Last week saw the start of the donkeys being 'turned out' for the first time on the grass from their Winter quarters. Today it was the turn of the donkeys at East Axnoller Farm.
The 157 acre farm is some 35 miles from the main Sanctuary and nestles in the Dorset hills at the starting point of the River Axe. Last year otters and water voles had been seen on the river after many, many years of being absent.
At the current time, there are 231 donkeys, 10 ponies, 1 mule and 1 horse on the farm. The youngest donkey is Bentley (born 2003) who came into the Sanctuary with his pony friend, Dillon, in 2004. The oldest donkey is Heidi with a grand old age of 46! She came to live at the Sanctuary in 1990.
Since the beginning of the year, the sheep that have been grazing the fields over the Winter have gone back home. During the time they were at the farm, the shepherd came twice a day to check them in the morning and evening. This arrangement with a local stockholder works very well as the sheep may help to reduce the number of donkey-specific parasites in the pastures.
Over the next few weeks, the staff will be getting ready for the annual arrival of the donkey weekers who will be spending one of their days at the farm grooming the donkeys, walking the donkeys and giving them lots of cuddles. International Donkey Week is a must for those who are donkey lovers and want a chance to spend a whole week visiting the Sanctuary and the rest of its farms that are not open to the general public.
The weather for 'turnout' couldn't have been better, with glorious sunshine. When I arrived at the farm, Steve Stone, the manager met me and introduced me to Sarah Coombes, whose veterinary visit to the farm coincided with 'turnout'. Sarah works for Milton Equine Veterinary Clinic, who have a contract with the Sanctuary to provide veterinary care for the donkeys on the farm.
Steve has been manager of East Axnoller Farm for just over 17 years and he has a wonderful team of 6 staff. It's amazing how they remember every single donkey and how they can pick up just the smallest sign if a donkey isn't its normal self.
For example, Sarah had three donkeys that the grooms had asked her to look at. One of these donkeys was called Sandra, a 36 year old donkey who one of grooms noticed hadn't been eating as much as she usually did. After an examination by the vet, all seemed to be satisfactory, but as a precaution, blood samples were taken and I dropped these off at the veterinary hospital when I got back to the Sanctuary for results to be sent back to the farm later in the day.
Popcorn was one of the other donkeys Sarah was asked to examine. She had been looking a little 'wobbly' on her feet. She is a grand old lady at the age of 40! It was decided to try acupuncture on Popcorn, her first treatment being today. She stood very patiently while Sarah pinpointed where the acupuncture needles would be used - 6 along her back, 2 on each back leg.
Carmencita, aged 32, was the last donkey to be examined by Sarah today. She was showing signs of lameness in one of her rear hooves. Having examined the hoof, Sarah was satisfied that there was no sign of any abscess, but as a precaution after cleaning out the hoof, she asked one of the grooms to put a dressing on and to have another look later.
With the examinations finished, the time came for 'turnout'. Once the donkeys begin to realise they are going out, they start to herd together and a huge chorus of brays echo around the farm. A great sound!
First to be let out were the ponies and horse that were waiting eagerly by the gate. They were off… galloping around the field, ears pricked forward and tails swaying.
Next came the fitter group of donkeys. Their 'turnout' field was up the hill so as the gates were opened, the eager bunch were off with brays of delight. Some of them even stopped on their way up along the walkway to have a roll in the wood chippings. Eventually they made it to the field and what a sight to watch donkeys galloping around. Some of the donkeys in this group are blind and it was a magical moment to watch their donkey companion walking them into the field and staying with them.
Then it was the 'oldies' turn. This is a smaller group of donkeys. Old they may be, but just as excited.
The first time the donkeys are turned out, they spend about an hour or so per day in the fields. This is gradually increased so that their stomachs get used to their change of diet.