The Donkey Sanctuary is best known for its work caring for donkeys and mules in the UK and internationally. The Sanctuary owns several farms and centres in the UK, providing homes to nearly 3,000 donkeys, including six farms in Devon of which three fall within the Sid Valley.
Donkeys are housed in barns and shelters, and the grassland provides them with summer grazing and haylage for winter forage. Of course, the land not only supports our resident donkeys, it is also home to a wide range of wildlife.
At Slade House Farm (our main visitor site) and neighbouring Trow Farm, there are areas of sown wildflower beds, small orchards, gardens, memorial walkways and verges that are managed, where possible, in ways beneficial to wildlife.
Sanctuary farms are typical Devon farmland, comprising a mosaic of broadleaved woodland, hedgerows, ponds, streams and scrub, amongst donkey pasture and haylage fields. Goyles, boggy and wet grassland are dotted around the Sanctuary landscape too, and some grassland is species-rich.
There are many unique donkey-created microhabitats too – these include patches of bare ground and small hollows created by hooves, and of course, their dung piles! We have recorded bees such as the ashy mining bee using hoof-prints as nesting sites, and scarab beetles and many species of fungi feeding, such as the pleated inkcap, on donkey droppings.
In 2015, the Sanctuary recruited its first wildlife-related role and today it has a small dedicated team of ecologists delivering its conservation programme. The aim of this programme is to improve the Sanctuary’s semi-natural habitats for the benefit of wildlife, donkeys and people. We are exploring sustainable land management approaches to increase biodiversity and make our donkeys’ environment more resilient and enriching. This includes donkeys managing their own environment, because they can do it so well with all kinds of benefits to soil, plants and associated wildlife.
The ecology and conservation team’s work primarily involves donkey land management, wildlife habitat management, and species surveys. Much of our work is supported by a wonderful group of conservation volunteers, who are incredibly generous with their time and energy. We try to offer lots of opportunities to learn new skills, connect with nature, and participate in activities that benefit wildlife and improve habitats. Below are some examples of some of the projects we have been able to achieve with our volunteers’ help.
Over the autumn and winter months, we coppice hazel, create glades and rides, and tackle invasive rhododendron in Sanctuary woodlands. Other tasks include managing encroaching scrub, building leaky dams, planting trees and hedges, and – possibly a favourite amongst the volunteers –hedgelaying.
Hedgerows form an important part of the landscape in Devon, and they provide over 40km of habitat across our Sanctuary sites. Hedgelaying and planting up gaps is an important part of hedgerow care and ensures lots of healthy new growth, increased longevity and a dense bushy structure. These qualities mean a hedge can offer shelter, hibernation and breeding sites, foraging habitat, commuting routes and landscape connectivity to a range of wildlife, which are critical resources for many species of invertebrate, bird, small mammal and bat.
A healthy hedgerow also has properties that are hugely beneficial to donkeys. Bushy and uneven hedges slow the wind and stabilise the temperature and humidity of the pasture, and donkeys often use hedgerows to take shelter or shade from the elements. Donkeys will happily browse on leaves, bark and woody branches, and will nibble and chew even the thorniest and prickliest of species such as bramble, hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse. Having access to a variety of species and browse material means they have the opportunity to express a wider range of foraging behaviour and can make choices about what they eat, as well as gain nutritional benefits.
Our volunteers help us with one of our biggest tasks in the spring, which is preparing and sowing the wildflower areas. We manage several seedbeds that we sow with a range of nectar-rich and grain seed mixes that benefit invertebrates and birds. The wildflower plots are resplendent in the summer months with blooms of cornflowers, corn marigolds, wild carrot, corncockles and wild radish to name but a few, whilst providing a good source of nectar and pollen for a wealth of pollinators. Later in the year, farmland birds such as linnets, yellowhammers and goldfinches are frequently recorded feeding on the bounty of seeds.
In April 2021, we welcomed Hannah Gibbons from the RSPB in her role as project officer for the Plantlife project called ‘Colour in the Margins’, which aimed to support rare arable plants across the country. This was part of the nationwide ‘Back from the Brink’ initiative, which aims to save 20 species from extinction and benefit over 200 more through 19 projects that span England.
Arable wildflowers tend to be rare or declining due to intensified farming, widespread use of herbicides, and changes in agricultural practices. This exciting reintroduction project is one of several attempting to re-establish populations of rare arable plants and boost diversity in farmland.
Hannah helped us sow a rare arable flower called the small-flowered catchfly Silene gallica into cultivated beds at Trow Farm. During the course of the day, our volunteers meticulously sowed over 20,000 seeds!
