The baudet de Poitou, or Poitou donkey, is an unusual and rare breed of donkey known for its unique look. With their long, corded coats, Poitou asses are like the donkey equivalent of Komondor dogs in appearance. These hearty beasts were bred for size and strength, and were once extremely popular and highly prized in Europe, particularly in their native France. But Poitous nearly died out once they were no longer required for practical purposes. Only because of conservation efforts in recent decades have these fascinating animals been saved from extinction.
Poitous are also noted for their size and strength. They are the among the largest donkeys in the world, standing 5 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 1,200 pounds. They have particularly large ears, heads and leg joints. Their ears can be so large that they may flop horizontally in some cases. All of these traits are the result of selective breeding, as Poitous were intended to breed hearty and strong mules that would make excellent working animals. (American Livestock Breeding Conservancy)
The most recognizable aspect of the Poitou is its unique coat, which is called a cadanette. The long, matted, mop-like strands of hair hang down like donkey dreadlocks. The cadanette is such a strong genetic trait that a even a mixed-breed donkey that is only 1/8 Poitou can look purebred. The breed’s signature cadanette can be and often is groomed and maintained for hygiene, but in the past, Poitous with the nattiest dreads were in fact the most prized. (Oklahoma State University)
Much of the Poitou donkey’s early history is lost in time. Their name comes from the Poitou region of France, where the Roman empire introduced them. The breed was itself created to further breed especially strong mules for labor. Mules being a hybrid of male donkeys and female horses, Poitou donkeys were bred alongside and with Mulassier horses for their particular mule offspring. Their exact breeding history is lost, but Poitou breeding guidelines were well established by the 18th century. (Simply Marvelous Horse World)
Poitou donkey breeding was not perfect in past centuries. Several practices that would be considered misguided and even cruel by modern standards were the norm for 18th- and 19th-century French Poitou breeding. For example, it was believed at the time that underfed Poitou mothers were more likely to produce male offspring, which were more valuable than females. As a result, pregnant mares were routinely starved. Once born, Poitou colts and fillies were deprived of their mothers’ colostrum, which was believed to be unhealthy. Of course, the opposite was true, colostrum being vitally important for development. Despite these practices, France at the time was considered the best and most advanced nation for mule husbandry. (Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds)
At the height of their popularity, which was significant, Poitous were important status symbols, and the mules that were their issue with Poitevin horses were considered the finest in the world, a reputation that persisted into the 20th century. (Naturally, they also were more expensive to buy than any other breed of donkey.) At their peak, between 30,000 and 50,000 of the donkeys were bred in their namesake region every year. (ALBC)
Although Poitous remained extremely popular into the first decades of the 20th century, they eventually made obsolete by the industrial advances of the World War II era. The rise of mechanization made strong working donkeys and mules unnecessary, and a bold, unique appearance wasn’t enough of an excuse for continued breeding efforts. The Poitou population plummeted quickly. Just a few decades later, a 1977 inventory revealed that there were only 44 Poitou donkeys left in the world. (Horse and Man)
In the late '70s and early '80s, conservation efforts were mounted to preserve, revive and even improve the nearly extinct Poitou donkey breed. Although Poitous remained mostly unnecessary for practical purposes, conservationists sought to restore breeding efforts for posterity and tradition. Unsurprisingly, most conservation groups were located in France. Early on, shady practices threatened to derail conservation efforts when disreputable breeders sold mixed-breed donkeys as Poitous, complete with forged papers, but over time, genetic testing and microchipping was employed to keep better track of true purebred Poitous. (The Wall Street Journal)
Over the past few decades, Poitou conservation has seen modest success. The worldwide population currently stands at around 400 donkeys. That’s still well under the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s minimum of 2,000 animal necessary to keep off the agency’s “critical” list, but it’s certainly a significant improvement from the 44 Poitous that remained 36 years ago. The current number does, however, represent a dip from a population high of 450 donkeys in 2005. (ALBC)
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Today, Poitous are nowhere near the working powerhouses they once were, but just because their labor is no longer needed, it doesn’t mean their size and strength is diminished. When desired, these donkeys can still be put to work, and they prove themselves extremely useful. They are occasionally used for agricultural work, as well as pulling carriages or even riding. (Races Mulassieres du Poitou)