Don’t like donkeys? Blame the Romans!

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Welcome to Animal Magic – a series of fortnightly columns where we take an in-depth look at some of Tilgate Nature Centre’s popular, and less well-known animal residents.

For our final column of 2013 we’re taking a look at our pair of reliable donkeys – a species that plays a special role in the nativity story.

Donkey (Equus asinus)

Roman introduction

Donkeys are members of the horse family and domesticated descendents of the wild asses of North Africa and Asia. The species has been domesticated for at least 4,000 years, they arrived in the UK with the Romans and have been a common countryside sight ever since.

While in many countries donkeys are still important as ‘beasts of burden’, most British donkeys are kept as pets, in nature centres like ours and there are still some seaside towns where you can have a donkey ride.

Jimmy and Nipper

Donkeys are generally quiet animals but they’re well known for their loud braying call, they’re also hardy animals with a life expectancy of over 40 not unusual. Male donkeys are known as jacks while females are called jennys.

We have two jack donkeys on loan from a local farm. Nipper, who was born in 2000, is an unusual white colour while four year old Jimmy is a more traditional brown.

As a youngster, Jimmy is very playful and one of his favourite pastimes is to annoy the more reserved Nipper.

Caring for donkeys

Our donkeys spend much of the year grazing out in the paddocks during the day before returning to the Walled Garden in the evening.

Unlike horses, donkeys will eat from trees as well as the grass and food we provide.

Their wild ancestors were used to dry desert conditions and as a result donkeys don’t have waterproof coats – this means they really dislike wet weather! At this time of year they will be mostly kept in the warm, dry comfort of the stables.

Every six weeks a farrier visits Jimmy and Nipper to check their feet, they also get regular vaccinations and worming treatments so they are kept happy and healthy.


Many nativity plays this month will include the role of the donkey in the story of Jesus’ birth.

The donkey features in the nativity story as the animal that carried Jesus’ mother Mary on her journey from Nazareth to his birthplace in Bethlehem.

We are open every day apart from Christmas Day, so come along to visit Jimmy, Nipper and our other animal residents! Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!




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