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The St Helena Donkey Home

The St Helena Donkey Home donkeys are extremely gentle and are easily handled by the children. It's a superb way to get kids outdoors and active.

The St Helena Donkey Home donkeys are extremely gentle and are easily handled by the children. It’s a superb way to get kids outdoors and active.

THE LAST ROAD FOR ISLAND DONKEYS | Sharon Henry

Nothing much attracts more attention and willing admirers than a newborn baby, even if at six weeks old he’s already a metre tall and has all his teeth. We’re cooing and ahhing over the new addition at the St Helena Donkey Home, a bouncing foal who, for now goes by the grown-up name of ‘Geoffrey.’

The Consequences Of Frisky Encounters

This cutie pie is the result of an ‘accident,’ by a frisky mother who made good use of a short escapade just over a year ago. Watching Geoffrey frolic about finding his legs just like a toddler would and peeping out through a gorgeously shaggy mane, I really feel the urge to cuddle him, if only he’d let me.

Geoffrey the foal is a little timid around Darrin and me, but he is happy to see Matthew and even more so to take carrot treats from him. St Helena Donkey Home.

Geoffrey the foal is a little timid around Darrin and me, but he is happy to see Matthew and even more so to take carrot treats from him.
St Helena Donkey Home.

The experts who are also his human aunties, Sharon Leask and Helen Owen get all the cuddles; I suppose he’s known them his whole life. They are the dedicated volunteers of the St Helena Donkey Home at Cason’s, Blue Hill and affection from Geoffrey is a reward for their hard work.

His arrival brings the tally to 13 at the Donkey Home, a place where donkeys, that were once the bulk carriers of St Helena’s yesteryear, are now quite literally, ‘put out to pasture.’

The Best Day Of The Week, Is…

Not that they mind. They now live the life of luxury in a grassy field with an endless supply of food, the company of friends, weekly walks and regular pedicures. Yes you read right, pedicures. Hoof health is an essential element to these docile animals’ wellbeing. Just like our nails need trimming, so do donkey hooves, a task carried out every Wednesday by another committed volunteer, Roddy Yon. Because of the soft terrain the donkeys are prone to nasty inflictions of hoof rot, seedy toe and thrush, so pedicures are vital.

Roddy Yon making his weekly visit to the St Helena Donkey Home to carry out 'pedicure' treatment on the donkeys' hooves. Another vital part of keeping the animals healthy.

Roddy Yon making his weekly visit to the St Helena Donkey Home to carry out ‘pedicure’ treatment on the donkeys’ hooves. Another vital part of keeping the animals healthy.

Clearing the poo from the field at the St Helena Donkey Home.

Clearing the poo from the field at the St Helena Donkey Home.

Saturday’s are the fun days, the ‘let’s take a turn around the road’ days and luckily we chose a fine and sunny one to visit. A few hours earlier Helen and Sharon showed us their warm-up to the weekly event; the donkey poo pick-up. Those with dogs can probably relate, however, these guys use large poo buckets instead of small poo bags. “It’s really good exercise,” they told us by way of persuasion whilst scooping up healthy piles of the stuff. Even the ladies’ children were little busy-bodies in the field, kitted out with protective marigold gloves.

The Benefits Of Poo

“It doesn’t have an offensive smell,” Helen reassured me sniffing a moist sample to prove the point. I offered my nose as a second opinion and she was right, it didn’t.

“Make sure to Photoshop my bad bits,” Sharon joked with Darrin as he snapped her lugging a full bucket, “I want to look like Claudia Schiffer!”

Obviously cleaning the paddock is not purely just for the cardio benefits. Donkeys too have standards and they don’t like to eat where they’ve pooed. So the clearance makes the field more accessible, plus it keeps the flies down, a pest that bites donkey legs and faces.

Top left: Miles Leask helping out with the Saturday poo clearance. Top right: A bucket full of garden goodness. Donkey manure retains water and releases nutrients into garden soil. Funnily enough there is no bad smell (honest). Bottom left: These tyres mark the grave site Basil the donkey. Bottom right: Another donkey grave, this is where Lily is laid to rest.

