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Location map:
Location Map casons Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

Donkeys

Formerly the backbone of St Helena transport

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Observe the ass, for instance: his character is about perfect, he is the choicest spirit among all the humbler animals, yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt.
Mark Twain

For many years before the arrival of the motor car donkeysequus africanus asinus were the mainstay of St Helena transport.

This page is in indexes: Island Activity, Island Nature, Island Detail

Group of donkeys in the field at Casons Saint Helena Island Info

Below: HistoryThe Present DayDonkey FactsMeet a donkey!A New Beginning?‘You have donkeys; why not horses?’Read More

History

Two donkey keepers photographed in 1968 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

Donkeys in Narra Backs 1941 Saint Helena Island Info
Donkeys in Narra Backs, 1941
Donkeys at work in Jamestown in the 1950s Saint Helena Island Info
Donkeys at work in Jamestown, in the 1950s{4}

The Records for 17th November 1709 include a report from Governor Roberts that ‘ass negroes’ (i.e. Donkeys) were to be brought to St Helena for carrying goods. This seems to be the first report of Donkeys being used on St Helena (prior to which goods were, presumably, carried by slaves). The Records for November 1715 report the presence of ‘12 Asses’.

Donkeys were also used to power the Ladder Hill Railway. 119 are known to have been imported in 1901, to provide extra load-carrying capacity because of the need to supply the Boer PoW camps.

Nobody knows exactly how many there were in their heyday (or should that be ‘hay day’?). The Records for December 1851 give a number of 400, and for April 1881 as 922. By April 1901 it was down to 774 but in April 1911 it was up to 1,149 and to 1,161 in September 1955, declining thereafter.

Donkeys show up in many of the earliest pictures of the island and continue to appear well into the 1970s. They were extensively used in the Flax Industry.

Donkeys did, however, cause a problem early in the 20th Century. Apparently the number of free-roaming stallions was causing a problem (particularly to the owners of mares!) and it was also felt that the breed could be improved by selecting only the best stallions and castrating the rest. The result was the ‘Stallion Donkeys Ordinance’ of 1904, requiring castration of any Stallion not selected for breeding by a Board of Inspectors. Around 250 Stallions were castrated with only 12 being certified for breeding. In the 1905 ‘Blue BookGovernor Gallwey reported that The illfeeling, which was so prevalent formerly, caused by neighbours’ stallion donkeys fighting and killing each other, no longer exists and mare donkeys, which were formerly chased by stallions all over the hill sides, now have the quiet time.

In the 1927 ‘Blue Book’ we read Donkeys will never be displaced in any economic scheme in St Helena.

Undated Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Undated{1}

Jamestown 1941 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Jamestown, 1941

Jamestown 1947 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Jamestown, 1947{2}{a}

‘Gollie’ & family Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
‘Gollie’ & family{b}

Market Street 1962 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Market Street, 1962{b}

Barnes Road 1962 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Barnes Road, 1962{b}

Lower Shy Road 1963 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Lower Shy Road, 1963

Transport Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Transport{1}

June 1970 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
June 1970

The Present Day

There are still a few who prefer donkeys as their means of goods transport, and in country areas it is not yet unknown to meet someone leading a donkey laden with freshly cut vegetation on its way home{5}.

Those donkeys that no longer work a mostly kept in the Casons area, though some feral donkeys have elected to live in the almost appropriate area of Horse Pasture. The donkeys are generally friendly and approachable.

Statistics issued in August 2015 show that the island’s donkey population had fallen from 415 in 1994 to just 37.

Donkeys in Jamestown c.1900 Saint Helena Island Info
Donkeys in Market Street, Jamestown, c.1900 (and a horse!)

Donkey Facts

A pair exchange greetings Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
(At the moonbeamsforall.com Moonbeams Shop opens in a new window or tab Saint Helena Island Info DonkeysMoonbeams Shop you can buy products featuring this image (e.g. keyrings), captioned ‘Not tonight, Josephine’)

Enjoying the early morning sunshine Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Enjoying the early morning sunshine

  • World Donkey Day is celebrated each year on 8th May.

  • The climate on St Helena is not really suitable for donkeys. They prefer a dry climate. Despite this our donkeys regularly live to more than 40 years old.

  • An adult male donkey is called a ‘jack’, a female is a ‘jenny’ and a juvenile is a ‘foal’.

  • Donkeys vary considerably in size, depending on breed and management. The height at the withers ranges from 7.3 hands (79cm) to 15.3 hands (160cm), and the weight from 80kg to 480kg.

  • Donkeys have been the ‘helping hooves’ of humankind for thousands of years and are the original beasts of burden. They remain in that role today in many countries of the world and cope with a wider variety of terrains than horses.

  • Donkeys’ reputation for stubbornness is due to their highly developed sense of self preservation; it is difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it sees as contrary to its own best interest or safety.

