Monday 23 September 2019

Animal instinct: herbal remedies have feelgood factor for dogs and owners

Pet project pays off with expansion into human treatments for veterinary herbalist Jo Arbon and Clair Kelly

Joanne Arbon and Clair Kelly who founded The Busy Botanist which launched herbal tea with a difference. Photo: Joe Keogh, Keogh Photography
Joanne Arbon and Clair Kelly who founded The Busy Botanist which launched herbal tea with a difference. Photo: Joe Keogh, Keogh Photography

Aine O'Connor

Animals cannot lie and it was this incontrovertible fact that led engineer Jo Arbon to veterinary herbalism 16 years ago. When she moved from her native UK to Kerry in 2012 she continued to work in the field and many of her clients were so happy with the results on their pets they wanted to try the treatments themselves.

Jo met Clair Kelly, another Englishwoman based in Killorglin, and they became friends, colleagues and conspirators, hatching the plan for human herbal treatments and their company The Busy Botanist, over a bottle of wine.

A rescue dog that chose Jo, rather than the other way round, developed an allergic rash and she tried various remedies until a friend suggested a homeopathic remedy. "I've an engineering background so I am into evidential proof. I thought homeopathy was rubbish but I had tried everything else so I decided to give it a go and literally in front of my eyes the rash disappeared. My dog didn't even know it had taken anything so it couldn't be a placebo and it just hit me, just because we can't prove something doesn't mean it isn't happening."

As she looked further into the field she started training in complementary therapy for animals, and within that found herself drawn to the herbal side. "I have been producing products and supporting animals and I have seen the impact that it has been making on them when they have no idea what they're taking or why, so you cannot say it is all in the mind." Jo's clients at her company Holistic Hound saw impressive benefits too and asked if they could use the products.

The most popular dog treatments that people wanted to use on themselves were for immunity and arthritis. "Turmeric is a massive anti-inflammatory so for things like arthritis and hip dysplasia I make a product called Golden Paste to make turmeric more bio available and get it where it needs to go. It tastes absolutely vile but a lot of people would say, if it works this well for my dog can I not take it? OK, but it is not really good that you're taking doggy products so we decided that we would come up with a human range."

It was through one of Jo's dog behavioural programmes that she and Clair became friends. Clair started helping out in Holistic Hound and Jo says that although she could not have kept the business going without Clair, she couldn't afford to pay her so they decided to set up a company together selling human products.

An infusion of the herbs was the simplest way for people to take them. The herbal tea market however is saturated but they identified two ways in which their product would be different. Jo, who has a tannin intolerance, had struggled in the past with the herbal teas on the market as almost all contained some element of tea, whether black, green or white, and therefore tannins. Their product would contain no tea, just Jo's secret combinations of herbs for different ailments. Their tagline would become the No Tea Tea.

"The other thing that was quite frustrating is that none of them tell you how they help you and that is the point of herbs. It is medicine in its purest form going back centuries. They found herbs in graves that date back 30,000 years yet we seem to have moved away from the best bits and just focused purely on the flavours and the tastes."

The focus of their products would be to treat not just symptoms but the root cause and to be simply labelled regarding the benefits it provided. "We also wanted it to be colour specific," Clair says, "so you could get the husband to go in and say I want the blue one."

Having identified their product, their mission and their goal, they needed to test their market. "We did the Christmas markets last November and December just to see if there was a market for the products. Just because we thought it was a good idea doesn't mean that everybody out there did."

The stock sold out. They were particularly interested to see how interested and open younger people were to the concept. On a friend's recommendation they applied for SuperValu's Food Academy programme. "We didn't think we'd get accepted because we weren't in business yet but we were and it has been fantastic. The programme got us from putting our tea bags into a little organza bag with a hand-printed label to a shop-ready product."

The Busy Botanist officially started trading in June.

Positioning herbal drinks as a healthcare benefit has meant walking a fine line between food and medicine, "We had a little bit of a fight with the Food Safety Authority and we have to really justify our positioning and our labelling," Jo says, "But as Socrates said, let food be your medicine. We are actually the sickest species on the entire planet ever because of what we eat and we are definitely surviving and not thriving. Food is really the disease of our nation in some ways. But there is definitely a change in attitude now. More and more people are going back to this."

She believes that 85pc of the immune system is linked to a healthy digestive gut so, she says, "if you can get that right everything else falls into line."

Clair cites the example of children suffering from bowel problems. Her constipation-defeating tea is a big seller and the Tum Ease blend has just been named overall winner of the Best Emerging Artisan Food at the Listowel Food Fair.

At the end of the Food Academy programme they launched in the Kerry SuperValu stores which stock four of their 11 blends. The others are available online. Kerry Local Enterprise Office selected them to represent the county at Ploughing 2017 where they met up with Irish farmers who are interested in growing some of the herbs for them. As it stands there is no organic herb company in Ireland so they bulk buy in dried organic herbs from the UK. The nature of their product means that organic produce is key. The heavy metals from pesticides would rather defeat their purpose, she says.

There are two new products coming up in 2018 but Clair says, "We can't go too far, too quickly because it's all handmade, hand blended, and hand tied. It's very labour intensive but we have complete control over everything and we know exactly what is going into every bag," Jo adds. "We're so new and on such a steep learning curve and we are blown away by the speed of everything, who knows where we're going to end up!"

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