Here we are in the New Forest in Hampshire, in the south of England, on a last-minute weekend escape to the countryside from bustling Brighton and hectic London. The fact that I know there are donkeys here has absolutely nothing to do with it…
I really didn’t plan this too well, and we don’t even make it to the known donkey hotspots, but we come across these guys and sweep into the car park. We seem to arrive at nap time…
The New Forest is a unique landscape made up of over 200 square miles of ancient woodland, lowland heaths and grassland, and more than 40 miles of coastline. The region is known for its forest trails, rare wildlife and free-roaming animals. A working forest, the area is looked after by local residents, known as commoners.
Commoners own land and property in and around the forest which comes with a range of special privileges attached, including the right to graze stock on the open forest. The tradition dates back hundreds of years since before the time of King William 1st, who claimed the forest as a royal hunting ground in around 1079.
Unlike the native New Forest Ponies, donkeys in the New Forest aren’t a special breed. However, they have made themselves well and truly at home, roaming free and enjoying unlimited access to their favourite hedgerows, trees and bushes all year round.
Along with the ponies, cattle, deer, pigs and other animals, their browsing and grazing keep the area from getting overgrown.
Donkeys in the New Forest are not wild, but nor are they tame. If you waltz up to them clutching bags of carrots and apples, expect to be chased all the way back to your car and possibly helped inside! There are instances of unsuspecting visitors, including young children, being pushed, bitten or kicked. You have been warned!
This is my friend Madeline (long-suffering and resigned to the fact that wherever we go there are donkeys involved). We hadn’t read the small print about not approaching the animals, and we managed to sneak a few strokes and scratches. Luckily we were also disorganised enough not to have any food with us.
Wild or not, New Forest donkeys are regulars at pubs and tea rooms in the area and have even been spotted in the vegetable aisle of the local supermarket. Despite their wholesome and varied natural diet, they are not above swiping your lunch, and while it might be tempting to let them scoff a few chips, or finish off your friend’s entire meal while they’re in the loo, remember that human food can be dangerous for donkeys, so resist the urge to share!
Copyright 2019 Amy Swift