Donkeys Ned and Applejack are now living their lives at Nethercott House at Farms For City Children. Donkeys are inquisitive and intelligent creatures and in this home, rehomed donkeys Ned and Applejack receive interaction and mental stimulation, from both the staff and children every day.
Children’s author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare founded Farms for City Children at Nethercott House in Devon in 1976. The charity offers urban children from all over the country a unique opportunity to live and work together for a week at a time on a real farm in the heart of the countryside. It is an intense, ‘learning through doing’ experience of a different life – for children who may not know where their food comes from and have limited opportunities to explore the outside world.
The children are encouraged to take full responsibility for the work they do, caring for the animals and the land. The experience stretches them physically, emotionally and intellectually in ways not possible in the classroom, building their confidence and nurturing a real sense of achievement.
I was invited by Mike Tweddell, Farms Manager at Nethercott House to come along to a session to see rehomed donkeys Ned and Applejack in action. The children, under supervision, get to be hands-on with the donkeys and learn about donkey care.
The morning session begun by poo picking the donkey’s paddock. It was a joy to see children enjoying a task and getting stuck in mud while poo picking. It reminded me what fun a muddy puddle can be! They did a fabulous job of clearing the paddock whilst singing happy songs and asking me loads of questions about donkeys.
When we all returned to the courtyard it was time for Donkey O’Clock with Ned and Applejack. Mike explained the procedure with the donkeys and that they were going to be groomed before leading them out into the paddock. All the children interacted with questions and thoughts regarding donkey care and safety, one child even told me that we must all be quiet when approaching a donkey as they don’t like loud noises or sudden movements ...if I'd had a gold star on me to give him, he'd have had it!
The children then went off in small groups to groom the donkeys. It was fascinating to see the change in the children’s energy. Only a short time ago the children were all singing loudly and laughing and running around the paddock jumping in mud as they poo picked, and now, they were calm, quiet and moving slowly around the donkeys with lowered chat. Of course they listened very well to Mike’s instructions but I could see the donkeys' calm and relaxed presence also rub off on them. The children were so good with the donkeys, grooming them both very gently and talking to them softly for reassurance. Ned and Applejack both stood there very relaxed letting the children groom them, at one stage Applejack even shut his eyes as the children were pampering him and his bottom lip started to drop when one of the children found his favourite scratching spot. The grooming session lasted about 10 minutes. After the donkeys had received their donkey spa massage and therapy treatment, they then got ready to be let out to the paddock.
Again, before this next activity Mike talked through what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. The children led the donkeys beautifully and followed everything Mike communicated to them. All the children were like professionals and both children and donkeys behaved impeccably. Once Ned and Applejack were let in to their paddock and head collars removed, they had a little trot around the paddock before then eating the grass.
I was so proud of Ned and Applejack as I witnessed them contribute to the children’s confidence and growth, as well as creating the next generation of donkey ambassadors. I was also humbled in seeing how the children contributed to the donkeys, by enriching their lives with stimulation and kindness.