Poitou Donkeys - The Hairy Ones
The Poitou donkey, like the Andalusian ass, is a large donkey. Male donkeys are usually called jacks and females jennies but with the Poitou, the males are called baudets and the females annesses.
Baudets stand between 14 and 15 hands high with the anesses about a hand (4 inches) shorter.
The Poitou is from the Poitou region of France, some 300 miles south-west of Paris. The Poitou is also known as the Mammoth Donkey, Poitevin donkey and Baudet de Poitou. It is one of the rarest of the donkey breeds but interest is growing in its preservation. In 1717, it was described as being as tall as large mules, with strong, well-boned legs and joints and long hair which completely covered the animal.
The origins of the Poitou are not clear. Before the time of mechanisation of agricultural machinery, the Poitou was highly regarded for the production of mules. It was crossed with the Poitevin heavy horse breed to produce strong, quality mules. The Poitevin horse was also known as the 'Mulassiere' which means 'mule-breeder'. The Mulassiere is now rare too. At one time up to 30,000 mules per year came out of the Poitou region. The mules were valued for the part they played in agriculture, industry and in the army. The Poitou was important in the economy of French agriculture with many countries importing the Poitou for the purpose of breeding mules.
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The Poitou can not be confused with other donkeys as its long, matted coat hangs in shaggy hanks like dreadlocks. It is also much bigger than most domestic donkeys. It has a sociable, affectionate and docile temperament.
Once the Second World War was over, donkey and mule power became virtually redundant as mechanisation took over. Recorded numbers in 1977 showed twelve baudets and thirteen anesses. There were only seven registrations made and only a few dedicated breeds left. To add to the falling numbers, fertility was very low with 70% of jennies failing to conceive or aborting - and 1/3 of the foals were stillborn. If the Poitou was not to become extinct, something needed to be done. Various interested parties formed SABAUD. The aims of the association were to open a studbook, establish an experimental breeding unit, preserve the existing records and attract the support of the public. Although numbers are still extremely low, it would seem the breed will not become extinct just yet.
Poitous were trialled as mounts for RDA units in England at the Elisabeth Svendsen Trust for Children and Donkeys at Sidmouth. Being larger, it was thought the Poitou would be a suitable mount for heavier children. However, the Poitou is subject to congenital spine and hip weaknesses which made it unsuitable. The bone structure of the legs also made the animal too weak for the work required.
The Poitou has a large head, large ears and large joints. Breeders believed these qualities were necessary to produce strong mules. The ears may be so large that they are carried horizontally. The donkeys are black or brown and do not have the cross over the shoulders and back. The underparts are grey and the nose is white. The longish head has white eye rings. The neck is strong and the back long and flat with a short croup. The Poitou has the largest feet of any donkey breed.
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The coat is long and soft. If not kept brushed, the coat becomes matted and tangled, hanging down in long cords or 'cadanettes'. In days gone by, animals with extensive cadanettes were much treasured. Nowadays the Poitou is more likely to be clipped for ease of maintenance and for hygienic purposes. Those that aren't clipped are said to be 'bourailloux'. The gene for the shaggy coat is very dominant. Animals of only 1/8 Poitou blood will have a coat the equal of a purebred.
In 2001, artificial insemination resulted in the birth of a strong healthy jenny in Australia. Frozen semen has been used successfully in Vermont and there have been successful breeding programmes in France and the USA.
It is to be hoped that the unusual Poitou continues to thrive.