- Open Access
Ethnoveterinary practices of Covasna County, Transylvania, Romania
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine volume 11, Article number: 35 (2015)
Ethnoveterinary medicine is a topic of growing interest among ethnobiologists, and is integral to the agricultural practices of many ethnic groups across the globe. The ethnoveterinary pharmacopoeia is often composed of ingredients available in the local environment, and may include plants, animals and minerals, or combinations thereof, for use in treating various ailments in reared animals. The aim of this study was to survey the current day ethnoveterinary practices of ethnic Hungarian (Székely) settlements situated in the Erdővidék commune (Covasna County, Transylvania, Romania) and to compare them with earlier works on this topic in Romania and other European countries.
Data concerning ethnoveterinary practices were collected through semi-structured interviews and direct observation in 12 villages from 2010 to 2014. The cited plant species were collected, identified, dried and deposited in a herbarium. The use of other materials (e.g. animals, minerals and other substances) were also documented. Data were compared to earlier reports of ethnoveterinary knowledge in Transylvania and other European countries using various databases.
In total, 26 wild and cultivated plants, 2 animals, and 17 other substances were documented to treat 11 ailments of cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep. The majority of applications were for the treatment of mastitis and skin ailments, while only a few data were reported for the treatment of cataracts, post-partum ailments and parasites. The traditional uses of Armoracia rusticana, Rumex spp., powdered sugar and glass were reported in each village. The use of some plant taxa, such as Allium sativum, Aristolochia clematitis, and Euphorbia amygdaloides was similar to earlier reports from other Transylvanian regions.
Although permanent veterinary and medical services are available in some of the villages, elderly people preferred the use of wild and cultivated plants, animals and other materials in ethnoveterinary medicine. Some traditional ethnoveterinary practices are no longer in use, but rather persist only in the memories of the eldest subset of the population. A decline in the vertical transmission of ethnoveterinary knowledge was evident and loss of practice is likely compounded by market availability of ready-made pharmaceuticals.
The term “ethnoveterinary” refers to traditional therapeutics prepared by humans for the purposes of maintaining or restoring animal health. The ethnoveterinary pharmacopoeia often contains ingredients sourced from various locations within the environment, and may include plants, animals and minerals. Ethnoveterinary medicine dates back to ancient times and records of this practice can be found in various cultures across the globe. The study of ethnoveterinary medicine through a scientific lens began in the 1970s when it was defined by McCorkle , and this subject encompasses theory, taxonomy, diagnosis, practice, resource, and social organization of the health of livestock and pets. Traditional curative and preventive treatments of domesticate and semi-domesticate animals play a significant role in several regions of the world where livestock is a main source of livelihood for rural peoples [2-17].
In Romania, mostly in isolated settlements, several works have been published from the 1960s encompassing data on veterinary health problems of domesticated animals and their management [18-34]. Recently, declines in the transmission and implementation of traditional knowledge have been exacerbated by alteration and degradation of the environment, decreasing numbers of herds, and more expanded availability of officinal medicines and modern pharmaceuticals in several regions of the country. Nevertheless, several ethnic groups preserve the old traditions through home practices and oral transmission of knowledge.
Covasna County, located in the eastern part of Transylvania (situated in central Romania) is inhabited by a population of ethnic Hungarians known as the Székelys. This ethnic group has lived in the Carpathian Basin since the 9th century.
The flora of this area has been studied and published in valuable works [35-39]. Based on these descriptions, the region has a rich flora including relict and endemic species, as well as several medicinal plants used in traditional human and veterinary ethnomedicine [40,41]. In the summary of Rácz and Füzi , medicinal plants were listed with local Hungarian, Romanian and scientific names, used part, village and amount of collection (kg/year). Their work highlights the decreasing occurrence of some wild species due to over-harvesting.
Based on our previous ethnobotanical surveys [42,43], the aim of this study was to document and analyze the ethnoveterinary practices of 12 settlements of the Erdővidék commune of Covasna County, Romania, focusing mainly on plant uses, common ailments and homemade therapeutics for livestock (e.g., cattle, horses, sheep and pigs). As no comparative fieldwork has been conducted on veterinary care in Covasna, our collected data were evaluated and compared to records of animal health management practices in Romania and other European countries.
