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.
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.
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.
“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)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 St Helena’s Donkeys
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.
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.