  • Donkeys are highly intelligent animals with an incredible memory - they can recognise areas and other donkeys they were with up to 25 years before.

  • Donkeys are not easily startled and have a keen sense of curiosity. They are often kept with horses due to the calming effect they have on nervous horses. If a donkey is introduced to a mare and foal, the foal will often turn to the donkey for support after it has left its mother.

  • Donkeys originate from desert areas of the earth and do not cope well in rich pasture. They utilise 95% of what they eat and their digestive system can break down inedible vegetation and extract moisture from food very efficiently. As a result their manure is not a very good fertilizer for land.

  • Donkeys don’t like the rain and, as their fur is not waterproof, being out in the rain for long periods can damage their health.

  • Donkeys don’t like being kept on their own although a single donkey will live quite happily with goats.

  • Donkeys in a herd will groom each other in the same way as do monkeys and chimps.

  • Donkeys are used as guard animals for cattle, sheep and goats since they have a natural aversion to canines and will chase them away from a flock.

  • There were 100,000 working donkeys in London at one time, including a milking herd.

  • According to folklore, hair from the tail of a donkey can combat whooping cough or scorpion stings, and cutting the hair from the donkey’s cross and putting it in a bag around a child’s neck will prevent fits{6}.

  • Donkeys can live for over 50 years.

  • A donkey is stronger than a horse of the same size.

  • There are about 41 million donkeys worldwide. China has the most with 11 million, followed by Pakistan, Ethiopia and Mexico.

  • The St Helena Donkey Home is on Facebook™ at www.facebook.com/SaintHelenaDonkeyHome.

Donkey Sanctuary Logo Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

More donkey information at The Donkey Sanctuary.

Three donkeys Saint Helena Island Info

Meet a donkey!

Top Twenty things to do Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

Meeting a donkey is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

Top Twenty things to do Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

The donkeys are kept in a field at Casons, on the road to Blue Hill village. You can easily stop by the roadside and if you get out of your car one or more of the donkeys will probably wander up, just in case you have food. You can pet them through the fence, but please don’t feed them or attempt to climb into the field with them, as the wrong diet upsets them and unfamiliar company disturbs them. They wouldn’t intend to hurt you but accidents can happen.

A New Beginning?

In January 2011 the St Helena National Trust announced that nine of the island’s donkeys will now be employed in ‘the old fashioned way’, carrying endemic plants and other equipment up to High Peak and Blue Point as part of the Darwin Project.

Jodie Mills, Darwin Project Manager, said:

For thousands of years donkeys have been the ‘helping hooves’ of humankind and Donkeys have been used on St Helena for centuries to carry wood, flax and feed and it will be great to see them being used for work again and perhaps even for the tourist industry to take picnics on walks.

The Darwin Project’s aims include conserving some of the most precious habitats on the island and establishing a new conservation apprenticeship scheme, running for three years from October 2010.

Donkeys being walked by the National Trust Saint Helena Island Info{c}

‘You have donkeys; why not horses?’

There used to be horses on St Helena. They were the primary means of transport for the upper classes, until they were replaced by motor cars in the 1930s (the first car arrived in 1927). There were even horse races held on Deadwood Plain, starting in the 19th Century and continuing intermittently until the 1920s.

Horse racing on Deadwood Plain 1821 Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys
Horse racing on Deadwood Plain, 1821{3}

Horses are expensive to buy and maintain. There was even a ‘horse tax’ - in 1913 10s(£0.50{7}). So the transport for ordinary people was the donkey.

There were twenty horses recorded in a 1970s animal census, but none remained by 1992. It has been suggested that horses might be restored to St Helena to provide pony trekking for tourists.

Read More

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Article: St Helena through the eyes of…a Donkey Home

From The St Helena Wirebird 29th May 2014{8}

Today we have interviewed Jodie Mills who runs the St Helena Donkey Home; an important conservation effort caring for the donkeys across the island.

Donkeys in their shelter Saint Helena Island Info

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you lived on St Helena for and what is your role at the Donkey home?

I have lived on St Helena for ‘Donkey’s Years’ - well actually no, only three and half years but I couldn’t resist squeezing a donkey pun in somewhere! When I arrived on the Island in my new conservation job my new boss took me on tour and we drove past some donkeys in a field. He said it was such a shame that no one looked after them or used them for work anymore. This got me thinking; I had always wanted a horse when I was younger, now this was my chance to have 13 donkeys instead! So I went to see the government’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department who were over the moon that someone wanted to look after the donkeys and the St Helena Donkey Home was born!

Donkey walking Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

Q: What is the purpose of the Donkey Home?

The purpose of the Donkey Home is to:

  • Promote the welfare and wellbeing of all donkeys on the island by providing them a safe habitat, shelter and regular care.

