Donkeys Matter: The story behind the garden

Discover why donkeys are the unlikely stars of the Chelsea Flower Show in 2019

Donkeys at The Donkey Sanctuary by Matt Austin
From Shrek’s partner in crime to Winnie the Pooh’s downcast friend, donkeys play a big part in our culture as loveable characters. To many of us in the UK, our interaction with donkeys may come from visiting The Donkey Sanctuary at one of their six locations around the country or possibly owning one as a pet.

But, for many of the 44 million donkeys around the world, this couldn’t be further from reality. This year an Artisan Garden, sponsored by The Donkey Sanctuary, will demonstrate how owning a donkey means access to clean, fresh water for some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world.    

A garden inspired by equines

The Donkey Sanctuary: Donkeys Matter artworkThe garden, designed by Annie Prebensen and Christina Williams, comes as The Donkey Sanctuary celebrates its 50th birthday in 2019. Over the last five decades, the charity has grown from a charity rescuing UK donkeys from neglect and abuse to an international welfare organisation transforming the lives of millions of donkeys and mules, and the people who depend on them for a living.

“We received a very generous donation from one of our supporters and it was their idea for us to have a garden at Chelsea,” says Dawn Vincent, Head of Communications at The Donkey Sanctuary. “It’s not something we’ve done before, but we’re really excited.”

The garden, called The Donkey Sanctuary: Donkeys Matter, will depict the environments where donkeys work collecting water for whole communities. A donkey will often collect 40-60 litres of water at one time. The simple act of a donkey carrying water reduces the time required to access it, freeing children to get an education and women to be economically active.

“I went on a trip to Ethiopia and this personal experience has been a big point of inspiration for the garden,” explains Dawn. “I was in a remote village where the watering point was about 5km away. People would walk their donkeys to the water to help them carry it back to the village.” 

Working donkeys in Ethiopia by The Donkey SanctuaryThis story is common throughout the world in many of the countries that The Donkey Sanctuary works in, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Somaliland and beyond. After hearing Dawn’s experience, it wasn’t too long before designers Annie and Christina came up with a plan for their Chelsea garden.

“A donkey can often be the difference between access to clean water and not,” explains Annie. “We wanted to show this in the garden and are planning to have a path that leads from a well, representing the path that donkeys provide to clean water.”

As the path progresses throughout the garden, the landscape gradually becomes drier, higher and more arid.

“We want the top of the garden to reflect the landscapes where cars can’t reach, but donkeys can,” explains Annie. “The planting gradually becomes sparser as the height of the garden increases. It’s also very topical, given the changing weather conditions, as the plants we include in the garden could be grown in the UK as it gets drier.”

Why help donkeys?

Annie Prebensen and Christina Williams with a donkey
It’s hoped that the garden will help to raise awareness of the plight facing donkeys today.

“Donkeys are up against a multitude of problems,” explains Dawn. “In the UK, we work to rescue neglected donkeys and support owners that are struggling to care for their animals.

“Abroad, people rely on donkey power for work, food and water and getting to places where vehicles can’t – they’re literally the white van of the world. Donkeys aren’t just pets or the comical, stubborn creatures they’re painted to be – they’re really hard working and very important.”

The Donkey Sanctuary supports owners by teaching them the best practices for caring for their animals to ensure they can continue to thrive and support their families.

Two donkeys in a field, image by The Donkey Sanctuary
“We’re working our socks off to help donkeys,” says Dawn. “But we can’t do it alone. We rely so much on our supporters. Chelsea is going to give us a platform to talk about the work that we do to a different audience who might not necessarily know what we do.”

“I really hope that the garden makes people stop and pause,” adds Annie. “Donkeys are close to both mine and Christina's hearts. We were both involved with donkeys as children - I had one called Eeyore.

"They're really very important animals and I hope the garden makes people think. Because, really, who doesn’t love a donkey?”


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