When Santa visits Swanage Pier in the run-up to Christmas, he will have some help from his four legged friends – but perhaps not the ones everyone will be expecting.
While Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and the rest of Santa’s reindeer rest up for the big night ahead, Charlie, Danny and Dermot the Christmas donkeys from Kelly’s Donkeys will be around to charm the children instead at the pier on Saturday 17th December 2022
Swanage Pier at Christmas will welcome Santa and his donkey helpers
Fond memories of rides on Swanage beach
Their presence on the pier may bring back fond childhood memories of donkey rides on Swanage beach for many adults of a certain age, but this time around visitors will just get to pet them and take photos
These donkeys are stars of stage, screen and many a Nativity play, and come from a five star residence in Somerset where they live a life of luxury in purpose built stables.
As they are mostly rescue donkeys it seems only fitting that they have found their happy ever after – but adoptive donkey mum Kelly Baker has also found them a new purpose in life too.
The donkeys love meeting excited children every Christmas
Five star licence for the donkeys and stables
While some of the donkeys meet and greet guests at their new stables, or give rides at fetes and fairs, others go on the road all over the south of England to do therapy work with special needs children, hospices and care homes.
Kelly, who bought her first donkey Danny as a companion for her retired pony Sam, found herself buying others as companions for Danny when Sam died of old age – then when she started to rescue animals, somehow found herself with 22 donkeys to care for.
But the cost of looking after each of them runs to about £3,000 a donkey every year for farrier and vet bills, hay, straw and feed and stabling, and that doesn’t include transport, insurance, staff and emergency costs.
When new, stringent animal licensing laws came into force in England in 2018, Kelly went the extra mile to make sure that her business was the proud holder of a brand new five star licence for her donkeys and stables, the highest rating available.
The donkeys also visit care homes as part of therapy work
Animal welfare is most important part of business
“Animal welfare is, and always has been, the most important part of the business and I was actually very pleased when the government introduced the new strict laws.
“There are people who don’t think that donkeys should be giving rides or going into schools and care homes to meet people, so it is good that we can show off our five-star ratings and people can see how well our animals are cared for.
“They have access to the best equine vets, farriers, dentists and equine chiropractors in the business and funds are always available to take in and rehabilitate rescue animals.
“Some will never do more than allow the odd guest here to stroke them, but others have the right temperaments to do rehab and therapy work with special educational needs children or the elderly in care homes.
“They are all trained thoroughly, and go out with more experienced donkeys to learn from them, and when you see the difference they make to some of the most vulnerable in society, it is a magical moment.”
TV presenter Dame Esther Rantzen filming with Kelly’s donkeys
TV appearance on Strictly Come Dancing
Kelly has been involved with horses her whole life and has previously worked at the Diamond Centre for Disabled Riders and was manager of Horse-ology, a centre for people with special needs before setting up Kelly’s Donkeys in 2019.
The highest standards of welfare and training for the donkeys means that they are also in demand from TV, film and theatre and have worked alongside Ricky Gervais on This Morning and Jeremy Vine on Strictly Come Dancing.
Other TV shows they have worked on include ITV drama Stella, BBC sitcom Citizen Khan, miniseries Summer of Rockets with Keeley Hawes and CBeebies programme Show Me.
December will be the busiest month of the year for Kelly’s Donkeys as the animals head for Swanage Pier as well as countless other Christmas fairs and Nativity plays, but like many other places, Covid and lockdown could have ended the wonderful work they do.
Welfare standards are always given top priority for the donkeys
Covid cancelled 95 percent of work in 2020
“We had an incredibly tough year in 2020 and 2021 wasn’t much better, as 95 percent of our work was cancelled and we lost our Easter, summer and the majority of our Christmas seasons.
“We did encourage people to visit the donkeys at our home stables as restrictions were eased, but numbers were very limited due to the pandemic but our expenses did not drop.
“We started an Adopt A Donkey scheme to help us fund the donkeys’ upkeep while allowing the public to support the animals and get something back in return – a cuddly donkey, an adoption certificate and regular updates letting them know what their donkey has been getting up to.
“It has been a roller coaster ride for the last few years, but we hope that when people in Swanage get to meet our donkeys they will understand why we feel our work is so important.”
Swanage Beach around 1912 with donkey rides (far right)
Donkeys on the beach since Victorian times
Donkey rides on the beach have been a traditional part of seaside holidays since Victorian times, including in the past at Swanage, where a donkey named Jack in the 1950s used to give children rides alongside two ponies.
Weston-super-Mare in Somerset has continually had donkeys on the beach in summer since 1886, and before that, donkeys were working animals on beaches in the cockle picking industry.
The donkeys enjoy another Christmas outing
- Father Christmas will be on Swanage Pier for 11 dates between Saturday 10th and Friday 23rd December, and his donkey helpers will be with him on Saturday 17th December from 11 am to 4 pm. To book a visit to see Santa go to the Swanage Pier website:
- Take a virtual visit to the five star donkey hotel at Kelly’s Donkeys website: