Donkeys in Sidmouth could help with the reintroduction of a rare wildflower in a bid to save the species from extinction.
More than 20,000 seeds of the Small-flowered Catchfly have been sown in plots on farmland at the charity’s Sidmouth headquarters, in the hope the plant will establish and thrive.
If the test is a success, and the plant flourishes, The Donkey Sanctuary will consider holding a trial next spring to find out if donkeys can help with the germination process.
If conditions are considered suitable, donkeys will walk over specially-seeded plots, in a process known as ‘treading in’.
It is thought the animals’ footfall could help seeds embed into the ground, potentially helping to boost the chance of successful germination of the wildflower.
The Small-flowered Catchfly seed was sown alongside other wildflowers and grains, to grow food for threatened farmland birds such as the skylark, yellowhammer and linnet, which have been recorded on the site.
The Donkey Sanctuary’s seed sowing is part of environment charity Plantlife’s Colour in the Margins project, which aims to support rare arable plants across the country.
Colour in the Margins is part of the Back from the Brink programme, which aims to save 20 species from extinction and benefit more than 200 more through 19 projects across England.
Ruth Angell, The Donkey Sanctuary ecology and conservation manager, said: “We are really excited about our involvement with the Colour in the Margins project. It is a great example of making best use of available land and finding ways to support a wider range of wildlife species.
“Increasing biodiversity is essential for an enriched and resilient environment which can support rare species as well as our resident herds of donkeys.”
“It is important to us that our donkeys benefit from different types of activities and experiences. Our donkeys will be able to enjoy a walk with our grooms and benefit from one-to-one time while they walk over the plots.
“As well as allowing us to help with this exciting reintroduction programme to see the return of these rare arable plants, our wildflower and grain plots provide a rich nectar and pollen source for invertebrates, as well as seed and insect food for finches and buntings.
“Our team of conservation officers and volunteers work on a range of projects across our sanctuary sites, including woodland, hedge and grassland management to improve habitat for both wildlife and donkeys.”
Cath Shellswell, Plantlife manager for the Colour in the Margins project, said: “We’re incredibly grateful to partners like The Donkey Sanctuary who are helping these fantastically rare wildflowers come back from the brink of extinction by giving them a helping hand in one of their original regional strongholds.
“We look forward to seeing small-flowered catchfly return and working with the sanctuary to ensure this tiny plant has a thriving future.”
James Harding-Morris, Back from the Brink spokesman, said: “Back from the Brink is all about working in partnership to save endangered species and so it is wonderful to see our Plantlife-led Colour in the Margins project and The Donkey Sanctuary working together to make a big difference for the small-flowered catchfly. It shows how every organisation and every individual has the power to make a positive change for our threatened wildlife.”
The wildflower has been reintroduced at a number of sites in Cornwall and Devon as part of the project.