Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without a dewy-eyed donkey hovering in the back of the nativity scene. And it makes sense that one of the most special places to listen to Christmas carols is the Donkey Sanctuary in Co Antrim, which is home to 11 of the animals.
"Christmas at the sanctuary is always very special," says centre manager Lorraine Nelson (53).
"Normally at this time of year we would host a carol service, but this year we can't because of the pandemic. Last year, Cancer Focus held carols at the centre - we left the door open and our donkeys Benji and Alfie were looking in as the carols were sung.
"In the last couple of years, some of the children who work with the donkeys came in and did a little nativity play. It often signifies the start of Christmas, having these types of events."
But this year, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Donkey Sanctuary has been forced to close its doors to its usual stream of visitors and instead the main UK sanctuary, in Sidmouth, Devon, is hosting a carol service in December that will be posted on its Facebook pages.
"For the donkeys, Christmas Day will be pretty much like every day," Lorraine says. "The donkeys will still need their breakfast, they will still need their beds made.
"At this time of year we give them some hot fruit tea. They love it - it's just herbal tea but it helps to warm them up in the morning.
"Often around this time of year, people are very generous with their donations, bringing in carrots and ginger biscuits and other treats. But we do a lot of enrichment as well with treats that include honey, spice and raisins. They love garlic, turmeric and paprika and we let them forage for food. People will also give them a lot of gifts, like rubber balls and football and wellies to play with. Donkeys can be quite dog-like in their behaviour, more so than horses. They will play with balls and check in your pockets for treats - they're very playful."
Despite their image as a beast of burden on the farm, donkeys originate in hot desert environments in Asia and Africa and over the centuries they arrived here from throughout the world.
"During the economic boom in the south of Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, there was a lot of donkey breeding - it was a bit like the way puppies are treated at the minute. They are prolific breeders," Lorraine says.
"Unfortunately, we don't have a great reputation for animal welfare in this country and they found themselves abandoned on the sides of the road as the economic bubble burst.
"They're tricky to manage in terms of husbandry - they need their feet looked after every six to eight weeks and they need their teeth done every six months. They need an acre of land and some hard standing. They are not waterproof so they need shelter - it's a bit more complicated.
"A lot of people think you can buy a donkey, throw it in a field and just leave it there, but that's not the case."
But it's no wonder they are so popular - Lorraine says donkeys have a memory of about 12 years and make lifelong friendships with other donkeys. They often form a strong bond with another donkey.
"For instance, we have a pair that would be very tightly bonded - Alfie and Benjy," Lorraine says. "Alfie needs to know where Benjy is at all times and would be very protective of him. Benjy is smaller but it is a much stronger character than Alfie, even though Alfie would be the bigger donkey."
The Donkey Sanctuary lies halfway between Ballyclare and Templepatrick, 10 minutes from the M1 and was founded in Northern Ireland about nine years ago. The UK-wide organisation was founded by Dr Eliisabth Svendsen after she was left a legacy of 102 donkeys, but part of her vision was to create a safe space for children with additional needs where they could engage with the donkeys.
More recently that vision has expanded to include a wide range of users, such as children in care and adults with long-term health conditions, and the centre works with organisations such as Clic Sargent, the Red Cross and Belfast Hospital Schools.
"They have a main Donkey Sanctuary which does rescue and rehoming work and six other centres that do DAT, donkey assisted therapy. These centres were developed gradually over the last 30 years and Belfast was the most recent centre, founded in 2011," Lorraine says.
"What we do specifically within our centre is that not only do we help animals but we work with humans from all backgrounds and all ages. We provide a tailor-made programme where people can come in and work with the donkeys for a couple of hours."
With visits halted and the Donkey Assisted Therapy on hold, it has provided an opportunity for the sanctuary to focus more on facilitating rescue and rehoming.
At the moment the sanctuary is home to 11 donkeys but five new rescue animals arrived earlier this month, called Danny, Bert, Ernie, Colorado and Phelim.
"All of our herd are boys," Lorraine says. "What's going to happen now is that we're going to be working with them, letting them get used to being handled because they need their eyes wiped and their feet picked out every day.
"Some of them are babies - they are only two to three years old. Some of our animals have outlived their owners - it's quite possible for a donkey to live well into their 40s, so our intention is to prepare them for long term guardian homes. After a few months we will put out an appeal to people who want to give them new homes - we will bring them in to spend time with the new donkeys, let them get used to their ways and habits and create the best chance to go on to have a long and fruitful life together. We have a particularly poor track record in this country for donkey welfare. It wouldn't be unusual to get a call to say two donkeys are running down the Newry Road or a donkey has been dumped in a field, especially around this time of year.
"Donkeys can be hard on the land and can poach the land if given all-year access. People realise they don't want their land destroyed and turn them out onto the road.
"The average cost of keeping a donkey is about £2,000 a year for the complete package - bedding food, farriers costs, and the veterinary bills can be never-ending."
But the help those donkeys can provide to humans can be incalculable. It used to be that the children would have come in and ridden the donkeys, but three years ago, the centre decided to do things differently.
"We kind of changed our mindset on that - we just wanted a donkey to be a donkey, " Lorraine says.
"About three years ago we started to change the type of programme we offered, allowing people to get more opportunity to connect with the donkey from ground level. Now, they're in a quiet space within a donkey which is completely at liberty, not harnessed or tacked and able to move in and out of the session as they wish. There's no force involved.
"Before, we were bringing children in, setting them on top of the donkey and they would walk round two or three times and be taken off the donkey again. Now you have the donkey in its natural environment, children going in at their own pace, they're allowed to touch the donkey, speak to it or stroke it. Some lean up on it.
"For children who have visual impairments, the touch of the coat would be extremely stimulating for them.
"One little boy liked the smell of the donkey so much that he brought in his little comfort blanket and rubbed it on the side of the donkey and took it home with him."
Many of the users are on the autistic spectrum and may be non-verbal, she says.
"The donkey doesn't have verbal language either and body language is how those two connect. A donkey has a very similar emotional system to a human and those two can mirror each other.
"We've had many situations in the past where, for instance, a young child was reluctant to make any eye contact with anyone or have any physical touch. We've had situations where a child we thought was categorised as completely non verbal or resistant to touch would walk straight up and have a babbling conversation with a donkey - it's common for us to see.
"We've had teachers who have said they'd never witnessed that child behaving in that way. All we're doing is providing a safe space where children can be who they want to be and how they want to be and the same goes for the donkey as well."
The centre also offers a programme designed to develop life skills among other user groups, including a mindfulness session at the start and regular work with the donkeys, and this will often help to boost self esteem.
Working with donkeys can often help people who have had a life-shattering experience with cancer, giving them a sense of purpose.
"When you're meeting these people first-hand it may seem very petty to the average Joe, but to someone who has had such a life-changing event, something so simple can make a big life-changing difference," Lorraine says.
The Donkey Sanctuary says that adopting a donkey can make a great last-minute gift for Christmas as adoption certificates can be downloaded and printed at home.
For just £3 per month, the recipient can also visit their donkey for free at one of The Donkey Sanctuary's six centres across the UK under normal circumstances and adoption packs include two portraits, four postcards, a certificate and membership card.
For more information, visit www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/adopt
This Christmas, two readers can win the amazing prize of a year's adoption of either Alfie or Benjy who live at the Donkey Sanctuary in Templepatrick.
Benjy was relinquished to The Donkey Sanctuary from a home in Co Galway as his owner could no longer look after him, and arrived in April 2011. Benjy is one of the centre's adoption donkeys, along with his best friend Alfie. At 23 years of age he is one of the oldest donkeys at the Belfast centre. Born in 2007, Alfie arrived at the Belfast sanctuary in April 2011, after being relinquished by his owner. When Alfie arrived he was completely unhandled, but he soon developed his trust in people and is a fantastic donkey-facilitated learning donkey.
Two winners will be selected, each winning one year's adoption, worth £36, of Alfie or Benjy. They will receive an adoption pack which includes two portraits, four beautiful postcards, a certificate and membership card. The adoption can also be set up as a gift in someone else's name and, although an adoptee can be of any age, the person entering the competition will need to be over 18.
To enter, answer this question:
In what year was Northern Ireland's Donkey Sanctuary founded?
Send your answer, name, address and telephone number by email to email@example.com before the closing date of Friday, December 18. Usual Independent News and Media competition rules apply