As part of my working region as a donkey welfare advisor in the South Of England I get to see the donkeys on the New Forest. As a National Park the New Forest covers some 48,000 acres of varying terrain and flora and fauna, as well as an interesting variety of wildlife and free roaming animals. As well as the numerous ponies, sheep, pigs and cattle this distinctive area is also home to some 150 donkeys and mules. Going back to Medieval times those with “Commoning Rights” are able to turn animals out onto the Forest, with the proviso that they have their own land to allow their animals to return should the need arise.
It is thought that the donkeys have been roaming the Forest since at least the Victorian era. A system is in place whereby Agisters are responsible for overseeing animals on the Forest, and any that are deemed to not be healthy are reported back to their owners by this system and can be removed onto the owners private land at any time.
Donkeys are great browsers as well as grazers. It is very common to see donkeys wandering the small lanes through the Forest with their heads in a hedge as well as grazing the grass at the roadside. This in itself presents potential dangers to them with the risk of road traffic accidents (RTAs). Indeed this has come to the forefront in recent times as a single accident last winter caused the ultimate death of three donkeys in a single hit and run in the early hours of the morning when visibility was reduced. Reflective collars worn on the donkey’s necks are available through The Donkey Sanctuary for any Forest donkey, and for the last few years we have handed out a fair number to help reduce the risk of traffic related accidents. The majority of ponies also wear reflective collars and these are put on at the “Drifts” when the ponies are rounded up for inspection and handling. There are somewhere in the region of 5,000 ponies on the Forest.
The life of a Forest donkey in many ways is a good one. They are free to roam and the donkeys often live in herds which allow them to display many of the natural behaviours they have as herd animals. The food available to them tends not to be of a high quality so they are accessing what is suitable for them. As an effect of this natural life, they tend not to suffer from some of the most common donkey welfare issues we often see today in the UK, i.e. laminitis (a painful and potentially fatal condition of the feet), obesity, and seedy toe (an infection of the inner hoof wall). They also seem to display a healthy natural resistance to parasites and tend to be quite tough and resilient. As is commonly known, donkeys do not like the wet weather. The Forest affords an abundance of natural cover for them, even in the winter. This has been borne out many times over the years when I have visited the Forest in the winter and have been unable to find any donkeys (even though I have learned where donkeys often reside as they are quite territorial).
One aspect of having free roaming donkeys is that they often roam to the strangest of places-Pubs, shops and private houses! Cattle grids tend to stop their access to off limit locations but donkeys at bus stops are not something I had envisaged!
It is worth mentioning that it is not in the donkey’s interests to be fed by tourists! It encourages them to approach cars (increasing the risk of accidents), it interrupts their natural lifestyle and diet and significantly it encourages them to harass unsuspecting members of the public for food!