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Sustainable animal agriculture: Five minutes with The Donkey Sanctuary

06 Nov 2019 | Fiona Cooke


Head of Research (Europe) at The Donkey Sanctuary, Fiona Cooke talks about the processes that help them look after both their donkeys and the environment.

A recent IPCC report published by the UN on climate change states that land is a critical resource. As per the BVA sustainable animal agriculture position, there are many ways that agricultural land users and vets can work together to make a positive difference. Media Officer, Charlotte Raynsford talks to Head of Research (Europe) at The Donkey Sanctuary, Fiona Cooke, on the changes they have made to help protect the environment while looking after their donkeys.

What processes or initiatives do you have in place at The Donkey Sanctuary to make your sanctuary more sustainable?


Our veterinary team minimise the use of anthelmintics by working closely with the research team to monitor faecal worm egg counts (FWEC) and only use anthelmintics when there is an evidence base to do so. By this means, we monitor any emerging resistance and have robust measures in place to monitor donkey health, so that we have enabled a higher threshold of FWEC before treatment is initiated. We also advise all donkey guardians to follow evidence based worming advice, and offer free parasite testing for guardian homes at our in-house laboratory. We use sheep to graze pastures and reduce worm transmission, and faeces are collected off pastures.

We minimise antibiotic use by following BEVA guidelines on the use of antimicrobials and use culture and sensitivity to guide responsible use. We use alternatives where possible in wound treatment, for example, manuka honey for wound healing.  

Conservation team

The Donkey Sanctuary have a dedicated Wildlife and Conservation team who work to understand the environment in which our donkeys and mules are living. They explore ways to manage it sustainably to improve its biodiversity, ecosystem services, resilience, and suitability for donkeys and mules, in order to safeguard the resources we need to support our herds and demonstrate best practice now and in the future.

Four of our farms are under an Environmental Stewardship Higher Level Scheme agreement, within which options include restoration of important hedgerows, species-rich grassland, woodland, ponds, and a traditional orchard. We are partners on the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) partnership and work with conservation organisations and projects such as the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat Project, the Harvest Mouse Project, and the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme. Through our conservation programme we carry out habitat management of woodlands, hedgerows, grassland, amenity areas, and water-bodies/courses. This includes invasive species control, hedge planting and laying, hazel coppicing, woodland ride/glade creation, creation of wildflower areas, and nectar-rich plots.

Our conservation team undertakes extensive monitoring of grassland, hedges, and indicator species (birds, butterflies, and bats). Much of our conservation work is supported by volunteers, both through our volunteer programme and external volunteer groups (EuCAN Dorset mid-weekers and Axewoods, a community wood-fuel cooperative).

The conservation team use hand-tools where possible and try to minimise the use of machinery and vehicles to minimise our impact on the land and environment.

Online learning resources

We currently offer a wide variety of information leaflets and videos (for professionals and pet owners) online, which reduce our carbon footprint in sharing information and make it more readily accessible. As we develop further learning resources, this will continue to reduce the need to travel, and also ensure that we can reach as many people as possible to share donkey care, health, and welfare knowledge.

Our award-winning restaurant, The Kitchen, has a commitment to using local and ethically sourced produce, coffee granules are used in our gardens, and we do not use plastic cups or straws, etc.

The Donkey Sanctuary also has a Sustainability Steering Group.

How has this impacted your animals, team, and organisation?

Over the last decade, we have worked in close collaboration with some of the world’s most eminent equine parasitologists on a long-term strategy working towards best practice for control of small strongyles and other endoparasites of welfare concern to donkeys and other equids within our resident herds. The ultimate goal is to manage the parasite population in co-grazed animals with minimal use of anthelmintic drugs, in order to reduce the development rate of anthelmintic resistance and therefore maintain efficacy of drugs for use in animals with clinical diseases caused by endoparasites. 

The Donkey Sanctuary previously relied upon routine monitoring of FWEC data and dosing of individual animals based on FWEC observations above a certain threshold, which offers a major advantage of minimising unnecessary use of anthelmintics by reserving treatment for use with animals that are considered most in need. This system does have its drawbacks though; FWECs can vary, even from the same animal, so this represents an imperfect method of selecting animals and also this method of monitoring/treating is inherently reactive rather than proactive. We wanted to ensure that our parasite management was as sustainable as possible so decided to incorporate additional data from a range of sources (individual-animal risk factors, group management, and climatological factors) along with observed FWEC to make dosing recommendations based on the predicted contribution of each animal to pasture contamination in the immediate future. We now have a more proactive means of preventing high levels of parasite transmission before they occur while also reducing the impact of random variations in observed FWEC by incorporating data from additional sources. We have also carefully considered our reliance on certain anthelmintics to help preserve those with the best efficacy for clinical cases.

From an ectoparasite perspective, we collaborated with Bristol University to develop an essential oil grooming aid spray to help reduce louse burdens and reduce discomfort and irritability. This project and subsequent product development arose from the recognition by The Donkey Sanctuary that the lice in our resident herds were becoming increasingly resistant to pyrethroid insecticides. Not only were the commercial insecticide preparations no longer working effectively, but many are not very environmentally friendly either. ‘Equine NitNat’, an essential oil-based preparation, was developed as a more sustainable lice control option. It is effective against both adult and immature lice, has a low environmental impact and chances of resistance developing are very low due to the diverse chemical composition of essential oils.

Do you work closely with your vets? If so, how do they feed into helping you be more sustainable?

We have a large Veterinary Department who work closely with other departments across the organisation, including the research team, as well as collaborating with external experts and universities internationally. This has led to a number of initiatives such as those described above which positively support The Donkey Sanctuary’s commitment to sustainability.  

What more do you think vets could do to further the sustainability agenda in the UK?

It would be effective practice to reduce plastics in use further. The availability and use of biodegradable synthetics for gloves/rectal gloves, syringes, surgical drapes would contribute towards this. The replacement of vehicles with electric vehicles would be effective where many visits are required.


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