The donkey has performed many roles: carrying Jesus, giving seaside rides to children and being the butt of many jokes over thousands of years of domestication. Now an unfamiliar job can be added to the list: ecosystem engineer.
The hard-working animals will help re-establish one of Britain’s rarest wild flowers by trampling over specially seeded plots.
Meer as 20,000 seeds of the small-flowered catchfly have been sown on farmland at the Devon headquarters of the Donkey Sanctuary, the international animal welfare charity.
The sowing is part of the Colour in the Margins project led by the charity Plantlife seeking to restore rare arable plants such as the small-flowered catchfly, which has vanished from about 70% of its former range.
The seeds, which have been sown alongside other wild flowers and grains, will also help provide food for threatened birds such as the linnet, yellowhammer and skylark, which have been recorded at the sanctuary.
If they germinate successfully this summer, the Donkey Sanctuary will host a trial next spring to discover if donkeys can assist the germination process by walking across specially seeded plots, a technique known as “treading in”.
Ruth Angell, the ecology and conservation manager at the Donkey Sanctuary, gesê: “Increasing biodiversity is essential for an enriched and resilient environment which can support rare species as well as our resident herds of donkeys.
“It is important to us that our donkeys benefit from different types of activities and experiences. Our donkeys will be able to enjoy a walk with our grooms and benefit from one to one time while they walk over the plots.”
Other animals including wild horses en cattle are widely used as “conservation managers”, with their trampling and grazing helping wild plants to flourish and flower. Tamworth pigs have also proved extremely useful in “ploughing” wild turf with their snouts and making space for annual wildflowers to germinate at the rewilded farm of Knepp in West Sussex.
Cath Shellswell at Plantlife said: “We’re incredibly grateful to partners like the Donkey Sanctuary who are helping these fantastically rare wild flowers come back from the brink of extinction by giving them a helping hand in one of their original regional strongholds. We look forward to seeing small-flowered catchfly return and working with the sanctuary to ensure this tiny plant has a thriving future.”