10 JULY 1897, Page 13


THE St. James's Gazette thinks that there is a brilliant future before the Irish donkey. He is the future beast of burden of South Africa, where he defies the tsetse-fly in some districts, and is everywhere proof against the climate. English and Dutch dealers have been buying thousands of them for shipment to South Africa, and £5,000 has recently been spent in this way in Clare, Limerick, and Tipperary alone.

Ireland is at present the main home of the donkey in the British Islands. Two hundred thousand are annually thence exported to England. They are small, stunted animals, with plenty of endurance, which the donkey never loses, bat showing all the worst results of neglect in breeding. As this is

the only domestic animal which we have neglected to improve, the results are useful as a scientific example of what happens when domestic animals are "left to themselves." Improved animals, sheep, cattle, or horses down to cats, are full of "excellent differences." Our neglected donkeys, never "bred for points," have sunk to a dead and dull uniformity of colour, size, shape, and even of demeanour. How different from the gay thirteen-hand " station " donkey whom your English host puts at your disposal at Ramleh. He meets you at the station, starts off at full gallop, rushes in at the home-gate, and pulls up unasked at the mounting-block by the house. Next day he meets you there, gallops off to the station, and pulls up at a mounting-block of the same kind under the verandah. Authority states the reign of Elizabeth as the period at which the use of donkeys first became general in England. The fact was observed then, bat their intro- duction was, we imagine, due to the connection with Spain established in the reign of Queen Mary. The Spanish ladies and Spanish priests who visited the Court brought with them their fine donkeys and mules, the proper animals for ladies and ecclesiastics to ride or drive. When the social ascendency of Spanish fashions ended with the accession of Elizabeth, the rigid social lines drawn between the life of men, ladies, and ecclesiastics in Spain, and temporarily intro- duced here, were broken down. One side-feature of this social revolution, and the elimination of what was almost a sumptuary law, was the advance of the horse to the first place for the use of all three "estates," lords, ladies, and bishops, and the total eclipse of the ass. The fine animals kept for the purpose of breeding mules were only mated with other donkeys, for mule-breeding ceased. In the pictures of the procession of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Cardinal Wolsey rides on a mule beside his King. Our donkeys have never recovered from the social results of the Reformation. From that time till the end of the last century the black-coated, full- wigged ecclesiastic on his cob figures in all pictures of equestrian gatherings and State functions, from the carica- tures of Banbury to the Court processions of the Georges. Spenser, with intentional archaism, represents Una riding beside the red-cross knight on a white ass. It is the last poetical tribute to the donkey paid. in the Tudor period, and is more than counterbalanced by the part he plays in Mid- summer Night's Dream. No one who reads the meta- morphosis of Bottom can deny that Shakespeare makes a "true generalisation of character" in this study of the true inwardness of donkeys, and that the poor man's animal of that time must have been already much the same as he is now. There must have been plenty of good male donkeys in the country for mule-breeding, but the stock has never been replenished or improved. They have steadily dwindled in size, until they have reached the limit set by bad food, want of shelter, and neglect in selection, in the tiny, half-wild donkeys of the New Forest. The sole luxury in life which the New Forest donkey enjoys is the privilege of rolling in the dust on the fenceless roads on a hot day. Yet he is not ill-tempered, and will draw a forest cart with a couple of women in it at a trot for four or five miles very comfortably. In Wales the small tenants do improve their donkeys by giving them better food than common, and often make a high price for them. Both in Somersetshire near the coal measures, and in Norfolk by the coast, the animals are in request, and are recognised as a useful help to the poor man; but they are as far removed from the prize sixteen-hand animal of Kentucky agricultural shows as the Shetland pony is from the Shire horse. Donkeys are just the kind of animal which the peasant-proprietor finds useful. A proof of it is seen in the number already reared in Ireland and the surplus available for export. But a little organisation and intelligent direction would increase the size and double the value of the breed. The means by which general improvements of this kind are effected are quite familiar from previous experience. If a twentieth part of the pains taken to improve the stock of Irish horses, disclosed in the recent Commission on Irish horse-breeding, were taken to improve the race of Irish donkeys, the peasant-farmer would have a "second string" available, most valuable when- ever a war or pestilence caused a demand for other than the ordinary transport animals.

The needs of South Africa which have sent buyers to Ire- land are exceptional, and unlikely to recur on such a scale. The rinderpest has destroyed the ox transports, and scarcity of grain has starved the horses. But there are two factors which may always be relied on to make a good donkey worth a good price in Rhodesia. These are "horse sickness" and the tsetse-fly. The astonishing constitution of the donkey makes him less liable to the first, and quite proof against the last of these pests of the new country. As a beast for army transport the donkey is not a mere "emergency" animal. "The establishment of breeding studs, and the greater employment of the donkey as a transport animal, ia well worthy of the attention of the military authorities," writes Major Leonard, after sixteen years' experience as a. transport officer. He finds that used as a pack animal the smallest donkey will carry an average weight of 130 lb., and the larger ones 150 lb. It can be taken through deserts for journeys of from fifty to sixty hours without water, and pick up food on the way. It has no nerves, and therefore is a first-class animal to take ammunition-boxes to the fighting line. It is small, and less likely to be hit by bullets than a horse, and gets over more difficult ground with less leading. One man can drive ten donkeys on the march, and they need little rations, grooming, or protection from cold.

This being the case for the donkey as he is, it is worth while considering the value of the donkey as he might be. We must assume that under no circumstances will the ass ever bring money "for show" or fashion, and that none of the increment which improvers of nearly all breeds of high- class animals may expect from this source may be expected in this case. Solid merit will be the only measure of value. This must be obtained by first forming a clear idea of what the different breeds of donkey are capable of doing, and how far they will suit the wants of particular classes. In Syria, where the animal is at its best, there are four breeds of donkey used for work as distinct as that of the different classes of English horse. There are a large rough donkey, standing thirteen and a half hands high, for drawing carts a heavier kind, used on the farms; a " gentleman's " riding donkey, standing as high as fourteen hands, comfortable to ride and quick ; and a lighter class used for ladies. No one in this country would ride a donkey, except children. His place is in minor traffic here, and for transport by means of packs if exported. The object of the breeder should be to level up the animals all round, just as the standard of Irish cattle has been raised all round. The average draught-power of donkeys could be doubled in four years, and this would represent more than a duplicate value, for the single thirteen-- hand donkey would not eat as much as two of the little under- sized creatures now seen. If anything practical is done in this matter it will some from above, not from the peasants. If the Dublin Agricultural Society, whose splendid Horse Show and fine buildings are one of the best institutions of the kind in the United Kingdom, could be induced to interest themselves, the movement would have the best chance of Meeks& It might be considered infra dig, to include donkeys in the show, but that is only a question of custom, and of the quality of the animals exhibited. In the great agricultural shows of Kentucky one day is always reserved for judging donkeys, and the price of one thousand pounds has been paid. for a donkey sire.