Don’t give up on little donkeys

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
December 2017

Donkeys have long been associated with Christmas, even carrying Mary to Bethlehem in the traditional Nativity story, but Lincolnshire residents Tracy and Steve Garton had no idea the impact these animals would have on their life when they rescued an abandoned mule.
Muffin came to live with the couple back in 1992 and since then they have taken in many more donkeys, who’ve either been abandoned or mistreated in some way. With the help of a team of dedicated volunteers the couple now look after forty-nine donkeys, two horses, two mules, three ponies, two zedonks and a zonkey (both zebra-donkey hybrids) at Radcliffe Donkey Sanctuary, where they also raise the valuable funds needed to keep the facility going.

“I’ve always loved animals, especially horses, but I never particularly wanted a donkey,” says Tracy. “We came across this mule that had been mistreated and decided to rescue him. Well, donkeys are very social creatures and he needed a friend, so then we loaned a beach donkey each winter and things just snowballed from there, people kept contacting us about others which needed taking in and looking after. It all started out by accident really, we never set out to do this, but they are such lovely creatures.”

Tracy and Steve originally started their sanctuary on a rented site at Radcliffe, in Nottinghamshire, but as the facility grew they were unable to buy the extra land they needed to expand it. The local council had also imposed restrictions, which meant they were limited to holding just one fundraising day a year, so in 1999 they relocated over the county border to a derelict farm at Huttoft.

“We were just very limited as to what we could do, so we saw this old farm, there was really nothing there and decided to sell our house and buy this for the donkeys. That’s when the hard work really began,” recalls Tracy.

“There were stables and fencing to be built. Our house was a burnt out wreck, but we decided to concentrate on the stables and get them up for the donkeys first and we endured a bit of rough living for a couple of years.”

Donkeys come to the sanctuary from all over the country and via different means, including RSPCA referrals, phone calls from concerned members of the public and even owners who can no longer look after their animals.

“They have all got their own little story to tell,” says Tracy. “The last two we took in came from Doncaster. A relative of their owner called us, as the man had been in hospital for a couple of months, and the donkeys were not being fed or anything. They were too thin and very weak, barely able to stand, and looking at them we didn’t think they would make it; but they have survived and they are so loving. Another donkey we rescued, called Persil, was kept in a static caravan, that was where he lived all the time and he was not allowed out. He smashed one of the windows and ended up cutting all his face and nose. He’s still got the scars, and that was twenty-one years ago.

“We’ve taken in another that someone thought would be quite alright to have as a garden pet; but donkeys are noisy, they’re very social animals and always shouting for a friend, they don’t want to be on their own. But they come here and we get them on the road to recovery and they have a nice life, seeing out their years being cared for.”

The main problem Tracy says is people do not carry out enough research before getting a donkey and do not realise the work, effort and expense involved in caring for them.

“Many people just don’t realise how much having a donkey can cost,” she says. “Donkeys have the same needs as an expensive racehorse and require the same kind of care – they still need to be wormed for instance. In many cases it’s just ignorance.”

For Tracy and her volunteers raising enough money to keep the sanctuary going is an ongoing project. The donkeys need to be fed, and many of the older ones have special dietary needs, they also need shelter, plus there are also bills from the vets, farrier and dentist. No two years are the same but Tracy estimates it costs around £50,000 per year to keep things going.

“It all depends on what sort of winter we get really. If it’s bad, then costs can be high, especially the vet’s bill. We’ve just spent £2,000 on an operation for one donkey, and another is having ongoing treatment. They’re like people some never see a doctor, and some are always there. It depends if they have had a bad start and need a lot of attention. We don’t get any funding or grants but we do have a fantastic team of volunteers.”

The sanctuary relies completely on donations. It is open to the public at set times, and although there is no admission charge, visitors can make a donation, buy a small bucket of carrots to feed the animals and support its tombola stall. The donkeys can also be sponsored for £20 each, per year. Last year Tracy wrote a book about one of her special rescues – Alan the Christmas Donkey – money from which also goes back to the sanctuary. The paperback version, available from the sanctuary and online, was recently published by Pan.

“Alan came to us in 2009. Just after Christmas we got a phone call to say there was a donkey in a bad way, tied up and left in a car park,” she recalls.

“So we set off to Birmingham – we go all over the country, if a donkey needs us, we go – and we found him emaciated, covered with lice, scars and sores and brought him back. I don’t know why we named him Alan, he just looked like an Alan, but he’s such a character now, he’s one of the naughtiest, but most adorable, donkeys we have. He’s got to be the centre of attention all the time, but people come to see him and the children love him.

“We never set out to do this at all. Sadly, many of the donkeys rescued have been subjected to cruelty, but we’re able to make sure they live comfortably and enjoy the rest of their lives. They’re so grateful and loving and for us that makes it all worthwhile.”

To find out more about Radcliffe Donkey Sanctuary and how to support it visit

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.

YOUR FAVOURITES NEED YOUR VOTE!We need your nominations – Celebrating Lincolnshire’s food, drink and hospitality businesses in our Taste of Excellence Food and Drink Awards 2024. Click here to vote date for nominations 31st August 2024. ... See MoreSee Less