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