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Build it and They will Cross (Eventually!)

Another infrastructural leap has occurred here at Quinta da Mizarela! We have built a donkey bridge across the stream so Mingo and Nuno can access all the grass on the other site. But the real breakthrough was getting the donkeys to cross it!

Pete and our volunteers Pavlik and Andy made the bridge and the ramp leading to the bridge from materials here on the quinta. We needed some very strong wood for the actual floor of the bridge so we bought some thick eucalyptus planks for this but other than that the materials were from the land (opps except the nails!).

First order of business was to make the ramp. Huge pieces of slate were used for the sides. They were held upright with wooden poles we had found on the land. Andy applied used motor oil on the poles to keep the insects from eating the wood. Then we needed dirt for the actual ramp. This worked out perfectly as we wanted a pond on the bottom of the land below the yurt. So Andy and Pavlik dug the pond and we used the dirt from the pond for the ramp.


Meanwhile Pete cut some limbs from one of the chestnut trees for the poles that would be the support beams for the bridge. The donkeys happily ate the leaves so everything was used. As Pavlik worked on the ramp, Andy stripped the bark and applied the motor oil to the poles.


The three chestnut poles were placed across the stream, cemented in on both ends and then covered with dirt. The eucalyptus planks were put across the top. Poles were extended up and then branches placed between the poles to create sides so it would add some security for the donkeys when they crossed.


Meanwhile Mingo and Nuno were curiously watching all of this happening. It took about a week or so to do everything so they had time to get used to this new contraption.

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The day finally came when it was time for the donkeys to triumphantly walk over the bridge to the cornucopia of food awaiting them. With high expectations, armed with carrots to coax them along we led them to the ramp. That’s when they saying “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” popped into my head. More accurately for this situation the quote would be more like, “one can lead a donkey to a bridge but you can’t make him cross!”

Nuno flat out refused to even go up the ramp.


Mingo was a little easier but he was very afraid and put up a lot of resistance. He’s a sweetheart and wants to do as we ask so eventually we got him up the ramp and on the bridge. Here is where we made a BIG mistake and where we got VERY lucky!

When we were building the bridge the main concern was to make it strong enough so it would hold the donkey’s weight. What we didn’t think about was how the motor oil that we applied to the eucalyptus planks would make the bridge slippery. This is pretty obvious now but it wasn’t at that time. We were just so happy to have the bridge done.

So when Mingo finally got on the bridge, he was very nervous and he slipped. It was terrifying as he dropped to his knees, he looked so afraid. Thank goodness his front legs were already ¾ of the way to the other side so he was able to lunge to safety. Pete and I felt really bad that we had not foreseen this, he trusted us and we had put him in danger.

So now Mingo was on the other side. Problem was, now what? He went off for a munch as we tried to figure out what to do to make the bridge safe so he could come back across. We ended up putting dirt on the bridge to soak up the oil and then we put an old carpet and more dirt to give it traction. Later that day we got Mingo back across with not too much effort. Nuno was nervous all day while Mingo was on one side and Nuno on the other. We thought, OK we fixed the problem, Mingo came back safely so it should be ok.

For the next 4 days we tried everything to get them across. We tried coaxing them with barley, fennel, grape leaves, and chestnut leaves but nothing worked. We had a whole variety of snacks on the other side hoping they would get hungry enough and cross the bridge. During the day Pete and I would go down and talk to them, trying to get them to cross. It was kind of funny, I felt like this was a case of city slicker meets donkey.

Mingo hesitantly made it one more time across but then after refused completely. So the score was Us 2, Donkeys 1000! We decided the only way they would go over if they got hungry enough. We didn’t give them their barley snack in the afternoon and we put them in the same area by the bridge where they had already munched most of the good stuff.

We contacted a few people and they didn’t have much advice other than to tell us that donkeys won’t do something until they think it’s safe. By now we knew the bridge was safe, the problem was convincing the donkeys of that fact!

With great hope and a strong intention on day 4, Pete and I took them to the ramp. Mingo finally decided to give it another go and he went right across with no problem. Nuno for once looked interested and wanted to be with Mingo but still couldn’t quite do it. Our friend Leen had told me that if you want a donkey to move forward, one should hit the ground with a stick behind it. That way the donkey thinks there is something that is harmful behind them and they will move away from it, in this case forward. So Pete had Nuno, armed with a bucket of barley to entice him and I hit the ground with a stick behind him. The last thing I wanted was another kick so I used a REALLY long stick and it worked! Nuno crossed to the other side!

So this was about a week ago and now the donkeys are happily going back and forth across the bridge by themselves. There are 4 terraces for them to explore and today they have made it to the top one. It’s beautiful to watch them happily munching away across the valley.

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This success is right up there with the success of the ram pump. It’s very exciting every time we are able to create a situation where we are one more step closer to being sustainable. It’s a big victory and it gives us a big boost to go on to the next project, which by the way is building a structure to keep our firewood dry. For now I/we are just happy that the donkeys are happy and they are using the bridge!


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