Covasna County is located at elevations ranging from 460 to 1,777 m.a.s.l. in eastern Transylvania, situated in central Romania (longitude: 25°28’-26°28’, latitude: 45°32’-46°18’) (Figure 1). The territory encompasses 3,705 km2. This region, which connects to the eastern part of the Carpathian Mountains, has been divided into four large zones: Baraolt Basin, Cîmpul Frumos, Superior Basin of Trei Scaune, Intorsura Buzăului and their surroundings . Erdővidék (“Timberland”) is found in the Baraolt Basin at the north-western part of the county, with a total area of 600 km2. The name “Timberland” comes from the territory being covered with forestland. Average temperatures vary from 2–7°C and the region has a precipitation of 500–1,100 mm per year . The rock-bed consists of vulcanian and sedimental elements. Due to the postvulcanian movement, about 150 mineral springs (“borvízforrás”) were discovered in the region, and are reputed for their medicinal effects. The geological relief of the region is diverse and comprises basins, mountains, valleys, plains and rivers (e.g. Olt, Kormos, Barót and Vargyas). The vegetation is also diverse and comprises beech, birch, hornbeam, oak, and pine forests, and alpine dwarf scrubland at different sea level. In total, the land use area of the county is divided into agriculture (48%), forestry (47.2%) and non-productive surfaces (4.8%) .
A 2009 population survey reported the presence of 8,600 ethnic Hungarians (Székely) distributed across 23 villages in Erdővidék . The following settlements were selected in our study: Aita Seacă (in Hungarian: Szárazajta), Băţanii Mari (Nagybacon), Băţanii Mici (Kisbacon), Biborţeni (Bibarcfalva), Bodoş (Bodos), Filia (Erdőfüle), Herculian (Magyarhermány), Ozunca-Băi (Uzonkafürdő), Racoşul de Sus (Felsőrákos), Tălişoara (Olasztelek), Valea Zălanului (Zalánpatak), and Vârghiş (Vargyas) (Table 1, Figure 1).
Native people of the county speak Romanian and Hungarian, while in the selected villages the predominant language is Hungarian. The majority of villagers were born in the area and have lived there for most of their lifetime. Many are engaged in traditional agricultural and pastoral activities, working as farmers, ranchers and shepherds. Cattle, goats, horse, sheep and pigs are commonly raised in farms and around the home. They continue to play a key role in the production of dairy products and other traditional foods in the district, as has been the case for centuries. Although some of these villages have access to allopathic medical and veterinary care, as well as access to pharmaceutical drugs (Table 1), most people know of several home treatments for veterinary health problems using materials of various origins.
Field work and data collection
Field studies were carried out in the summers of 2010–2014. A total of 99 informants were asked with snow-ball technique in semi-structured interviews in Hungarian. Prior informed consent was obtained prior to conducting interviews and all researchers adhered to the ethical guidelines of the International Society of Ethnobiology . During interviews, details concerning common ailments of domesticated animals, ingredients to traditional therapies (coming from plant, animal, and mineral origin) as well as local healing methods were recorded. Informants were followed into the local agro-ecosytem (e.g. fields, meadows, pastures, ploughlands and road-sides) surrounding villages in order to show and gather the cited wild and cultivated plants (Figure 2). Regarding the cited plant taxa, data concerning the following topics were collected: local name(s), frequency, habitat, time of collection, method of storage, used part, preparation, category and way of use, treated ailments and animals with local name(s), possible beliefs and rituals. Interviews were documented with tape recordings and photos were taken of plants and their habitat as well as the final therapeutic products. Voucher specimens of the cited plants were prepared and deposited at the Department of Pharmacognosy of the University of Pécs. Scientific nomenclature of for botanical taxa followed the systematic work of Tutin et al. .
A search for ethnoveterinary studies in some major databases was conducted and the data collected in this study was compared to earlier documented records in Transylvania and other European countries [3-5,7-17,19-22,25-31,33,34,47-57]. During comparison, similarity and differences of the records were taken into consideration.
Results and discussion
There are several small private herds widespread in the county. People keep fewer livestock nowadays than in the past, which has resulted in a significant decrease the number of cattle herds. In addition, the prevalence and increased use of agricultural mechanization has led to the reduction in the number of horses necessary for agricultural activities. Nevertheless, domesticated animals continue to play an important role in their everyday life in the region.
Among the 99 informants (63 women and 36 men) aged between 27 and 99 years, only 75 villagers reported that they currently raise cattle, horses, sheep or pigs and use ethnoveterinary treatments. While the other 24 informants do not currently rear livestock, they did in the past and where able to provide information regarding past ethnoveterinary practices used during their lifetime. Declines in the transmission of traditional ethnoveterinary knowledge are apparent, and is likely linked to emigration trends among young people seeking employment in larger cities and even foreign countries. In addition, many informants commented on a sense of greater faith in modern veterinary medicines prescribed by veterinarians than their own home remedies.
