'Donkey work' boosts wildflower growth at sanctuary

Donkeys Kelley and Paddy being walked through the wildflower meadow last summer

Donkeys Kelley and Paddy being walked through the wildflower meadow last summer - Credit: The Donkey Sanctuary

A wildflower meadow at The Donkey Sanctuary is flourishing this year after some ‘donkey work’ by the charity’s conservation team. 

At the end of last summer they walked two donkeys through the meadow in the hope that their footfall would knock seeds from wildflowers, help push seeds into the soil and create good conditions for germination in the spring. 

Now they are seeing an increase in both numbers and species of wildflower. The conservation team and volunteers, who have been managing the meadow for a few years, have counted record numbers of bee orchids and common spotted orchids, while southern marsh orchid and ragged robin are now blooming there for the first time. 

Bee orchids in flower at The Donkey Sanctuary

Bee orchids in flower at The Donkey Sanctuary - Credit: Simon Horn

Other factors could be involved, but the walk-through by donkeys Paddy and Kelley may have helped boost the wildflower growth.  

The sanctuary is exploring various ways in which donkeys can help manage habitats, and in turn benefit from living in an enriched environment.   

Donkeys graze species-rich grassland at two sanctuary sites in East Devon, which again has resulted in an increase in the presence and diversity of wildflowers. Foraging in this type of habitat also benefits the donkeys nutritionally and enables them to express a wider range of behaviours, which is important for their welfare and wellbeing.   

Alongside the role of the donkeys in managing grassland, volunteers work with the conservation team to manage areas at several sanctuary sites in ways that encourage wildlife and increase biodiversity.   

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For example, low-impact methods such as traditional scythes have been used to cut grass and bracken, causing far less disturbance than modern machinery would.  

At the main visitor site at Sidmouth the sanctuary’s maintenance team have revised their mowing schedules and work hard to encourage wildflowers to thrive along the miles of memorial walkways across the site.  

Native grasses and wildflowers provide food, shelter and breeding sites to a wide range of insects, including the common carder bee and hoverflies as well as small skipper, marbled white and common blue butterflies.  

Insects are essential food for threatened farmland birds such as skylarks and linnets, as well as bats including the brown long-eared bat, greater horseshoe bat and serotine, all of which are regularly recorded at the sanctuary.