June 11, 2007


Two Poitou donkey foals enjoy a snack.
The news just doesn't get any better for a rare breed of donkeys that grow to be taller than most horses.

A British stud farm dedicated to preserving the rare Poitou donkey has managed to breed four foals within a 20-day period - two colts and two fillies.

Just 44 Poitou donkeys were known to exist in 1976. Their numbers have since increased to an estimated 600 to 800 worldwide.

The four newcomers, Tilda, Tomas, Tarka and Tizer, have proved to be a big hit for Woodford Farm, in Hampshire.

The farm eventually had to put up "no entry" signs after being inundated by members of the public to see the photogenic little newcomers.

"I had loads of people call me or turn up wanting to see the foals," said owner Annie Pollock, who was forced to shut the gates to provide both the foals, their mums, and not to mention all other residents of the farm, some peace.

The mares and their foals also became media darlings, with BBC local and national news services carrying the story.

Annie says the foals have received publicity in the US, Canada, Germany, and France, and probably more more countries.

"I was inundated with photographers, but then started saying no. It was all a bit much."

A children's programme asked her to bring a five-day-old a foal into a London - a request she politely refused.

However, the publicity has had a plus side. "We have had some genuine interest from other people who want to help save the breed," says Annie, "and we have had a short film made about us by the BBC Natural History Department.


Visitors to Woodford Farm get to know a Poitou foal.
"I just want more people to hear about Poitous and hence help save the breed."

The first of the four foals was born on April 27; the other three following over the next 20 days.

The breed is much bigger than conventional donkeys, and can reach 16 hands.

They are believed to date back to Roman times, with the records of the time referring to big donkeys.

"It was the whole industrialisation process that caused their downfall - railways, mechanisation, and a depression in agriculture."

Poitous have a good covering of hair, with heat usually more of a problem than cold.

Life for the Poitous on Woodford Farm would be the envy of many horses. They have shelter from the rain and are fed twice daily, with lots of hay. They are groomed regularly and Annie says the foals get a lot of handling.

"They are very friendly, but can be too pushy," she says. "They love to join in the poo-picking, love a good race about, but sleep for hours as you would expect."

Annie became interested in Poitous when dealing with someone in France over buying a llama.

"I ended up buying two poitous. I'd heard about them as a child, and it had stuck in my brain.

"When I got the two and researched them more, I realised they were still at risk, and decided to help more."

She sourced more stock through a helpful woman in France.

"Finding the two jacks has been the hardest part. Very few are approved for breeding each year and my first one had to be bought on faith. He was totally unproven, without even having had a semen test!

"Luckily everything went OK, but it could have been a very expensive mistake."

There is another reason for the Poitou's rarity.

"This breed was primarily used to breed mules - huge great 17-hand animals which were used for riding or as pack animals. They were crossed with a Mulassier mare, which is like a large, heavyweight French cob.

"They are also very rare, but I don't have space for everything. I would love to breed some of the mules in time though using my two cobs.

"They are a lovely breed - gentle giants. Worth saving? I definitely think so."