Donkeys are descendents of the wild ass of Africa, not native to Britain and Ireland as many think. Due to their origins near the equator they do not have a natural oil to their coat for waterproofing, as horses and sheep do. They form groups that span over large distances, this is partly the reason for their long ears, as well as to help release body heat.
Donkeys were domesticated by the nomadic tribes nearly 5000 years ago, at least 2000 years before horses! Then the Romans during their conquering of the world brought donkeys with them due to their innate ability to walk long distances on few rations. This is how they came to the British Isles. They quickly adapted to the colder weather although the extra lush grass can make it too easy for them the become overweight.
Some little known facts
The largest can reach 17 hands
The smallest are from the Mediterranean
Many think that there is only one type of donkey but, in fact there are 185 breeds in the world. The majority of the donkey population are in China of 11 million! This is a quarter of the entire estimate of 44 million globally. The common donkey breed here is the Irish donkeys, it stands between 8 and 10 hands high, typically appears in grey, brown and dun colours. The largest donkeys are the American Mammoth Jack donkeys, some bred by George Washington himself. They stand between 14 hands and 17 hands, this is similar to the height of racehorses.
The smallest donkeys are from the isles of Sicily and Sardinia, used for the vineyards. These donkeys are usually less than 36 inches in stature, they are more commonly kept as pets now.