By yon bonny brays…Donkey Heaven in the Borders

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There were donkeys, donkeys everywhere, and also camelids, pigs, goats, chickens and a pony or two, when The Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells opened its gates for the Borders Festival of the Horse earlier this year. A good thing too; because donkeys deserve their moment in the sun just as much as horses. They’ve played as important a role in human history, although it might have been frequently overshadowed by their larger and faster cousins. In fact, as I was watching the donkeys watch the humans watching them, I knew that I was going to go home afterwards and ransack the bookshelves in search of donkey related material.

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors, you know!

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors.

If you were to travel back in time to the end of the last ice age, wherever you went in the northern hemisphere, including America, you’d find equids of one kind or another – horses, zebras or wild asses – roaming free in enormous numbers. Cross from north America into South America, and you’d find horses there too. They have only been hunted to extinction by humans in those two continents since the end of the ice age. It’s perhaps only 8,000 or 9,000 years since the last truly wild indigenous horse in America fell to a hunter’s spear.

At the end of the ice age, various types of wild ass were found across north Africa and parts of Asia (such as Equus africanus in Africa and Arabia, and Equus hemionus and Equus kiang, both onagers, in Asia). The ass extended its range as far as Nubia and Somalia in east Africa, both of which have – or rather had – their own wild versions. After the ice age, as far as humans were concerned, equids of all kinds meant one thing and one thing only – food on the hoof. Masses of skeletal evidence bear witness to this; and so it could be argued that asses, along with other equids, played a part in the inexorable rise of humans long before they were put into service.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan's monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan’s monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

In fact, for various reasons discussed by Juliette Clutton-Brock, Mary Littauer and Joost Crouwel amongst others, equids were domesticated relatively late in human history. The first animals used for drawing vehicles were bovid – ox-type animals – not equid. When – and where – equids were first domesticated is a contentious point amongst researchers, but the strongest claim for the domestication of the horse is Kazakhstan about 7,000 years ago. This appears to have been for meat, milk and skins, and the concept of riding or driving them came much, much later. What we do know is that Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians started to breed onagers and domesticated donkeys together to produce a larger, stronger and more trainable alternative to bovid draught to use in their massive battle cars around 2,800 BCE. Prior to this, they would certainly have used donkeys as pack animals. Donkeys appear in this role in the tombs of Egyptian officials just a little later in time, from the 5th dynasty onwards (about 2,400 BCE). However, Egypt, or rather Nubia, was almost certainly the first place to domesticate the wild ass.

Sadly, it’s around this date that a recurrent theme in the history of the donkey also emerges. In the tomb of the official Ti at Saqqara, for instance, one man is shown in a scene shouting at a group of donkeys that he is going to “beat you on the bum!” Bullying, threats and beatings have all too often been the patient donkey’s lot in life. Let’s not underestimate the importance of the donkey to the emerging Egyptian pyramid-economy, either; one tomb from the period lists a herd of 2,300 donkeys amongst the owner’s – ahem – assets. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Donkeys still play an important part in the Egyptian economy today. In fact, the history of the donkey and its relationship with humans is important – and clearly one of those neglected areas of  which we need periodic reminders.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called "rulers of foreign lands", and which historians generally call "The Hyksos" arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan. Whilst the Hyksos have come to be associated with the arrival of the horse in Egypt, this is only partly true; the horse is particularly associated with one dynasty of the Hyksos AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most, although not all, equid burials in the delta region of Egypt are of donkeys, which played and still play a vital part in many economies, ancient and modern.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called “rulers of foreign lands”, and which historians generally call “The Hyksos” arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan.  The idea that the Hyksos brought the horse to Egypt is only a partial truth. It’s associated with a particular Hyksos dynasty AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most equid burials in the delta of Egypt from that date are of donkeys which have played a vital role in many economies, ancient and modern.

People have come to associate the Hyksos, often described as “invaders” of Egypt, with the arrival of the horse there. In fact, the horse only came to be associated with a particular dynasty of the Hyksos once they were established in Egypt; and the earliest images of the “Hyksos” in Egypt, from Beni Hassan, show a group of people looking very much like economic migrants arriving with – a donkey.

Whereas the horse is frequently described as “noble”, “spirited”, “powerful” and so on, the donkey has always had to make do with more humble epithets – of which “humble” is used most often. Humble, stubborn, lowly, lazy – the donkey, like the mule, has tended to attract negativity from those who view the horse as obviously superior. But donkeys can often do what horses can’t – and they can do much of what horses do, more cheaply and with less fuss. Encountering a donkey, such as those at the sanctuary, reveals them to be creatures with immense patience and affection; and, strangely given the nature of their interactions with humans over the millennia, they have great curiosity in us and what we do. Stubbornness and difficulty in most equids is a consequence of the need to assert their strong sense of self-preservation.

I'm all ears!

I’m all ears!