Top left: Miles Leask helping out with the Saturday poo clearance.
Top right: A bucket full of garden goodness. Donkey manure retains water and releases nutrients into garden soil. Funnily enough there is no bad smell (honest).
Bottom left: These tyres mark the grave site Basil the donkey.
Bottom right: Another donkey grave, this is where Lily is laid to rest.

Charlotte Leask, (Sharon's daughter) a regular at the St Helena Donkey Home getting stuck in with clearing the field.

Charlotte Leask, (Sharon’s daughter) a regular at the St Helena Donkey Home getting stuck in with clearing the field. (taken on a follow up visit when the weather had changed a bit!)

Donkeys being paired up with visitors ready to begin the Saturday walk.

Donkeys being paired up with visitors ready to begin the Saturday walk.

“The added bonus is, we can sell it,” Helen told us. For keen gardeners a sack of fibrous poo nuggets is worth £5. They retain moisture and release nutrients into the soil, a must-have for flourishing plants – apparently!

The ladies ushered the animals down to the shelter for harnessing, in time for the donkey walkers who started arriving just before 10. ‘Shim’ was saddled to give rides to kids under 8 stone. That ruled me out!

Something To Do With Kids On St Helena

The walking group today were a mixture of regulars and first-timers. Some of the regulars called dibs on their favourite donkey.

Before long we were marching to the steady clop of hooves, plodding in single file along the tarmac road, headed for the church of St Helena and the Cross a mile away. And what a glorious day it was with sweeping views of Broadbottom and High Hill, it was St Helena at her finest.

(Here’s a video of donkey walking on St Helena that we made)

Safety talk complete it's time to begin the walk. Everyone carefully makes their way down the ramp from the St Helena Donkey Home and onto the road. The donkeys don't like the sloping concrete path and take tiny little steps on this bit!

Safety talk complete it’s time to begin the walk. Everyone carefully makes their way down the ramp from the St Helena Donkey Home and onto the road. The donkeys don’t like the sloping concrete path and take tiny little steps on this bit!

And they're off - donkey walking along the country road of Blue Hill on a beautiful Saturday morning. St Helena Donkey Home.

And they’re off – donkey walking along the country road of Blue Hill on a beautiful Saturday morning.
St Helena Donkey Home.

Grace (Helen's daughter) is another regular at the St Helena Donkey Home and clearly has an close connection with the animals.

Grace (Helen’s daughter) is another regular at the St Helena Donkey Home and clearly has an close connection with the animals.

The lush green countryside of Blue Hill and Casons is a beautiful setting for walking the donkeys. St Helena Donkey Home.

The lush green countryside of Blue Hill and Casons is a beautiful setting for walking the donkeys.
St Helena Donkey Home.

All the kids had charge of a donkey and held the leads close to the animals’ chin for better control. This was supposed to prevent the donkeys (who proved to have insatiable appetites) taking impromptu chow stops. It didn’t always work. I couldn’t blame them, if I were a donkey I’d do the same; the grass at Blue Hill looks deliciously green and juicy.

The Stronkhorst family (l-r) Engela, Ronel, Pieter and Emke were visiting from South Africa. They blog about their holidays that are usually taken at 'off the beaten track' destinations. The St Helena Donkey Home.

The Stronkhorst family (l-r) Engela, Ronel, Pieter and Emke were visiting from South Africa. They blog about their holidays that are usually taken at ‘off the beaten track’ destinations.
The St Helena Donkey Home.

Donkey walking has become a tourist attraction on St Helena and the Stronkhorst family, visiting from South Africa, were ticking it off their bucket list. They are bloggers with emphasis on family travel off the beaten track. “I can go with no hands,” smiled daughter Emke as she rode Shim. This experience will definitely be included on their blog.

What Donkey’s Ears Can Tell You

A regular is Kylie Peters and her family. “This has become our Saturday thing,” she said running her hand along the natural crucifix shaped pattern in the fur on the donkey’s back. “We come here, then go to the playground at the community centre and finish up with going to look the foal at the top of the hill. That’s our Saturday.”

Road traffic didn’t faze the animals at all, but approaching vehicles usually triggered the warning shout of “car” from the person up ahead.

Saturday walking at the St Helena Donkey Home has become a regular thing for Kylie Peters and her family.