  • Promote good animal care through training, education and awareness to prevent cruelty and suffering of the Island’s donkeys.

  • Rehabilitate the donkeys back to a working life in a variety of roles; from providing therapy for children, becoming a tourist attraction, to carrying endemic plants through difficult terrain.

We do this by:

  • Raising funds to improve the habitat of the donkeys and buy medical equipment / vet care.

  • Educating the public about how to care for domestic donkeys and those kept as ‘pets’.

  • Taking the donkeys on regular walks to help improve their physical and mental health.

  • Running education programmes for animal care, riding skills and eventually behaviour therapy.

Q: Do you offer any activities for tourists visiting St Helena?

Yes, we have a regular donkey walk every Saturday morning which are very popular with locals and tourists alike and we also offer an eco tour with the donkeys around one of the most scenic areas of the island with tree planting and a picnic carried by the donkeys (and most often shared with the donkeys) thrown in too.

Donkeys waiting by the roadside Saint Helena Island Info

Q: How many donkeys do you now have? Are you expecting any new additions this year?

We currently have 14 donkeys and have just gained two new donkeys, one of which was in a terrible state that had been attacked by biting flies and mynah birds to the point where there was no hair left on her legs. She is now recovering well. The other new addition is a lovely old boy called Prince, probably the oldest donkey on the island - around 40 years old! He struggled a little walking up the hill to his new home but when on the flat he was off like a rocket! We also have two pregnant mares who will be expecting later on in the year. Donkeys are pregnant for a whole year (I have recently had a baby and nine months was enough!) so a long time to wait for new arrivals…

Q: What is the history of donkeys on St Helena?

In the past donkeys were an essential part of Island life; offering loyal service throughout many generations of our history. As ‘helping hooves’ to the islanders, donkeys transported goods and people all around the Island for centuries. They serviced visitors and locals alike, forming the backbone to the successful flax industry of St Helena. After all, a donkey is stronger than a horse of the same size!

However, with the introduction of electricity, cars and the collapse of the flax industry, Donkeys found themselves out of work. Many people no longer wanted or could no longer care for their donkeys and the population plummeted from 1650 at the height of flax industry in the 1960s to just 38 today.

Donkey close-up Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

Q: What is your passion behind caring for donkeys?

I have always loved donkeys and horses and spent many a summer holiday on Scarborough beach nagging my mum for another 50p for a donkey ride. To now have the opportunity to care for 14 donkeys is a real treat for me - I love it.

Q: Is the airport development having an effect on the Donkey Home?

In May 2012 the donkeys on St Helena were in desperate need of a shelter as their paddock often gets very wet in the winter and all the donkeys suffer from seedy toe and thrush in their hooves. That month we happened to have a male donkey in and I named him Basil after the airport contractors Basil Reed. I arranged a meeting with the CEO and said, We’ve had a baby donkey and named him Basil - would you like to build him a shelter?…and they did!!! They did such an amazing job and now all the donkeys can enjoy a cosy nights sleep undercover. I’m just hoping Basil will get an invite to the opening of the airport…

Q: Is the Donkey Home currently fundraising for a cause? How can people get involved with the home from overseas? Can we adopt a donkey?!

The Donkey Home relies on donations, grants and the sale of merchandise. Here’s how you can get involved:

  • Adopt a donkey - for £20 a year you will get regular updates on his/her progress, as you personally contribute to the medication, care and food of the donkey, with opportunities to care for your donkey yourself if you’d like to! When you adopt a donkey you receive a personalised certificate of gratitude, making great gifts for loved ones both overseas and on island!

  • Volunteer? The St Helena Donkey Home needs volunteers with a range of skills; help with running fundraising events, website design, gathering donkey food, maintaining the shelter, transport…you name it, we need it!

  • Leave a legacy

  • Place a collection box in shops/pubs or other public amenities you may own.

  • Purchase donkey merchandise

  • Buy a bag of donkey poop (gift wrap available!)

Closing Humour Saint Helena Island Info Donkeys

Laugh at funny Donkeys humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info


Credits:

{a} Tim Cattley{10}

{b} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{8}.

{c} St Helena National Trust



Footnotes:

{1} Note that adults riding on donkeys is no longer considered advisable, as it can cause spine damage.

{2} Also shows the old Standard building. The building on the far right is now the Bank of St Helena.

{3} Note also the people in Chinese dress (bottom right) - presumably some of the Chinese labourers here in the early 19th Century.

{4} Photograph courtesy of Nick Thorpe.

{5} Keeping a donkey in Jamestown, or bringing one into town, is these days prohibited by Ordinance.

{6} We do not, however, recommend any of these ‘cures’!

{7}

{8} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{9} Now Sure South Atlantic Limited.

{10} Proud to have been ‘island born’ while his father was working here for Cable & Wireless{9}. timcattley@gmail.com.



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