The word “ass” betrays its Latin origins – asinus.  Where does the word donkey, in use from the 18th century onwards, come from? Anthony Dent, in his book “Donkey: the Story of the Ass from East to West” speculates that it’s from the Flemish “donnekijn”, meaning “a small, dun-coloured animal”; the same language probably gave us “monkey”, as used for the capuchin ape, from the Flemish “monnekin” or little monk. Originally, donkey would have been pronounced in the same way as monkey – dunkey. In ancient Egypt, however, just as the cat took its name from the noise it made – “miu” – donkeys were called something like “ee-aas”, as they still are in France, to which every child can still relate. Hee-haw, ee-aw, hi-han; unmistakeably the sound of the donkey.  And Doris Rybot suggests in her book “My Kingdom for a Donkey” that “moke”, for a donkey, might be from the Dymoke family crest, which sports a pair of donkey ears. It’s not entirely clear which came first, though – the donkey-moke or the Dy-moke. In Northumberland, Durham and parts of the Borders they are known as cuddies, after Saint Cuthbert. They get a passing defamatory reference – are you surprised? – in the Geordie anthem “Blaydon Races”, in which 19th century bookmaker Coffee Johnnie is accused of stealing white donkeys to make a hat from their skins: “Coffee Johnnie had a white hat on – they yelled ‘Wha’ stole the cuddy?'” This was a notorious trade, as the remark suggests. In other parts of Britain the question “Who stole the donkey?” would inevitably receive the reply “The man with the white hat.”

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

The donkey appears in many legends, reaching his finest hour in Christian belief with the Nativity and the humbleness – humility again – of the ox and ass. A donkey is supposed to have carried the holy family into Egypt. Also, there’s the arrival in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, with Jesus riding on a donkey, although it’s not actually entirely clear in all English versions that a donkey – as distinct from a horse – was intended. However, that, in Christian tradition, is why many donkeys have a cross formed from a dorsal stripe and lines going down over their shoulders. Scientifically, however, it’s likely that it simply indicates their descent from the Nubian wild ass which has similar markings, suggesting that upper Egypt is the likeliest place for the earliest domestication of asses. Darker strands run through the mythology of the donkey, with a possible association with the Egyptian god Set, or Sutekh, and his link to the forces of chaos. Anthony Dent mentions the use of the donkey as an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish symbol in graffiti from Roman contexts. And of course, there’s G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem “The Donkey” with its cutting description of the donkey as “the devil’s walking parody on all four-footed things”: “When fishes flew and forests walked/and figs grew upon thorn/one moment when the moon was blood/then surely I was born.” Then there’s Midas, with the ears of an ass; not to mention infamous Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In fact, the more you examine the history of the donkey, the more you find projections of human fears and foibles onto this unsuspecting animal.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses,  need regular treatment.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses, need regular treatment.

Mini-moke...miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

Mini-moke…miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

The sanctuary at St Boswells is also called Donkey Heaven, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful, sheltered paddocks offer a safe haven away from those human fears and foibles. Sadly, abuse and neglect still play a part in donkey rescue, but that’s not the whole story.  When people buy a donkey they might simply find they’ve taken on more than they realised; or as they age or their needs change, the responsibility becomes too much for them. Keeping a donkey is no less expensive or time-consuming than keeping a horse or pony. They need time, attention, footcare, dentistry and veterinary treatment as required. During the course of the day, we are educated in the grooming and coat care required for a donkey as well as watching the sanctuary vets at work on an elderly donkey’s teeth. With over 70 donkeys currently in the sanctuary, there’s a lot of teeth and feet to look after.  Donkeys are affectionate and need companionship and specialised winter care, too, as unlike that of the horse, the ancestor of the domesticated donkey did not come from a continental climate zone with extremes of cold and heat. Whilst they have adapted to other climates, their bodies were originally intended to cope with hot, dry conditions.

To find out more about the Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary, visit http://www.donkeyheaven.org/ and for more information about donkeys in general, http://www.donkeybreedsociety.co.uk/

Donkey heaven.

Donkey heaven.

Advertisements

Timbah! Forestry offers working horses room for growth

It's no teddy bear's picnic down in the woods; it's a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s no teddy bear’s picnic down in the woods; it’s a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s a gloomy and slightly wet day in the Borders, but the new leaves and grass are glowing with an intensity that is only seen in spring. Despite the weather, people and trailers are gathering in a small car park over the road from the impressive new visitor centre at Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott. We’re here for a demonstration of horse logging, organised by the British Horse Loggers for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There goes one fast pony!

There goes one fast pony!

Timber extraction by horses is an unusual phenomenon: a growth area for working horses offering opportunities for new businesses. Forestry is an important activity throughout the Borders, and on both sides of the border. Mostly it’s carried out by extremely large machinery. Areas are clear-felled by harvesters and the timber stacked by forwarders. It’s then transported for various industrial and commercial uses and the ground is picked clean of the remnants (the brash) and eventually replanted. This works well for quick-growing conifers but when it comes to sensitive or protected areas of forest, horses can’t be beaten, as both Iain Laidlaw of the Forestry Commission and Robert Gray, the Woodland Manager for Abbotsford agree.