Saturday walking at the St Helena Donkey Home has become a regular thing for Kylie Peters and her family.

The trick to stop the donkeys taking impromptu eating stops is to hold the lead close to the head collar - although this doesn't always work. St Helena Donkey Home.

The trick to stop the donkeys taking impromptu eating stops is to hold the lead close to the head collar – although this doesn’t always work.
St Helena Donkey Home.

The donkeys are very comfortable walking on the road with cars passing by. Walkers at the head of the line shout out "car" to warn us to keep to the side. St Helena Donkey Home.

The donkeys are very comfortable walking on the road with cars passing by. Walkers at the head of the line shout out “car” to warn us to keep to the side.
St Helena Donkey Home.

Sharon leading Shim who is saddled for donkey rides. Only riders under 8 stone are allowed on. St Helena Donkey Home.

Sharon leading Shim who is saddled for donkey rides. Only riders under 8 stone are allowed on.
St Helena Donkey Home.

Besides being good exercise for the donkeys (and humans), the road’s hard surface acts as an emery board for their hooves. Plus the donkeys seem to really enjoy the human contact.

“Dominic’s my favourite,” Jamie Durkin told me, “he’s the cutest, there’s no competition! I like him because he’s scruffy and reminds me of me. Being the youngest (2) in the pack he’s a little cheeky and can be a little hard to handle so I want to try and get him used to people.”

Matthew (Helen's son) knows every last detail about each of the donkeys; he is another who gives up every Saturday to help at the St Helena Donkey Home.

Matthew (Helen’s son) knows every last detail about each of the donkeys; he is another who gives up every Saturday to help at the St Helena Donkey Home.

A loyal volunteer at nine years old is Matthew (Helen’s son) whose knowledge and easy rapport with the donkeys is impressive.  He explained to Darrin, when he stroked the donkey’s mane, how to read their body language. “The position of their ears will tell you when they like what you are doing; when they point forward they like it but when their ears fold back then they don’t like that as much. They prefer you to stroke their back, between the shoulders.”

Little Fingers, Big Teeth: Feeding Carrots To A Donkey

Throughout the walk the distinctive smell of the flowering ginger with its sweet, basil-like fragrance filled the air. Coupled with the sunshine, it was a great way to kick-start the weekend.

We returned to the shelter after an hour and brushes were handed out for donkey grooming. If they could I’m sure we would have heard appreciative sighs with each brush stroke. Then it was tick check time, then hoof cleaning and rounded off with carrot treats – yeah! Admittedly I was a bit timid putting my fingers so close to such large teeth but no harm done. These donkeys have the best temperaments.

Donkey grooming at the end of the walk - Helen doing the hoof cleaning, all vital tasks to keep the animals healthy. The St Helena Donkey Home.

Donkey grooming at the end of the walk – Helen doing the hoof cleaning, all vital tasks to keep the animals healthy.
The St Helena Donkey Home.

Everyone gets stuck in helping with donkey grooming after the walk. St Helena Donkey Home.

Everyone gets stuck in helping with donkey grooming after the walk.
St Helena Donkey Home.

Carrot treats are shared out after the walk. Don't worry about the large teetch, the donkeys are very gentle and well mannered taking the food. The St Helena Donkey Home.

Carrot treats are shared out after the walk. Don’t worry about the large teetch, the donkeys are very gentle and well mannered taking the food.
The St Helena Donkey Home.

The Donkey Home is on the lookout for volunteers, to do walks but especially to help collect manure. “If anybody’s got an extra hour or even half hour on a Saturday morning to come along before 10 that would be great,” said Helen. “I find it quite therapeutic and very satisfying when we get the field clear.” Although she does remind me the weather is not always as lovely as today.

Population Decline On St Helena

There were 1,650 donkeys on St Helena in the 1960s, most rural families had one, plus they were used as pack animals for the flax industry. The animal census of 1994 recorded 415 and by 2012 that number had dwindled to 35. Cars and 4×4’s have taken their place.

“Donkey’s are a huge part of the island’s heritage,” said Helen, “and I love hearing old stories about them.”

They are even featured on 2p coins, honoured for the important role they played in St Helena’s economy.