Altogether, 11 ailments reported to be most frequently treated via ethnoveterinary means (Tables 2,3,4). Among the cited ailments, “hotness” (stomach disorders), inflamed udder (mastitis), respiratory diseases (roaring = “kehesség”, infectious cold, cough, pneumonia), rumination disorders, wounds and skin injuries, diarrhea, and cataracts were listed, and local methods were also used in post-partum therapies and as anthelmintic, diuretic, antiparasitic, repellent and insecticide drugs. The majority of ethnoveterinary therapeutics were observed to treat the ailments of cattle (48 records), while 26 remedies were mentioned for horses, 15 for pigs, and 5 for sheep.
A total of 45 ingredients were documented in this survey, including 26 plant taxa (18 wild and 8 cultivated species; 57.8%), 2 animals (4.4%), and 17 animal-based substances, minerals or materials of other source (37.8%). Considering the frequency of citations, the use of Allium sativum, Aristolochia clematitis, Armoracia rusticana, Potentilla anserina, Rumex acetosella, and R. obtusifolius, as well as Mustela nivalis, “szénamurha”, powdered glass, sugar and water showed the highest prevalence (Tables 2 and 3).
The highest number of remedies involving plants were for the treatment of diarrhea (7 taxa), as anthelmintics (6), for rumination (5), stomach problems and wounds (4), while a few taxa were cited for mastitis (3), respiratory ailments and as a repellent drug (2) (Table 2). Local names of plants varied from 1 to 6 per species. Some names correspond with the official Hungarian terminology using in single form or with vernacular names together (vernacular names are listed in italics in Table 2).
Regarding the plant parts used, the whole herb was the most frequently used part of the cited taxa (21.9%) followed by leaf and fruit (18.6% each), root (15.6%), bark (9.4%), flower (6.3%), pseudofruit, seed and bulb (3.2% each) (Table 4). Herbal remedies were applied internally and externally as a single tea (40%) or tea mixture (2.8%), in raw form as fodder (37.2%), in washes (8.6%), rubbing agents (5.7%), creams and liniments (2.8% each). Plants containing toxic compounds (e.g. Aristolochia clematitis, Veratrum album) are only reported for external use. In the case of Eryngium planum and Matricaria chamomilla, two types of preparation were mentioned, similarly to the application of salt, vinegar and water.
Preparations based on other substances are commonly used with other materials (73.7%), with plants (5.3%), or in single form (21%) as a liniment, wash or fodder (Table 4). Although modern veterinary practice is expensive and not as easily available as homemade remedies, the use of injectable medicaments was also noted in the region (Table 3).
Comparing data recorded in the selected 12 villages, the use of Armoracia rusticana for respiratory illness in horses, Rumex spp. for diarrhea, and the application of sugar and glass powders for cataracts in cattle proved to be consistent and a commonly used treatment in each community surveyed (Table 4). Intracultural variance was documented in the frequency of some records, such as in the use of Allium sativum as an anthelmintic drug (in 10 villages), Aristolochia clematitis for wounds and Potentilla anserina against diarrhea (in 9 villages). There were also some interesting cases of unique ethnoveterinary practices that were restricted to one village each. For example, Gentiana asclepiadea (Figure 3) was used with milk for stomach disorders; clay or water with salt for mastitis; Juniperus communis, “szénamurha” with urine and turpentine for respiratory ailments; cooking oil, Cucurbita pepo and Petroselinum crispum to improve rumination; the use of Eryngium planum and Euphorbia amygdaloides for wounds; Quercus species for diarrhea and as an anthelmintic drug used similarly to whey powder; “hótszén” against diarrhea; and Petroselinum crispum to dispel the placenta in cattle after delivery.
Some similarities were found between the indications reported earlier in other Transylvanian regions and other countries, and the present uses of home remedies for mastitis, skin problems, diarrhea, cataract, and in anthelmintic and diuretic drugs (Table 4).
