August 16th, 2019
Donkey rides on the beach were once as characteristic of a seaside holiday as fish and chips and ice cream, but after a lull in popularity beach donkeys are making a comeback along the Welsh coast. Join us as we meet some colourful characters!
“I can talk about donkeys all day” laughs Louise Peeters warmly, as I admire firstly her handsome beach donkeys and secondly her sandy “office”, which boasts stunning views across the Dyfi estuary to the emerald clear waters of Cardigan Bay.
There aren’t many professions that count coming to the beach on summer days as work, but for Louise and her herd of six donkeys, the beach at Aberdyfi has been their much loved workplace since 2006.
Life’s a Beach
Donkey rides along golden sands were once a cherished holiday pastime for tourists to seaside resorts and colourfully adorned donkeys piggy-backing small children up and down beaches were a common sight. Sometime during the seventies however, beach donkeys fell out of favour and were often branded as cruel and neglectful.
“Oh yes”, agrees Louise, “I think that attitude came about when package holidays became popular. There were far fewer people on holiday at British resorts and so less business for the beach donkeys; the owners perhaps found the upkeep and maintenance costs difficult and I think the condition and health of donkeys suffered. People started to see straggly and sad looking donkeys on the beach and thought it was a bit of a no-no.”
But, with the help of the Donkey Sanctuary – Britain’s largest charitable organisation for donkeys – and with care and attention from dedicated owners like Louise, the profile of British beach donkeys has been lifted firmly out of the “cruelty” headlines and donkeys are now regaining their status as one of the most popular seaside attractions.
No Batteries Required
In a computerised, digital and downloadable age, it’s easy to see why donkey rides are the perfect escape for children and a fabulous blast from the past for their parents and grandparents.
“Gosh yes,” Louise nods animatedly, “beach donkeys are incredibly popular at the moment. I think there are a couple of reasons really. Mainly because it’s something that’s very innocent and very natural; there are no batteries or sitting in front of a screen and the kids can get really involved.”
“And also, people just love donkeys. There’s just something about them; they’re so calm and docile and they love company. They absolutely revel in being made a fuss of by kids, which is fantastic because lots of children never get many opportunities these days to get anywhere near an animal like a donkey.”
Donkeys are naturally gregarious, intelligent and sociable animals, and Louise’s herd are no different. She has six donkeys in all, with different characteristics and quirky traits. Del-Boy is naturally confident, Joey is the shy one who likes to stay in the background and Mosses is the clever one who can open gates and untie ropes.
“Donkeys are much more intelligent than most people think”, Louise tells me animatedly. “They are very measured and intuitive, and real characters with an innate ability to work things out. If the donkey doesn’t think it’s a good idea, then you either need to convince the donkey that it’s a good idea, or forget it!”
Only two donkeys are taken to the beach each day on rotation because it’s important that they get rest days to relax. Louise’s donkey’s have a purpose built shelter on the dunes behind the beach, so when they’re not busy they can take a break, have a snooze or munch at their hay.
As we approach the shelter, her prize winning donkey Del-Boy saunters over to us and casually sniffs at my sleeve. Louise laughs as I apologise to Del-Boy for not bringing any carrots with me, but she assures me all her donkeys get plenty of treats.
“Of course, their diet is supplemented with treats from children although I always encourage them to bring carrots and apples rather ice creams or chocolates! But he does have a penchant for ginger-nut biscuits.” Louise chuckles as I agree whole-heartedly with Del-Boy’s weakness.
And luckily for Del-Boy a huge basket of the biscuits, as well as some special donkey food and a bucket of carrots were his prizes for winning the Donkey Sanctuary’s prestigious Best Beach Donkey Awards in 2008.
“It was only in my third season on the beach, and I was totally blown away when I had the phone-call to say that we’d won” says Louise. “Del-Boy is such a star; he absolutely loves the attention and always plays to the camera, which is why I call him Donkey-Diva!”
The Donkey Sanctuary agrees that the Working Donkey Awards play a crucial part in encouraging good practise and high welfare standards.
“There are around 1,000 donkeys working on UK beaches, the majority of which are well looked after” says Emma Gill, PR Officer at The Donkey Sanctuary.
“As well as a Code of Practice for Working Donkeys, The Donkey Sanctuary has established a ‘Working Donkey Awards’ scheme. All beach donkey operators are invited to take part, and accolades are awarded to donkey owners who meet or exceed the criteria set out in the Code of Practice relating to their donkeys’ suitability for the job, temperament, general health, tack and turnout and all year-round living conditions” Emma explains.
The awards work to maintain the standards of welfare for beach donkeys, promote the role of working donkeys in the UK, and reassure the general public that these donkeys are being well looked after, both in and out of season.
Looking after a herd of six lively donkeys is no easy task, but Louise takes it all in her stride. As well as the daily feeding and cleaning routine for Del-Boy, Moses, Muffin, Twister, Joey and Spot, they all need to be brushed and their hooves cleaned and dried out regularly to avoid the rotting and bacterial infections that can blight donkeys if they aren’t properly cared for.
In the winter all of Louise’s donkeys have lots of rest and relaxation time, and they live with Louise on a small-holding just outside Aberdyfi where they can roam, explore and graze on lots of woodland and rough pasture, which donkeys adore.
They have become minor celebrities amongst local residents and regular visitors because they can be spotted in the fields and woodlands from the main-line train that travels along the coast between Machynlleth and Barmouth.
“My donkeys are definitely free range” laughs Louise as Del-Boy nuzzles against her arm. “We try to give them as natural an environment as possible during the winter months so they roam freely through our woodland and fields. They can give people quite a surprise if a donkey pops out from behind a tree as they’re wandering down the lane!”
This year has been a sad year for one of Louise’s donkeys as it was time to hang up his beach saddle. At 19 years old, Spot is Louise’s oldest donkey, and as he was beginning to find daily life at the beach tough going, he was given retirement earlier this year.
“It was really sad”, says Louise tells me, “and all the children keep asking me where he is! He’s kept for special occasions and he’ll just do birthday parties or events now, because they aren’t too much hard work.”
Just as I wonder where donkeys go to retire, Louise tells me about The Donkey Sanctuary scheme for older donkeys.
“A lot of beach donkeys do end up at The Sanctuary because they have a policy that they will never refuse a home to a donkey in need. But, my donkeys won’t go anywhere. Spot will stay here for as long as he lives. They are family as far as I’m concerned and I couldn’t bear them to go anywhere else. They’re here for life!” Louise says, with a huge smile to match Del-Boy’s cheeky grin.
Louise and her donkeys are at Aberdyfi beach from Easter to the end of September – daily during any school holidays and bank holidays, and at weekends the remainder of the time.
They are also available for educational events, parties, weddings and fetes.
You can also catch beach donkeys at Benllech (Anglesey), Barmouth, Llandudno and Rhyl.