Sharon applies a protective treatment to the donkey hooves. The donkeys love the attention and stand very still while their 'maintenance' is being carried out. St Helena Donkey Home.

Sharon applies a protective treatment to the donkey hooves. The donkeys love the attention and stand very still while their ‘maintenance’ is being carried out.
St Helena Donkey Home.

All male donkeys at the Home have been castrated simply because there’s not enough space or manpower to deal with a flow of babies. “Whilst it would be terribly sad to see donkeys die out on St Helena,” said Helen, “our passion is to maintain the donkey population that are here.” The life expectancy of a donkey is 40 years.

Back to the new kid on the block, baby Geoffrey. The Home is planning a fundraising naming competition. “It has to be a sensible one, something we can stand in public and call,” laughs Helen, “nothing like ‘Fluffy’ because he might want a more manly name when he gets older!”

How Everyone Can Help The St Helena Donkey Home

The Home is a registered charity surviving because of volunteers. Funds are raised through manure sales, donations, £20 annual sponsorship schemes, souvenir sales and 50p donkey rides at fairs. The money is used for head collars, ropes, medical aids and veterinary care.

The St Helena Donkey Home residents are very pleased to see Grace once again.

The St Helena Donkey Home residents are very pleased to see Grace once again.

They REALLY need the help of new volunteers, especially as Helen will be leaving the island soon. New sign-ups would be helping to sustain a comfortable life for St Helena’s remaining donkeys.

“It’s all about the animals for me,” says Sharon when asked about her motivation. “I think once you commit to being responsible for an animal you can’t say, it’s raining I don’t fancy it. It’s not their fault it’s raining, and they poo it’s what they do. If we don’t pick it up the grass gets poor and they get sick. Plus look at their little faces, who can resist?”

Let’s weigh up the benefits – exercise, good deeds, fresh air, amazing views, feel-good factor and not forgetting, donkey cuddles.

It’s a win/win situation.

Walking these lovely animals from the St Helena Donkey Home is a brilliant way to spend a Saturday morning - they love having new people come to visit them.

Walking these lovely animals from the St Helena Donkey Home is a brilliant way to spend a Saturday morning – they love having new people come to visit them.

COMMENTS

  • Patrick G Henry

    April 29, 2016

    Donkeys played a huge part in my younger lifetime I were a bit younger than some of the children shown above, I still remember going into town with my gran mama with our donkey for the weekly groceries, transporting domestic water, fire wood and after I started working in the flax mill I were one of many who used them to carry two bundles of flax at a time to the roadside for the lorry to collect, some times I had 12 donkeys and cart 60 bundles per day. Our last 3 family donkeys were named Jelly Boy, Bonnie and Jessie, we collected the poo as soil for our gardens. Despite their work load they were our family pets as well.

    • April 29, 2016

      Wow what lovely memories – love hearing these old stories! Donkeys really did play their part in the flax industry didn’t they – along with people like you! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • April 28, 2016

    Lovely to read about the donkeys and to know they are cared for. .as a child growing up in Levelwood. We had four Jessie. Rose Nancy and princess every Saturday they would be loaded up with fruit veg making the long walk to. Jamestown , after a few hours in town loaded up with. Groceries from Eva Benjamin’s and fish from Aunty Rene and bread from Aunty Rosie. John we tracked back home . How things have changed .

    • April 29, 2016

      Hey Shirley thanks for sharing your donkey stories, it always good to hear what life was like ‘back in the day’ and how donkeys were used for carrying load on the long country roads into town. Oh and fun fact; Rosie John the baker was my great grandma! 🙂

    • January 19, 2017

      Small world or should I say Island Rosie and mum were sisters ,I remember Tootsie ,Roy Roger ,Jerry .Carol I know there’s more but the old memory not so good Carol lives in Norfolk see her when I visit my sisters . Umm so we are related. XXXX

  • David and Bronwyn Street

    April 28, 2016

    Great to see the donkeys again. We enjoyed our Saturday morning with them when we were on the island last year.

    • April 29, 2016

      Such a lovely thing to do on St Helena and the donkeys are so docile and loveable it’s really a pleasure walking them. Glad you also enjoyed this experience. 🙂

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