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The Poitou - The Donkey with Dreadlocks

Sunday, 3 June 2018

A look at the Poitou donkey from South West France. 

Only thirty years ago, less than thirty of these beautiful and friendly animals were left. 

Now, thanks to a conservation programme, it looks as if the dreadlocked donkey is set to stay awhile on Planet Earth.

The beautiful Poitou region of France, three hundred miles south-west of the French capital Paris, has been harboring a secret. Some secrets are dark and deadly: this one, however, is cute and cuddly. The Poitou species of Donkey, as adorable as a donkey can be without being something else entirely, has a remarkable story to tell. As a species it has teetered at the edge of extinction but thanks to some extremely hard work on the part of conservationists, it looks as if its future may be finally assured.

The Poitou comes from the Equus asinus species and is – basically – a donkey with dreadlocks. It looks as if it could have been genetically engineered to satisfy the faddish longings of a billionaire’s daughter but has in fact been living and working in this region of France for hundreds of years. The Poitou was bred exclusively to be used in the breeding of mules (one of the traditional activities of the region) and as such was exported throughout the world in numbers.

It is believed locally that the tradition of mule breeding was introduced in to the region by the Romans, meaning that the Poitou possibly has a lineage of over two thousand years. As the means to producing a mule, it was mated with the Mulassier species of horse to produce about the largest species of mule in Europe. The only other mule near to it in size is the breed from Andalucía.

However, the success story of the Poitou was destined no to last. With the advent of industry and mechanized farming, the call for the Poitou declined and as demand fell, so did the numbers of this amazing looking beast. The species went in to what looked like a terminal decline with many local farmers either selling their herds – fate unknown but use your imagination – or exterminating the animals themselves. The Poitou was, it seemed, history.

Then, in 1977 a survey revealed that there were only twelve stallions (the locals call them baudets) and thirteen mares (likewise, known as anesses) left. If something was not done quickly the Poitou would be no more. Local authorities, keen to retain this unique but vestigial remnant of local history, together with the French National Parks, breeders and scientists, joined together to create a studbook. This would list all known full and part bred examples of the species so that liaisons between stallions and mares could be arranged and – after the donkeys had played their part – the species could be raised almost from the dead.

Thanks to this programme there are now over one hundred Poitous of each gender in their native region alive and well and ready to breed some more. Worldwide there are around a thousand. With resolve and organization the Poitou has shown the rest of the world that highly endangered species can be brought back from the brink. Most prized are the animals with the most distinct dreadlocks – the trademark of the Poitou. The species is gaining popularity because of its highly docile nature. Unlike many species of donkeys, this one is fun loving and is able to form loving relationships with its owners.

True, it is only for the wealthy – each Poitou can cost up to five thousand dollars. And don’t expect to be able to keep one in your back yard, either! The beast can grown up to sixteen hands in height, which is around one and a half meters, making it quite a statuesque example of donkeyness in the donkeyworld!

They need at least an acre each and because they are highly social animals they need the intimate and constant company of their own species so need to be kept in numbers. Do the mathematics and the Poitou will remain a hobby horse for the wealthy and landed. However, their popularity among the rich rock stars turned farmers will hopefully mean they will never again be threatened with disappearance!


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