“Modern horse logging is often a viable option for timber harvesting. Rising fuel costs for mechanised transport are helping to make bio-fuelled horses even more competitive,” says Iain. Robert agrees, commenting that “We are keen to try horses rather than machines for timber harvesting on what is a fairly sensitive site. Whilst it may be slightly more expensive than the most efficient modern machines, we think it would be worth paying a premium to minimise disturbance, for example around streams, footpaths and roadside verges. We are aiming to make the woods more attractive by selectively thinning out some of the trees and we hope to make a small profit from the sale of timber to a local sawmill.”

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she's soon in the swing of it.

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she’s soon in the swing of it.

Nor is a mighty heavy horse necessarily required. All the horses working today are 15 hh or under. Scout, a blue roan coloured horse owned by Danny McNeil, is 22 and about to retire. Danny’s new mare, 9 year old Katie, is just learning the ropes. “It’s only her second time in the woods,” explains Danny. He goes on to tell us that she was nervous and inexperienced when he acquired her. She’s clearly a little uncertain at the start, but by the end of the afternoon has settled into the working routine and even looks as though she’s enjoying herself.  Danny is involved in conventional forestry using large harvesters as well as using horses so he can provide a range of  flexible options suited to individual needs.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin Erskine is moving logs of trimmed timber quickly and efficiently into place with her pony Angel, whilst her father Rab stacks it neatly. Angel is just 14.2 hh and she is fast. It’s pretty hard to get an action shot of her as she nips competently through the leaves and under the boughs of trees. All the horses in use today wear open bridles. It might seem logical to provide some cover for their eyes against the whipping branches, but in fact it makes more sense to give the horses the freedom to make their own judgements once they’ve learned the ropes. It’s not a job where horses can be micromanaged all the time. They need to work as part of a team.

Caitlin and Angel have really grown up together since the mare joined the family when they were both quite young. Angel is a good all-rounder, her owner advises me, having tried a bit of everything from cross-country to dressage before starting in forestry work two years ago. Caitlin has nothing but praise for the good reliable type of cob that Angel represents, especially having also had experience of high-maintenance thoroughbreds.

Julian Philipson, treasurer of the British Horse Loggers Association, is quick to comment when I tell him I’m doing a piece for my web site on the event.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

“History on Horseback? We don’t want any of that history and heritage stuff,” he warns me sternly. “This is about what’s happening NOW and the economic contribution that horses can make in the future. And horses work alongside the most modern forestry equipment.”

“Quite right too,” I respond. “I’m all in favour of that – it’s not just about what horses have done for us, it’s what they can do for us – what we can do together.”

“That’s all right then,” he says, going on to explain the finer details of the specialist harness in use today. “You see the collars? They are made to an Amish design and much of the rest is Swedish in origin. Can you see the wooden peg there? That will provide a quick release if the horse gets into trouble or falls down in the woods.”

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

I observe the collars closely, as they are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Amish are members of a chiefly north American religious and social community which has never moved beyond horse traction. This unbroken tradition, and their adherence to traditional pre-mechanised farming methods, clothing and so on, is seen as odd by many but is in fact an invaluable resource and example for those who wish to return to equine power. Sweden is another source for experience, knowledge and equipment in this field.

DSCF3311Gratifyingly, there’s a good turnout today despite the weather, and, perhaps amongst the visitors watching the horses at work under the dripping leaves, there’ll be someone who will seriously consider horse logging as a business option. The British Horse Loggers organisation is not just an industry support group; under the patronage of Prince Charles, it’s also a charitable organisation via its trust which has been set up to encourage and assist in training “new growth” for the future. It’s important that apprentices learn to do the job the right way and have a good understanding of health and safety principles. As well as working with timber, horses can be used very effectively in bracken and weed control as well as many other areas of general transport in forestry.

Most horse loggers are private contractors although some are on semi-permanent contracts to major landowners and estates. “It is the ultimate low impact extraction system and out performs all other small scale systems including quad bikes and mini forwarders,” maintain the British Horse Loggers. “Horse logging allows for a highly selective silvicultural management of our woodlands resulting in a quality of woodland management and care that cannot be equalled by any other system.”

And, of course, there’s always public interest and appeal in watching horses at work. The PR aspects though, are definitely secondary to the practical and economic ones; and it’s encouraging and exciting to think that this is one area where working horses might genuinely make a major return.

To find out more about forestry work using horses, contact The British Horseloggers via their web sites, http://www.britishhorseloggers.org or http://www.britishhorseloggerscharitabletrust.org

To discuss forestry requirements in Borders region and northern England, visit the Erskine’s web site http://www.homestead-horselogging-company.co.uk or telephone Danny MacNeil on 01830 520457 & 07774 616576.