`It really is coming on well and we've had very few people laugh at us'
"Donkeys have a very calming influence. They are all characters and they can assess whether anybody is at a disadvantage." This unlikely statement comes from Penny Scott, co-ordinator of a remarkable centre that is helping people to recover from serious illness.

"For example, we have a gentleman here who has heart problems and we have a particular donkey, Pooh, who is absolutely devoted to him. They go walking and he, the donkey, knows exactly when his friend needs to rest. In the first instance I thought, come on, it's just that the donkey fancies a rest, but that hasn't proven to be the case. I never cease to wonder about that sort of relationship," she says.

This sort of donkey-work may not sound like the best way of coming back from a heart attack, but at the Wharf Meadow Centre in the rural surrounds of Tardebigge, near Redditch, they believe there's nothing better and it has official sanction.

The North Worcestershire Health Authority, which is trying to encourage more drug-free prescriptions, has given a small grant to Wharf Meadow and in November began a 12-month pilot project offering patients two free visits there per week. The authority's assistant district health promotion manager, Susan Bishop-Rowe, says she is happy with the results so far, even if the response has not been overwhelming. "We're pleased that at least some doctors are taking it seriously and taking up the offer," she says.

Therapeutic work with donkeys has been under way for several months at Meadow Wharf, where a dozen patients suffering from coronary heart disease, stress, panic attacks, agoraphobia, strokes and depressive disorders are encouraged - as Dr Dolittle once suggested - to walk with the animals, talk with the animals.

Ms Scott says the centre's philosophy is based on the known therapeutic benefits of close contact with nature. Patients are given three-month sessions of two to three days a week taking the donkeys for a walk, stroking them, working in the stables and even driving behind them in carts.

"It's medically proved that the stroking of small furry animals lowers the blood pressure, and we felt there shouldn't be any difference between a small animal and a donkey," says Ms Scott. "Donkeys can be especially helpful because they are such sensitive creatures. They pick up on moods very quickly and are very loving.

"They do have a certain reputation as fractious animals, but that's unjustified. If they assess you as being hale and hearty they may well have some fun with you or play you up, but if you are ill or disabled they behave perfectly. They will accommodate people with all sorts of problems."

Ms Scott has not found it easy to get this message across to doctors, but she believes medical professionals are generally open minded about the centre's activities and it is now getting a regular trickle of referrals from GPs, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and consultants.

"You have to take it slowly in the hope that they will feel a reasonable amount of confidence in looking at it," she says.

"It really is coming on well and we've had very few people laugh at us."

Isabel Barret, social psychologist with North East Worcestershire Community Healthcare Trust, is another firm believer in its benefits. "Research has shown that the further we get away from the natural world the more uneasy and dysfunctional we can become," she says. "Working with animals in the countryside can put us back in touch with our roots. It re-establishes our discriminatory senses and helps us to become more emotionally stable. And the companionship may help many people with ill health who become lonely."

Wharf Meadow was set up in autumn 1994 with a complement of 13 donkeys and two Shetland ponies on 10 acres of former grazing land bordering the Redditch-Birmingham canal. A relaxing place, it has varying types of terrain - from flat to hilly - which are used for supervised walking, according to a prior assessment of each patient.

At the end of the three-month session there is a further assessment and the option of extending the treatment. "There are no hard and fast rules - it's better to keep things fairly open," says Ms Scott. "We only ask that people come with an open mind. Nobody really knows whether it's going to be the thing for them, but it often is. Nurses or doctors tell the patients just to have a look and see what they think. There mustn't be any form of compulsion."

Penny Scott has been a donkey fan for many years. She first worked with the animals while she was a probation officer at the nearby Hewell Grange borstal, where a sympathetic governor allowed inmates to give therapeutic donkey rides to patients from a local mental hospital. Prisoners from the Blakenhurst prison on the same site now help Meadow Wharf by mending donkey carts.

One success is a hospital referral, a man in his seventies whose speech was badly affected by a stroke. "This gentleman has just passed a British Association of Riding Schools proficiency test in stable management. It has given him back his sense of purpose and his confidence. It is a tremendous achievement," says Ms Scott.