parsley

The delicate white flowers and fern-like foliage of cow parsley – also known as 'Queen Anne's Lace' – is a common sight along verges and grassy areas in spring. When crushed between the fingers, the leaves produce a strong, aniseed-like scent and this plant is, in fact, one of several common members of the carrot family. Be careful not to confuse with hemlock or giant hogweed (see below).


The Lesser Water-Parsnip

Look out for the white, umbrella-like flower heads of the lesser water-parsnip along the shallow margins of ditches, ponds, lakes and rivers. When crushed, it really does smell like parsnip! It can grow quite tall, has bluish-green leaves and pale ring at the base of the leaf stalk. Another one not to confuse with hemlock or giant hogweed (see below).


Grass

From Timothy grass to cocksfoot, meadow foxtail to Yorkshire fog grass – there are many different types of grasses to tempt your small furries with. So, go out to a nearby meadow (as long as public access is allowed) and fill your boots! Find out more about why the grass is always greener on the Burgess side >>


What’s dangerous to pick?

When it comes to wild plants with umbrella-like clusters of flowers, make sure you avoid these deadly species:

Hemlock

Notoriously poisonous, Hemlock is a tall, upright plant that produces umbrella-like clusters of white flowers in summer and has tell-tale purple-spotted stems. It can be found in damp places, such as ditches, riverbanks and waste ground. Hemlock has a repellent smell when its leaves are crushed, helping to ensure that accidental poisonings don't occur very often – even livestock studiously avoid it. Only a tiny amount of hemlock can prove fatal to a human or an animal.


Giant Hogweed

As its name suggests, giant hogweed is an immensely tall plant with distinctively ridged, hollow stems, large divided leaves and umbrella-like clusters of flowers. Introduced into the UK by the Victorians as an ornamental plant, it escaped into the wider countryside as an alien species that favours damp spots like riverbanks. Cutting the plant releases its sap which contains toxins that can cause serious, recurring skin damage.


What to pick from your own garden

Rose petals, nasturtium leaves and flowers, wild geranium along with strawberry and raspberry leaves all make for good eating. Or why not plant a herb garden? Avoid chives, but your fibrevores will love a handful of fresh mint, parsley, basil, dill, rosemary or thyme. Galen's Garden is a great place to find out more.


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Sources: wildlifetrusts.org, rhs.org.uk, permaculture.co.uk

 

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