For most visitors to Dorset, donkeys are seen on Weymouth beach, where children have a heavenly time riding them up and down the sands. But hidden in away in the hills, far from the tourist trail, is a secret haven for these lovely animals…
In the Dorset hills, near the source of the River Axe, there’s a hidden treasure in the local countryside.
Axnoller Farm is a haven set in just under a hundred and fifty acres of rolling pastures, a few miles from the small town of Beaminster. This is an area of stunning natural beauty, where otters and water voles have recently returned to the river and sheep graze the hillsides.
Bridleways and public footpaths crisscross the landscape, but none of them allow access to this particular farm. That’s because living contentedly in these fields are a handful of uniquely dedicated humans, a group of about fifty ponies and mules, and no fewer than three hundred and sixteen rescue donkeys.
Axnoller Farm is one of several farms that make up the famous Donkey Sanctuary, whose main home is in Sidmouth, just over the county border in East Devon.
The sanctuary’s founder, Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, began keeping donkeys in the late 1960s, but her life changed after seeing ‘seven small terrified donkeys’ crammed into a pen at Exeter market. She tried without success to buy the one in the worst condition, and from that day on made it her mission to rescue donkeys in distress.
Dr Svendsen’s life took a remarkable twist in 1974, when she discovered that a stranger had left her a legacy of… two hundred and four donkeys! The stipulation was that she should take as many as she could, while the rest would be shot. Being a determined woman, Dr Svendsen found a way to accommodate the animals on a large scale, and the Donkey Sanctuary has grown ever since, rescuing over 15,500 donkeys from around the UK and Europe. It also works to promote better treatment of working animals worldwide, from providing welfare guidelines for the donkey rides of Weymouth to campaigning to ban international trading in skins.
Dr Svendsen died in 2011 at the age of 81, but her legacy very much lives on, not least in Axnoller Farm.
A secret haven
Andy Cockburn, the sanctuary manager at Axnoller, is in his ninth year working there. He used to breed racehorses and he says that in caring for animals he’s found his vocation.
A hundred and sixty of the donkeys in his care are the ones he describes as ‘young, fit and healthy’ — others are elderly and need more special attention. ‘Just like people,’ he says, the older donkeys start to find their teeth falling out and they get arthritic. Those senior donkeys are looked after with special food when they can no longer chew on straw.
New arrivals at the centre come mainly from Ireland or from homes in the UK where their owners are no longer able to care for them. They spend six weeks being checked over at the sanctuary’s main base before being brought to the farm, where they spend a further fortnight getting used to their new home.
Axnoller is a secret haven for donkeys, but for one special week a year there is an amazing chance for people to get a glimpse of their life on the farm…
One special week…
Each year during International Donkey Week in May, Axnoller allows a limited number of visitors to see behind the scenes. The popular week sees many visitors returning year after year to spend time with the animals; walks and tractor rides are laid on for guests.
People who live nearby can get involved with the farm as “quality time volunteers” — though some regular volunteers love the time they spend with the donkeys so much, they come from much further afield.
Andy Cockburn says ‘we actively encourage people to come and spend time cuddling and grooming the donkeys. The donkeys get a tremendous amount of pleasure out of that.’ He says that the time the volunteers give up is really valuable to the sanctuary too.
And the benefits go both ways: across the country, the Donkey Sanctuary organises Donkey Assisted Therapy for children and adults with special needs or medical conditions such as dementia. The children who get to meet the donkeys enjoy fun, grow in confidence and gain a sense of achievement — adults too have magical moments as they experience the calm enjoyment of stroking or grooming a donkey.
Andy Cockburn says his job can be 24/7, but he still loves it. ‘It’s very rewarding at the end of the day to know that we are caring for these animals that would otherwise be abandoned.’
So from the sandy beaches of Weymouth and Bournemouth to the rolling hills of Axnoller, it seems that Dorset really is a kind of heaven – for donkeys and donkey-lovers alike.
You can find out more about the rare chance to visit Dorset’s Axnoller Farm during International Donkey Week 2017 (2-9 May here.)
And you can visit the main farm at Sidmouth all year round, and help the Donkey Sanctuary continue their amazing work, at www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk
Image top: Matt Austin for The Donkey Sanctuary