Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I work as a groom at The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. I am privileged to help care for a rare herd of 16 Poitou donkeys. These gentle giants have taken up a soft spot in my heart with their big personalities, soulful dark eyes and light brown long-haired coats which can form their distinctive shaggy dreadlocks if left ungroomed.
I recently visited the Pôle Nature de l’Asinerie du Baudet du Poitou in France this summer and couldn’t resist the temptation to take a detour to the Poitou-Charentes region - home of the Poitou donkey - to find out more about this rare breed. With the help of my travel companion, we navigated our way through endless golden fields of sunflowers, corn and maize to the Pôle Nature de l’Asinerie du Baudet du Poitou – an active stud and conservation centre with various breeding and cultural programmes, now managed jointly by the local General Council and the Poitou Marshlands Inter-Regional Park.
At the centre of this 55 acre site is Tillauderie Farm, a beautiful example of 18th Century Poitou rural architecture. Within its walls, the numerous stables, mating room, laboratory and the blacksmiths forge have much to teach about the history and the folklore surrounding these donkeys who have become a fond symbol of the local region.
In the courtyards of Tillauderie Farm, the Poitou donkeys who are not part of the breeding programme take shelter from the balmy heat and dust under the shade of leafy trees. They play an important part of keeping their non-mechanised agricultural heritage alive, ploughing the fields with some of the traditional ploughs dotted around the farm, or accompanying small groups of visitors for quiet rides or walks down the country lanes carrying picnics in their soft saddle bags.
Further out in the hazy fields thick with the buzzing of cicadas, mares graze peacefully with this year’s foals – it is impossible not to be enamoured by these black, fuzzy, inquisitive creatures with silky noses, thick sturdy legs and ears which seem far too big for their small frames.
The origins of these enigmatic donkeys are vague – and amongst many myths it is said that they were first introduced to France by the Romans. However the earliest actual accounts of this breed can be traced back to 15th Century Iberian Peninsula. Throughout the Middle Ages they became a status symbol for royalty and nobility on account of their size, strength and ability to sire exceptional mules. The Poitou donkeyss and their offspring played an important role in the development of European agriculture, industry and warfare up until World War II, after which their numbers dwindled dramatically when mechanisation replaced draught animals and breeding became obsolete.
By 1977 there were only 44 pure-bred Poitou donkeys registered, 24 of which belonged to the owner of Tillauderie Farm Madamoiselle Suzanne Auger, who galvanised her passion for donkeys to deploy major resources and funding to establish a breeding programme [known today as SABAUD] to safeguard the Poitou from extinction.
In the 1980s our Founder, the late Elisabeth Svendsen, and The Donkey Sanctuary played its own vital role in the SABAUD project by establishing its own short-term breeding programme. Thanks to this collaborative work, the breed is now considered reasonably secure.
Today we can all venture to Slade House Farm (the heart of The Donkey Sanctuary) to enjoy the company of the Poitou donkeys, including Noah and Junior, the biggest of the gentle giants; the tranquil Aramis and D’Artagnan who can be seen billowing in the breeze in the Flagpole Fields; Gavroche, the newest arrival to the herd, and of course the ever amusing Barney - often found at the Buffalo Barn gates eagerly awaiting his dinner (he's not a Pouitou donkey but a donkey with attitude who keeps the gentle giants in place!).