As General Farms Manager for The Donkey Sanctuary I have responsibility for over 2,400 donkeys and mules that have been relinquished to spend the rest of their lives in our care.
Relinquishments are sometimes due to cruelty or neglect, because of financial constraints, divorce, house moves, down sizing or the donkey's owners being too old and frail to take care of them. The credit crunch is now playing a big part in the increase of new arrivals.
The donkeys reside on our other farms in Devon and Dorset. My role is wide-ranging; from a general overview of donkey care, to recruitment of staff, to purchasing machinery and equipment for the farms.
Each farm has a Farm Manager and a team of farm workers and grooms proportionate to the size of the farm and the number of donkeys being cared for. The Donkey Sanctuary has its own team of vets, dentists and researchers who work with the farm staff to provide the best possible care for the donkeys. The Farm Managers work out a rota with their team to ensure that the donkeys are cared for at weekends as looking after the donkeys is a seven-day a week job.
One of the first tasks I undertook when I became General Farms Manager in 2001 was to formulate and publish the Farms' Code of Practice - this provides the staff with an outline of all the day-to-day working practices.
I visit each of the seven local farms on a three-week rota, spending several hours with the Farm Manager, walking around the farm checking the land and fencing, looking at the donkeys and their relevant feeding regimes and group sizes - often discussing how this can be changed or adapted to benefit the donkeys. I chat to the staff during their tea break and find out if they have any areas of concern and to let them know what a good job they are doing.
Fit healthy donkeys are prepared by the farm staff for our fostering scheme where pairs of donkeys can be placed in an approved private home. The home must have at least an acre of land that is safely fenced and a stable with a run out yard. There must be adequate time committed to the care for the donkeys and to give them the fuss they like. Any donkeys that have serious medical problems are kept on our farms where we can provide the best veterinary care for them.
During the farm visit I am able to see progress with foster donkeys' training being made - for example staff may spend some time teaching the donkeys to stand patiently while having their hooves picked out or to be examined by a vet. With donkeys that have not received much handling in the past this can take time and patience.
Every week more newly relinquished donkeys arrive into our New Arrivals unit (isolation) and I attend the movement meetings with the Manager of Isolation and staff from the veterinary and welfare teams to work out which donkeys would be best suited to which farms.
Sometimes a young, kind natured donkey that is big enough to carry children may be relinquished and we always consider these for our donkey assisted therapy centres which provide assisted therapy to children with additional needs in Birmingham, Ivybridge, Leeds, Manchester and Sidmouth. We make provision for them to be trained for this very special, rewarding job either on the local farms or at our farm in Derbyshire.
On a monthly basis I monitor the number of donkeys on each farm and calculate how much space we have in particular groups - for example donkeys with breathing problems or poor sight need to be housed in groups of similar donkeys.
The Farm Managers attend regular meetings that are chaired by me, we discuss any forthcoming open days, haymaking, land management, composting and the on-going care for the donkeys including, grooming, feeding, medications and quality time spent handling the less confident animals. The Managers are able to exchange ideas and discuss any problems. Any policy changes are discussed and implemented.
Each farm produces grass to make haylage and hay. The Donkey Sanctuary produces enough to feed all our donkeys during the winter months when the fields are too wet for them to be outside.
The donkeys produce many thousands of tonnes of manure each year and three of our farms have purpose built composting sites where this environmental waste is broken down into soil conditioner that can be spread back on the land to provide vital nutrients for the grass that will be the haylage for the following year.
Most of the farms have some areas of woodland and either streams or ponds. We encourage all kinds of wildlife and at East Axnoller farm in Dorset the source of the River Axe is home to water voles. At Paccombe Farm in Harcombe, Devon otters have been seen in the stream and deer live in the woods. At Town Barton Farm in Tedburn St Mary the staff often see hares bounding through the long grass and several species of deer in the woodland. Woods Farm at Tipton St John badgers.
Straw, feed and alternative beddings are a big outlay for the donkeys each year and I am continually working with the local suppliers to try to achieve the best possible prices whilst maintaining good quality. Each healthy donkey uses approximately one tonne of straw per year - they eat it and sleep on it, their diets are supplemented with grass in the summer and our home produced haylage or hay in the winter; barley straw however represents 70% of their diet. For some of the older, frail donkeys with breathing or dental problems or those that need their diet controlled we use alternative bedding of shavings or shredded pallets on a rubber base and they eat a diet of finely chopped hay and straw that is supplemented with high fibre nuts and fibre beet, with some special cases being fed a product made from soya and rice fibre.
I work closely with the veterinary projects and development team to reduce incidence of colic and laminitis and we have, in the past three years, managed to change to a completely cereal-free diet for all the donkeys and as a result we have a healthier herd. We work very hard to minimise the likelihood of resistance to the drugs that kill worms in the donkeys' guts and test the dung of all the donkeys, only giving worming paste to the donkeys that have high egg counts.
A new project that was introduced at the end of last year is our Quality Time Volunteers; these lovely people have volunteered to spend quality time with our resident donkeys for a few hours each week, the donkeys love all the extra attention, I spend some time each month interviewing and assisting the HR Department with the co-ordination of the recruits and place them on the most convenient farm.
As you can see my job is very varied, interesting and always rewarding. My team all work extremely hard and provide an unrivalled level of care for our resident donkeys; they seldom receive recognition for this as most published articles are about donkeys that have been rescued or the plight of donkeys overseas. I cannot praise them more highly, their love of the donkeys and dedication to their work shines through. If you have not visited us recently please do come and see what we do. The Donkey Sanctuary near Sidmouth is open every day of the year and has no admission or parking charge.