Offering your donkeys access to safe trees and shrubs is a great way of supplementing their diet with fibre as well as providing mental stimulation.
Donkeys (like other equines) are mixed feeders, meaning that they will browse for tasty leaves and branches in trees, shrubs and hedgerows as well as graze. You may also find that giving your donkeys some fresh branches to chew on helps stop them chewing your fences and stables.
Branches and small logs
These can be cut and placed (with bark and leaves on) in the enclosure. As with any new toy/boredom breaker the novelty can wear off so branches are best removed and replaced once the donkeys have stripped them. Care should be taken when introducing anything new to your donkeys and this is no exception. Just introduce one log to start with giving them time to get used to it and ensure no fighting over the new branch. If there is, simply provide another log to avoid confrontations.
Recommended tree and shrub species:
- Sweet briar rose or rosa rugosa
- Willow (limited quantities).
Access to hedgerows or cut branches provides not only a source of food but also mental stimulation as the donkeys indulge in a more natural style of feeding. Taking time to select, grasp and chew their food is the opposite to 'bolting' a meal in a bucket and means more time spent in the pleasant occupation of foraging every day.
The forage tree
If resources allow, you may like to go one step further and consider planting donkey-friendly shrubs and trees to create hedgerow browsing areas. The concept of providing trees as a food source or 'forage tree' has been used with other livestock, but is fairly new to donkeys, mules, horses and ponies. More commonly donkey owners will be familiar with the fact that their donkeys love browsing the hedgerow. Thick hedging and overhead trees can also provide a degree of shelter from the sun and wind, although due to the low levels of grease in a donkey's coat they should never be left out in wet weather without a field shelter.
We are not really sure what it is about browsing a hedgerow that really gets donkeys going, whether it is the different eating heights, the choice of new shoots or woody branches or the variety of tastes and textures.
Benefits of forage trees and shrubs:
- Variety of diet
- Variety of feeding heights
- Provision of macro (particularly fibre) and micronutrients (dependent upon species)
- Shelter from the weather
- Conservation of soil
- Natural habitat for wildlife
- Mental stimulation
- Natural feeding system.
Planning and planting
Planting or re-establishing a hedgerow can take some time. Young plants will need to be protected until their roots are established, and may take up to five years to grow into a recognisable hedge. It is always advisable to plant more than is necessary as some younger plants will die or be eaten by wildlife. If you are thinking of establishing a new hedgerow, contact your local tree warden via the local council as they will be able to advise you on suitable species for your area and may even have funding available. Autumn is generally the best time of year for undertaking this sort of project.
Faster growing shrubs such as gorse and heather may be used to plant up a corner of a paddock to provide some variation to diet and environment. Donkeys are perfectly able to browse gorse, avoiding the spiky spines and instead stripping the branches and eating the leaves and flowers.
Trees and hedgerows are a natural part of our rural landscape and home to a multitude of wildlife including birds, small mammals and invertebrates. Hedgerows have been reintroduced over the last decade or so into our agricultural landscapes as their value in providing 'wildlife corridors' has been recognised. Their deep root systems, and mulch from fallen leaves is also important in preserving the landscape and preventing soil erosion.
By giving donkeys the fibre that they crave and keeping them busy for hours searching for it, you will not only benefit their health by minimising inappropriate feeding but also their state of mind by keeping boredom at bay and providing an enrichment environment.
Poisonous plants and trees
Free choice access to hedgerows or forage trees needs to be carefully considered and all plants identified before introducing your animals to any new grazing or woodland area. If you cannot identify the species yourself, we recommend contacting a specialist to be sure. Avoid allowing donkeys to consume any plant that you cannot positively identify as safe to avoid poisonous plants and trees.
Trees that bear berries/fruit may need to be restricted in the autumn as your donkeys are at risk of colic if they gorge themselves on an abundance of fruit. Stoned fruit such as plums, cherries and apricots should not be fed as there is not only an increased risk of choking but also the stones contain toxic substances.
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