Compared to the earlier records in Transylvania, we found 18 similar uses of the following (Table 4, Figure 4): Calendula officinalis flowers, as well as water with vinegar and salt to treat mastitis; Armoracia rusticana for respiratory ailments in Racu  and Lueta ; Aristolochia clematitis for external injuries in Ţara Călatei  and Homoród; and Euphorbia amygdaloides in Homoród [28,30] and Ghimeş . Allium sativum has been documented in Romania for its widespread use as a vermifuge [29,34], similar to reports from Spain , Algeria , and Italy . Similar to our findings, Quercus spp. fruits have been reported as vermifuges in Homoród . The anti-diarrheal effect of Q. rubra has been observed in Morocco , and similar use of Q. ilex ssp. ilex have been reported in Catalonia , corresponding to our data on Quercus petraea and Q. robur. Furthermore, the use of Artemisia absinthium has been reported for diarrhea in Homoród , while for Rumex species (which are well-known for their anti-diarrheal effects), the use of R. acetosella has also been described in Lueta  and Croatia . In contrast to the documented use of Petroselinum crispum leaves in the present work, the root has been recorded as a diuretic drug in Racu , Ţara Călatei , and Ghimeş [19,20].
For respiratory disorders, the cones of Juniperus communis were mentioned as a fodder in our survey, but as a tea in Moldova , while in Algeria the leaf of J. phoenicea has been documented . The use of Salix alba has been similarly reported for rumination in Homoród [28,30], while S. purpurea has been documented in Albania . In addition to the treatment of rumination disorders, Petroselinum crispum is used by itself in Covasna, but with bran in Trei Scaune . In contrast to the use of Polygonum minus, the leaf of P. lapathifolium has been observed for wounds in Ghimeş . The seed of Cucurbita pepo has been used for skin problems by itself in Covasna, but with castor oil in Harghita County .
Veratrum album root has been reported as a widespread repellent and antiparasitic drug in Covasna , Ghimeş , Ţara Călatei [21,48], Trei Scaune , Moldova [25,33], and Lueta . Juglans regia leaves have also been reported for their use as a repellent in Harghita County . Similar use of sugar and powdered glass has been observed for cataract in Ghimeş , Ţrei Scaune , and Moldova .
Comparison is represented between our data and those of the mountain regions of Pyrenees, Italian and Albanian Alps, which covers the overlap of each ingredient (Figure 4). Similar to our records, the use of Achillea millefolium was mentioned for rumination and digestive disorders in the Lombardy  and Albanian Alps . As anti-lice treatment, the root of Veratrum album was mentioned in Italy , and the aerial part of the plant in Catalonia . Similar to our records, Allium sativum was documented as vermifuge in Galicia , Rumex species against diarrhea , and haemostatic use of cobweb and milk for intestinal aches in the Albanian Alps .
Rituals and beliefs connected to local uses were sporadically mentioned in the region. The skin of Mustela nivalis was reported against udder inflammation caused by weasel bites, similarly to data recorded in Uz-valley . To stimulate urination, animals should hear the sound of rippling stream or poured water (Table 4).
Some of the present uses were not found in earlier Transylvanian reports nor in databases of other countries, such as remedies for “hotness” and for applications following delivery (e.g. for stimulating expulsion of the placenta). In addition, several practices are no longer used today, but rather survive only in the memory of the villagers, such as the use of cobweb for wounds, “hótszén” for diarrhea, and the placement of lice into the urethra as a diuretic.
From an ethnoveterinary point of view, Covasna has proven to be one of the most interesting regions of Romania due to the diversity of knowledge concerning plant-, animal- and other substances-derived remedies. These traditions are practiced mostly by the more elderly subset of the population, forming a significant part of the local animal healthcare and cultural heritage of the region. Although some data survive only as memories from the past, people are proud of their traditional knowledge, which is still maintained in rural areas. In addition, holders of this knowledge have an important role as natural resource managers.
Although ethnoveterinary service is cheaper and easily available compared to modern veterinary medicine and pharmaceuticals, factors such as the size and prevalence of herds, as well as the frequency of citation of traditional ethnoveterinary practices are diminished in comparison to earlier records of Romania, and other European countries. This change has also been influenced by shifting socio-cultural factors concerning local economies and emigration patterns, as well as less frequent opportunities for the vertical transmission of traditional knowledge. Future studies to support our further understanding of the role that ethnoveterinary practices can play in managing animal health are certainly merited. Such studies are useful not only for the purposes of folkloric preservation, but can also form a foundation on which to support sustainable development efforts aimed at promoting environmentally friendly, cost-effective means of maintaining livestock health.
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We are grateful for the help and contributions of the study participants. This work was supported by a grant from the OTKA (Hungarian Scientific Research Fund, PD 108534).
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
SGB, LB and NP conducted the fieldwork. SGB and NP performed the comparative literature analysis. CLQ performed statistical analyses of the data. All authors participated in the writing and revision process and read, discussed and approved the final manuscript.