Outdoors: When Welkin went on holiday

There were strange happenings down in the farmyard, as Duff Hart- Davis observed, when a visiting donkey met a trio of camelids

Welkin has a large and (for a donkey) very handsome head, but I fear that not much of it is occupied by brains. His behaviour may be marginally less idiotic than it was when we first knew him five years ago, but he still has a phenomenal capacity for making an ass of himself.

We bought him from a shady dealer near Swindon when he was two years old, and found that he was exceedingly nervous, as if he had been knocked about. We did what we could to build up his confidence, and then sold him to a friend who wanted a companion for her own jenny, Hannah. She - the new owner - lavished such affection on Welkin that he became much calmer.

Now the pair of donkeys visit us for regular holidays, often staying for several weeks - and this time, when they arrived in February, it was touching to see how pleased they were to find themselves back in familiar surroundings, with a couple of horses for company and carrots for tea. Hannah is always welcome because, although lacking Welkin's looks, she has such an engaging personality. Apart from anything else she makes an excellent alarm-clock, since she blasts the farmyard with an ear-splitting roar at precisely 6.55 every morning. Her one serious drawback is that she is the Houdini of the donkey world, able to unpick the latch or bolt on almost any stable door.

What Welkin did not immediately realise was that since his last sojourn his territory had been invaded by strangers, in the form of our alpacas Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego. When he did find out that the field was inhabited by furry monsters, he went ballistic.

If you are a donkey, and feel the need to demonstrate outrage, you have to make certain preparations. One is to stick your tail straight out behind you in a horizontal bar; another is to flick your ears back and forward like range-finders; another is to raise your nose high in the air, roll back your upper lip and start braying as though the world is about to end.

Welkin went through this routine in a couple of seconds. As he wound himself up, I could see him thinking, "What in the name of creation are these?" Then, suitably adjusted, and roaring like a demon, he launched a charge at the intruders.

Never mind that, with his head tilted back at a crazy angle, he could hardly see where he was going: in a few strides he was travelling at maximum velocity. For a moment the alpacas watched him superciliously. Then the sight and sound of the supersonic donkey became too much, and they also took off.

Camelids are extremely agile. Sideways jumps are part of their daily repertoire, and they can turn on a fivepenny piece. When Welkin bore down on them, all three took a sudden jink to their right, which left him motoring hard into the distance, pulling two or three g in a right-handed turn. Having at last scorched to a halt, he adjusted his sights and put in another rush, still bellowing, only to hit empty space once again.

Half a dozen repetitions brought him, if not to his senses, at least to a state of temporary exhaustion. He pulled up with flanks heaving and a bemused expression on his face, while the alpacas took stock of the situation from the safety of an overgrown hedge.

Thereafter his charges became increasingly half-hearted; everybody gradually settled down, and now the two species take each other for granted.

After four months in residence, the alpacas themselves have adapted well to life in the Cotswolds. They have overcome their phobia about chickens, which they thought exceedingly dangerous when they arrived, and they have grown tremendous fleeces, so long that their wool undulates in the wind.

Abednego - he of the black cap and white-tipped ears - is the tamest, and will take food from your hand; but all three remain cautious about approaching human beings, and stick close together, especially if worried. When the hunt came past the other day, and hounds gave tongue in the wood on the escarpment, the three alpacas formed up in characteristic defensive formation, facing outwards in a little star, backsides together.

The man who sold them to us claimed that they make good anti-fox guards. At the time I thought he was pulling a fast one - but now I believe he was right. One afternoon towards dusk my wife saw the alpacas deliberately harassing a fox which had emerged from the wood on its evening round: they chased it down the field to the point where the footpath goes over a stile - and it was just the fox's bad luck that it then met a man walking his dog in the opposite direction.

Certainly we have lost no chickens to foxes since the alpacas joined up - and now their vigilance has become all the more important, as we have just taken delivery of a Brahma cockerel and three hens. These birds, being heavily built and rather statuesque, would be sitting targets for Reynard if some other species were not keeping a lookout on their behalf. Welkin, we know, doesn't give a damn for foxes - so it is up to our biblical trio to act as early-warning radar.

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