Donkeys are strong and powerful, intelligent and curious, and they have excellent memories. They can remember other donkeys and places for up to 25 years have a reputation for stubbornness which is really unfair. What they actually have is a well developed sense of self preservation. It is difficult to startle or scare a donkey but if you try to force it to do something dangerous it will have good think about it and make a decision based on their assessment of their own safety. If people try to train Donkeys they have to build up a relationship of trust with them. There is a saying ‘Tell a horse… Ask a donkey”.
Originally, thousands and thousands of years ago, donkeys originated in deserts and still their bodies are perfectly suited to these harsh conditions. They can get 95% of the moisture, nutrients and goodness out of the poorest vegetation. This means that their manure is useless as a fertiliser because there is so little goodness wasted in their poo. At Mudchute their diet has to be mostly straw rather than hay which is too rich in nutrients for them to thrive upon.
The long ears of donkeys mean that they can swivel them to catch distant sounds. In the desert they can hear noises 60miles away. Also those long ears help to keep them cool. Their coats have got no waterproofing in them, because they don’t need it in the desert. However this does mean that they hate the rain and getting soggy and wet.
In the wild they are herd animals and can be brave and heroic. They groom each other and work cleverly as a pack to protect each other from natural predators like wolves. There is always a lead donkey who is in charge of the pack and makes decisions for it. But if the pack is attacked it is the lead donkey who will stay behind and lead the predators away from the rest of the herd, so that they will survive even if their leader doesn’t. They are still often used as guard animals to protect sheep or goats because they do not like or trust dog like creatures and will keep them away from their ‘herd’ by rushing forward to meet them. They fight with their hooves and teeth.
Donkeys have been living alongside humans for at least 6000 years and the history of the animal stretches back millions of years.
The Egyptians used them for milk and meat and carrying loads of precious metals across Africa. The Greeks used them to carry loads of grapes between the rows of vines in their vineyards. They carried silk along the Silk Road and used by the Romans throughout their empire, including Britain, as pack animals and agricultural workers.
Throughout centuries they have provided a life line to many families, carrying loads of water, wood land cultivation, transport and other essentials. They are sometimes described as the first town planners because of their way of finding the quickest and easiest but the most safe route through a country side any up and down mountains.
Believe it or not, there are many donkeys in the world who are very badly treated.
The donkeys who live at Mudchute come from a rescue centre. It is very important that they keep working and keep their muscles excersised, because if they just sit around doing nothing then they build up fatty layers around their hearts.
There are around 800 different breeds of cow in the world. The ones at Mudchute are Dexter Cattle which are small and stocky are a rare breed which is surprising because they produce a lot of milk and are apparently good to eat.
The males are called bulls and before they have their first calf the females are called heifers, afterwards they are called cows. They are pregnant for nine months just like humans are and make fantastic mothers.
They are very sociable animals indeed and they only ever chose to be alone if they are unwell or if a female cow is about to calve .They love to solve problems, like opening their food racks to eat up all the straw, or working out how to open gates to get out of their field.
Cows can see about 360 degrees around them, but they can’t see very well just in front of their face, so they have to turn their heads sideways when they want to take a good look at you. And they see in colour and have a most excellent sense of smell which can find an interesting scent up to 6 miles away.
Their worst habit is to use their twenty three centimetre long, bristly, wriggly, strong tongues to pick their noses with.
They spend about 10 hours a day lying down but can quite happily sleep standing up. So that they don’t get cold they have thick skin and hair covering them.
Mostly cows eat grass, but it is best to give them extra nutrients and grains to keep them healthy. They never eat meat and are always vegetarian.
They have about 32 teeth but no top front ones. When they eat grass they grab it with their tongue and cut it against their lower teeth before chewing it up and swallowing it. They chew about 40-50 times a minute for 8 hours a day. Like goats, sheep deer, giraffes and lots of other animals, they are ruminants. This means that they need four stomachs to digest the grass thoroughly and get the goodness from it that they need.
One cow can eat about 40 pounds and drink up a whole bathtub full of water in a day. Because they eat such a lot of grass they munch it up more quickly than it can grow. So sometimes the cattle go away on eating holidays to other farms to graze their fields and give time for fresh new grass to grow on the Mudchute again.
As you pass the field where the llamas live at Mudchute, stop for a moment and watch them. They look so calm, elegant and proud. Try humming softly to yourself and you may see their beautiful long ears swivel around like radar dishes until they catch your sound and pinpoint where you are.
Like all animals that have a language, a communication system that we have managed to understand a little bit of. We know that they signal to each other by wiggling their ears and waggle their tails like semaphore flags.
Their young are called crias – prenounced KREEuh- which is Spanish for ‘baby’ and they chat to them by making humming sounds.
To defend their young, they will stamp and kick out at any creatures trying to attack them. In fact, they are superb nannies and guard creatures and at Mudchute and where ever else they are kept, they will put in the same fields as ewes and lambs, goats and kids to protect them.
They are very clever and can tell a friendly dog from a predictor by sight.
If they get angry or frightened they make a sound like “Mwa’. They are not bitey creatures They have no upper teeth, so that would be difficult but when they are annoyed Or fight with each other, they will spit lots and lots of stomach contents over great distances or stick out their tongues or neck wrestle.
Llamas evolved on the plains of North America 40 million years ago.
Think about that as you look at these incredible animals. You are looking at a creature that has spent 40 million years evolving. Around 3 million years ago, their ancestors relocated to the highlands of South America.
Humans have been living with them for around 6000 years, mostly because we figured out that they are really good at carrying heavy loads for long journeys over rocky paths because they can grip so well with their hooved feet.
They can carry about 25% of their own body weight, but if a human decides to overload them they will refuse to move or lie down until their burden is reduced. This is a really clear way to communicate their thoughts and feelings to humans.
There are other reasons why humans want to live alongside llamas. They have soft undercoat which is light and warm and water repellent that can be worked to knit or weave incredible comfortable garments. Their thicker outer coat is coarser but can be used for making ropes and rugs.
They are also great companions for people because they are vegetarian, so their poo doesn’t smell much and when it is dried out it can be used as fuel for fires.
What noble beasts.