Miniature Mediterraneans, by Debbie Kingsley
Following the instructions to go past the yellow bungalow and the butcher’s shop sign, I stop the car when I get to the gateway at Pennywort Mill to take in the beauty of the Cornwall location. The property near Callington is exquisite — Grade II listed and a converted mill, although it looks like a mews with huge windows filling in the old coach entrance and exit.
It comes as no surprise that there are two holiday cottages on this appealing site, complete with children’s playground and access to a great array of animals, not least donkeys, for smallholders Hilary and Chris Hogg keep the Miniature Mediterranean variety. These were once found in abundance on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, but you now have to hunt high and low for them there. Instead they are fast becoming one of the ‘must have’ four-legged creatures in the US and the UK — demand is such that their price tag is an eyewatering £ 2,000-£ 3,000.
The Hogg’s donkeys are mostly friendly. The females, with their soft grey coats and never-ending ears, are curious and particularly keen to interact. They are happy to simply hang out with humans and, although they show some interest in a bucket of feed, they don’t have the same insistence on getting their heads in the receptacle as their fieldmates, the pygmy goats. Bo, the young jack foal, has just been weaned and he shows a lot more caution, not entirely sure whether he can trust the two-legged beasts that removed him from his mother. He brays his indignation with piercing determination; one of those sounds that requires a very understanding and donkey-appreciating neighbour. Hilary notes that “they don’t make much noise most of the time”, and that Bo’s newly weaned state would account for his insistence on being heard.
Meanwhile, Cordy a golden and cream coloured stallion with a fetching fly fringe over his brow, paces the gateway, knowing that one of the nearby jennies is in season. He stops for a moment to greet Hilary, but
hormones don’t allow him to be distracted for long.
Chris and Hilary, both 53, moved to Pennywort Mill, the donkeys’ home, in 2015 after a series of uncanny coincidences, including an unexpected house swap for their first two-acre smallholding.
They were clearly meant to be the next caretakers of Pennywort Mill and its 11 acres of ground and Chris, who had already spent 30 happy years in the Royal Navy, was looking for a different kind of life. After a stint in The Netherlands, where the couple watched a lot of River Cottage DVDs and dreamed, they moved to a suburban house in Tavistock with their three children, Cameron, Charlotte (Lottie) and Angus.
Training for a 5k run, NHS community dietician Hilary ran past a property with two acres and a for sale sign. Chris, deployed to the Middle East at the time, never viewed the house, but said, “if we can afford it, go for it”. So Hilary put their house on the market.
“As it turned out, the vendors wanted to move to a house like ours. We nearly broke ourselves financially doing the swap and buying their place, but it was the right thing to do. We didn’t know it, but looking back this was the start.”
Lottie had always wanted a pony and, says Hilary, “Chris put his foot in it and promised her one only when we could keep it in the garden. Lottie was very quick to point out — repeatedly — that we could actually keep a pony in the garden now. She found two loan horses to start with, but the horse thing didn’t really work out. It was loads of hard graft and a huge financial drain, plus Lottie was getting to pub and boyfriend age and heading off on her own adventures, so the horses left”.
With the horses gone, to keep the evergrowing grass at manageable levels, Hilary and Chris went to visit Malcolm and Margaret Thompson of Solomon’s Farm to buy some Greyface Dartmoor sheep, a local rare breed. Apart from their sheep, the Thompsons kept pygmy goats, Red Bourbon turkeys, chickens and those cute miniature donkeys. The whole set up was an inspiration for the Hoggs and “over time most of the animals migrated in our direction and most of our cash went in theirs”, laughs Chris.
Needing more space a few years later, a complicated series of mishaps and misfortunes — including the ill health and deaths of both of their mothers and a much
loved aunt — but latterly some good luck meant that Pennywort Mill finally became home. Two miniature donkeys, some pygmy goats, chickens, turkeys and sheep moved with them from two to 11 acres.
Hilary had enjoyed some aspects of Lottie’s horses and says that the donkeys offer “a horse-like feel with a more docile nature”.
Abigail and Rhapsody, the couple’s first two jennies, acquired in 2014, were soon joined by Cordy, who has gone on to sire Rhapsody’s two jack foals, Blue and Bo. Two more jennies have recently joined the family and Cordy is hired out as a stud, which is a managed process that isn’t quite as simple as turning out the jenny with the stallion. Injuries — potentially quite serious ones — can occur all to easily, so the jenny has to be tethered and the stallion is muzzled and supervised. He will be taken to an in-season jenny three times a day for three or four days — if the jenny is still receptive.
A year in and after some major rebuilding, as well as rejuvenation of the perimeter fencing at Pennywort Mill, the Hoggs brought home four Dexter heifers to produce beef. Fans of Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, they also buy in weaners to rear as needed. They have even learned to butcher their own meat.
During his final years in the Navy, Chris became a vegetarian. He had grown unhappy with intensive food production, poor animal welfare and food additives. Now, with the space to rear his own pigs, ducks and hens, the certainty of food provenance and being in control of welfare meant that he could finally eat the sort of meat he wanted.
“Lottie, though, found the concept of consuming home-grown pork a step too far and she became a vegetarian,” says Hilary. “However, it was only temporary and she now loves bacon and the best Dexter fillet.”
The Hoggs also press their apples for juice and they sell their surplus meat to friends and family, plus extraneous livestock to other smallholders.
They offer a ‘goatel’ — a goat hotel for people needing goat kennelling — and goat and donkey stud services. Anyone who fancies a holiday in one of their cottages will also be able to enjoy learning about their donkeys and goats, and parents can look forward to a lie in while their hosts take their offspring to feed the animals.
Chris is now on the smallholding 24/7. The couple’s own children are in their 20s and have flown the nest, but the Hoggs have a never-ending family as they offer respite fostering, which involves giving children a great experience around their animals while their main carers take a break. Any technology brought is quickly left unattended as the pull of the donkeys and the other animals becomes all-consuming.
Hilary and Chris are certainly a pair with passions. Their pygmy and Boer-cross goats, plus the turkeys, are high on their list of favourites, but nothing, it seems, tops the miniature donkeys. However, the couple remains aware that they must not overstock their 11 acres.
“If that happens the Boer goats will have to go,” announces Chris. “And if more jennies are born then the Dexters might have to go, too. We are happy to sell on the jack donkeys, but letting go of any females seems a step too far.”
With miniature donkeys tending to live for 30 to 35 years, the Hoggs are clearly in it for the long haul.
Hilary Hogg says that donkeys offer ‘a horse-like feel with a more docile nature’
Hilary and Chris Hogg’s donkeys love hanging out with humans — particularly ones with a bucket
Miniature donkeys carry a price tag of £2,000-£3,000
Chris and Hilary Hogg at their Grade II listed Cornwall smallholding Pennywort Mill
Hilary with Bo, a jack foal