These wildflower beds at Trow Farm are now one of 50 sites across the country where rare arable wildflowers have been reintroduced over the last three years. In August, Hannah returned to help us survey the small-flowered catchfly. We were excited to see whether any had established and, to everyone’s relief, the team and the volunteers recorded a total of 390 plants. This is comparable to other similar sites across the region, so we were all pleased with that result. In the coming years we will continue to manage these wildflower beds in a way that helps to sustain this new population of small-flowered catchfly together with other wildflowers and the invertebrates and birds which can find food there.
During the summer, grassland management dominates the programme and much scything is carried out. Fortunately, this is another favourite of the volunteers! We use scything to manage long, dense grass and knock back nettle patches, docks and bracken – plants that donkeys are not so keen to nibble and which tend to outcompete other plant species.
Scything is a low impact method of managing our species-rich grasslands and other sensitive habitats. It causes less disturbance to wildlife, does not compact soil or cause soil surface damage that can arise from using machinery. Over time, regular scything will reduce the dominance of vigorous grasses and allow more delicate and less competitive wildflowers to flourish.
Some areas are too large to scythe, and here we ask donkeys to do their bit by grazing them. Donkeys are ideal conservation grazers because they will tackle woody vegetation and coarse grasses, rather than select flowers, as sheep tend to do. Their grazing leaves behind a variable sward and this diverse structure creates lots of different microclimates and ecological niches, which means that a greater diversity of plants can establish. This in turn attracts a greater number and diversity of invertebrates like bumblebees, butterflies, beetles and spiders, which of course benefits the animals further up the food chain such as birds, bats, rodents and insectivores. To top it all off, donkey dung is a highly desirable resource for many invertebrates!
These species-rich grassland habitats are excellent for donkeys because they are adapted to thrive on the high fibre, low nutrient grazing that unimproved grassland offers. They also benefit from the enrichment that foraging amongst the diverse grasses and wildflowers gives them.
An important accompaniment to habitat management is species and habitat monitoring. Surveys of flora, fauna, fungi, habitats and soils not only inform us what wildlife is present at the Sanctuary’s sites, but also what impact our management is having, and how it can be improved.
For the past three years, the team and the conservation volunteers have carried out a suite of surveys at the Sidmouth farms for birds, butterflies and bats, species groups which are recognised indicators of environmental health and habitat quality.
We survey all types of habitat across the farms including those used by donkeys, areas managed for visitors, as well as semi-natural habitats such as woodlands. We have collected over 33,000 records for indicator species alone! We have recorded 23 species of butterfly, at least 11 species of bat including lesser and greater horseshoe bats and barbastelle, and 68 species of birds of which several are Red Listed, including linnet, skylark, cirl bunting and yellowhammer.
The volunteers are particularly eagle-eyed and not only great at spotting species but noticing the details. Every survey we see some delightful sights – be they ‘new’ to the sites we are surveying or observations of interesting behaviour by invertebrates. It isn’t simply recording, we learn an awful lot too about the surrounding wildlife and how it interacts with the environment at The Donkey Sanctuary.
In many cases, the surveys take us through areas where habitat management has taken place. It is deeply rewarding revisiting areas with the volunteers and seeing the positive impacts on the habitats and wildlife (and people!). One great example was walking through the wet grassland of Pig Wood last summer, where scrub had been cleared the previous winter. We recorded the (re)appearance of plants previously stifled such as water forget-me-not and square-stalked St John’s-wort. The swarms of pollinators across the wildflower beds and observing the changes in the new glade in Paccombe Wood bring delight too! We look forward to surveying in the woodland areas freed from the stranglehold of rhododendron over time as well.
We come across many interesting species and recently there have been some fabulous fungi species including several charming waxcaps such as scarlet, crimson, golden, parrot, snowy, blackening, meadow and the rare pink/ballerina waxcap Hygrocybe calyptriformis. The benefits of managing the grassland areas for wildlife as well as for donkeys is proving important to fungal diversity too!
In November, the discovery of the very rare violet coral fungus Clavaria zollingeri at one of our Sidmouth sites was an unexpected delight. The violet coral is nationally scarce and the fungi’s global population is decreasing, giving it a ‘Vulnerable’ status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and Global Fungi Red List.
Conservation has become part of daily life at The Donkey Sanctuary, providing safe and healthy environments for our resident herds and looking after the habitats and wildlife we are fortunate to have on our land. Every day we learn something new or find something to marvel at – from mushrooms popping up out of a donkey dropping, to the satisfaction of a good day of hedgelaying with our super group of volunteers. Donkeys, wildlife, people and the environment we all share are at the centre of everything we do.