The Poitou donkey breed originates from the Poitou region of France, about 300 miles south-west of Paris, and has a thick, matted and tangled coat.
The adult male Poitou is called a baudet (pronounced 'bo-day') and stands at 142-152 cm, while the Poitou mare is called an ânesse and is about one hand lower.
For hundreds of years the Poitou was bred solely to be used in mule breeding, an activity that made an important contribution to the French agricultural economy and earned the Poitou a worldwide reputation. The Poitou was exported to many countries, including America, Russia, the Belgian Congo and North Africa, and the army bought large numbers of mules.
Going into decline
By 1950 there was little demand for the Poitou, either in France or abroad. The mule could not compete with the tractor and the lorry, and mule breeding stopped providing a living for the breeder. The effect on the Poitou was catastrophic. Some breeders sold or killed their herds. There was little point in registering the birth of foals or the fact that animals had been sold. The Poitou donkey had become an endangered species.
In 1977 results of research into the breeding of the Poitou donkey were published. The statistics revealed that in the old province of Poitou, the recorded number of baudets (stallions) between 1949-1977 had fallen from 218 to 12 and the number of ânesses (mares) had fallen from 340 to 13. During the same period, the number of studbook registrations had dropped from 125 to 7. There was also concern regarding fertility as in 73% of recorded services, the ânesse either did not hold or aborted, and of the foals which were born, one third were dead.
SABAUD - Save the baudet
With fewer animals surviving, the problems of the breed became more acute. A programme to save the breed from extinction was agreed between the regional Parc Naturel, breeders, national studs, research scientists and local authorities. A census was taken of all Poitou donkeys and a studbook was opened with sections for pure-breds and part-breds. An experimental breeding unit was set up to improve the breed and breeding methods, and it was agreed to trace and preserve the old archives and to attract public attention and support.
The plight of the Poitou was brought to our attention and in 1986 we joined la SABAUD to save the Poitou donkey. The sanctuary's help included research into genetic blood grouping of all known Poitou donkeys, artificial insemination and advice and help to the French breeders on modern techniques and stable management. The first step was to identify each donkey by electronic marking, which we funded. A team visited studs and advised on health care and general management. Dr Svendsen, Founder of the sanctuary, attended and judged one of the annual Poitou shows.
In 1988 our sister charity (now merged into The Donkey Sanctuary), the Elisabeth Svendsen Trust for Children and Donkeys (EST), brought three pure-bred Poitous to England so that they could be closely observed - a three year old male called Torrent and two ânesses called Jonquille and Amanda.
Our Poitou group
Since 1988 two pure-breds have been born at the sanctuary, Danielle and Iolanthe, and 15 part-bred Poitous. It was hoped that, due to their size and strength, they would be able to give rides to larger and older children at the EST centre here at Sidmouth. However, the Trustees of EST requested a trial by vets at a local college, and their report was definite in that they felt the bone structure of the donkeys' legs were not strong enough to cope with working as we had planned. It also appears that Poitou donkeys are prone to congenital weakness of the spine and hips. As the donkeys proved unsuitable for EST's purpose, they were given to the sanctuary where they will remain for the rest of their natural lives.
We also have two males and one female part-bred Poitou donkeys that were relinquished to the Sanctuary, as sadly their owner was moving abroad.
However, as the Sanctuary has a no breeding policy, no more breeding will be undertaken.
A census of the pure-bred Poitou donkey population that had been scattered throughout Europe was carried out between 1992-1994. A committee of representatives of the National Studs, la SABAUD, the Breeders Union Stud Book and Park Naturel took this census. It showed that the young and growing population of pure-bred Poitous was three times greater than that of 15 years earlier. In 1995 there were over 200 Poitou donkeys. The gender ratio of the breed was equal.
Only 20 years ago the Poitou donkey faced extinction. Thanks to the resolve of local and national associations to meet this challenge, to support received from other regions in France and from abroad, and finally to the policy of la SABAUD and the dedication of its officers, this ancient breed has been saved.
Our group of Poitou donkeys can be seen here at the sanctuary all year round at Little Buffalo Barn, which is on Walk C. Alternatively check out the gentle giants on our special Poitou webcam.