12 December 1997

Ee-ore, ee-ore… hire em for all seasons…

dtsgyeftsdraftsgyebi

Donkeys have ousted the

horses on a Shropshire farm

to the amazement of

everyone except the Mills

family. Tessa Gates went to

Cockshutt to meet the

workers and the

passengers

WHEN you are off to Santas Secret Grotto its as well to look your best but the little donkey foal was not keen to have her feet trimmed and at six months old she had the strength to make her point.

"It is all part of the learning process," says Margaret Mills as she watches her husband Dave and son, Phil, patiently but firmly finish the job while the mare looks on.

"When the foal was born it was cold so she came in for half the night by the Rayburn and ended up with a jumper on watching the telly," says Dave, who would never admit to being soft when it comes to these engaging animals but…

"When he goes to market I say dont bring back anything that eats," laughs his wife, adding that for a farm stocked with working donkeys there are quite a few who do nothing – "passengers", as she calls them. She is more than a little fond of the passengers – like the jenny whose feet were in such a state when she was bought that it will be another six months, if ever, before they are right.

Then there is Snowy, who always looks thin although he eats the best of everything and no illness can be found. "Snowy is a very funny shape and is terrible to put a bridle on but we dont know what has happened to him in the past. Most cruelty or neglect to donkeys happens through ignorance," says Margaret, sadly.

"Donkeys need feeding properly and must have shelter. Their coats are not waterproof like horses. They dont like the cold and wet but they love the sun. They need to be regularly wormed and have their feet looked after just like any stock, but people dont treat them the way they do big showy animals," she says.

"And," she warns, "if you have one donkey you usually end up with more and should make sure they are in your will because they can live to be 50."

On average a donkey will live 30 to 40 years but in Third World countries, where life is hard for man and beast, life expectancy is only six years.

The donkeys have usurped the hunters and carriage horses that used to hold sway at Stonehill Farm. "People are amazed at that, they treat donkeys as second class animals but donkeys have the world worked out far better than horses," she says, adding that you tell a horse what to do but negotiate with a donkey.

&#42 Always kept

Daves father always kept donkeys and the couple started keeping them when they were asked to do donkey rides and had to find some fit donkeys: A task more difficult than it sounds and more expensive, for a working donkey fetches £300-£400 and can be hard to find. The donkeys worked their magic and gradually took over at the farm as the hire business grew. Phil, one of the couples three children, works with his parents.

"They grow on you, like roses," Margaret says fondly, adding that they never say no to a donkey unless it is unreasonably priced. Fortunately the family can call on a very good vet and really poor cases are sent down to the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon, where 7000 animals live the good life.

The foal and mare are off to do a little seasonal work near Wolverhampton where they will be "oohed" and "aahed" over by young visitors to Santas Grotto but not ridden. Many of their counterparts from Stonehill Farm, Cockshutt, Shropshire, are overwintering on other farms for in the summer the Mills family have around 30 donkeys available for hire. They appear at agricultural shows, donkey derbys, carnivals, childrens parties, and at religious festivals. "We bought one little donkey in Lutterworth and the condition of sale was that it was to go back for Palm Sunday. The vicar even came and got him," says Dave.

The donkeys travel to venues all over the country. "If they want our donkeys we will get them there," he says. "Sometimes they want the donkeys and us, sometimes just the donkeys. Often they are there to add atmosphere, perhaps at Mexican or beach party theme nights at pubs, and some have been used for advertising."

&#42 Park attraction

The mare and foal have been an attraction at a farm park during the summer. "They got used to the public and it kept the foal away from other donkeys – foals get knocked about by the geldings," says Margaret. "They cant work until they are four or five years old so these are the learning years.

"Young donkeys need to be trained, the problem is when they get into the wrong hands. It is people who make donkeys naughty. They put a child on a young donkey when they would never think of putting them on a horse of the same age and then get cross at the animals reaction," states Margaret.

Working donkeys bring differing reactions from the public and one bad owner will spoil things for the rest.

"Properly looked after they are capable of a good days work just like a horse and they enjoy it. Some of ours we call volunteers, they are always the first to rush forward when they see you with a bridle," says Margaret.

People love riding them and are not averse to stretching the truth to do so. "The weight limit is eight stone and some pretty big people claim to be this so ours is seven stone to be on the safe side," she says.

"One of our donkeys, Tonto, is a fat boy and while people wont come up to us direct, we hear them saying "Fancy working that poor pregnant donkey." We now put up a notice saying this donkey is not pregnant – he is a gelding."

When the couple sell a donkey it goes with a basic care leaflet and the new owners are encouraged to keep in touch. But before anyone buys a donkey they would do well to think about the cost of keeping one. Margaret gives this advice: "If you cant afford to keep a pony, you cant afford a donkey."

&#8226 Inquiries: (01939-270432)

Dave Mills trims a foals feet in

readiness for a visit to Santas Grotto.

Margaret Mills loves all the donkeys – seen here in their winter coats –

and cant understand them being treated as second class animals.