Eric the donkey set for new-look Thurgoland home

In a quiet corner in Thurgoland, plans are underway to improve the lives of some rare breed animals – and the humans who have sought a moment’s solace there, too.

Sunflower Sanctuary is home to Eric the seven-year-old Poitou donkey, Bert the pygmy goat, and 102kg Nellie, dubbed the fattest sheep in South Yorkshire.

It was set up in the summer in memory of two people connected to the village.

The site, just off the edge of the Trans Pennine Trail, is managed by Richard Damms who has had rare breed animals for the last ten years. Over the years, the animals have become a focal point of village life, with people coming to sit and reflect or to escape the world around them.

One person who would often walk his dogs in the area and sit for a while was Simon Ellis, who sadly died by suicide in May this year. Simon had a huge love of all animals and felt very lucky to live a very short walk from the field. In his memory, his wife and two daughters wanted to raise funds to improve the site and turn it into an animal sanctuary.

The family asked if it could be named Sunflower Sanctuary after Simon’s favourite flower – which also happened to be the favourite of Richard’s partner, Alison, who passed away from ovarian cancer in September 2020. During the Covid lockdown, when Alison felt well enough, she would spend time with the animals who proved to be great therapy for her.


Losing Alison devastated Richard’s life, but the animals are what keep him going and he’s incredibly committed to their welfare.

Simon’s family have been fundraising to improve the small holding for the animals and enriching their environment, which will encourage more people to visit the lovely village of Thurgoland.

Plans include erecting a new outbuilding for the animals to sleep in. There will also be new fencing around the site, plus an area of hard standing to make the area more manageable in wet and wintry conditions.

Richard, a joiner by trade, has already been tinkering away in his workshop making wooden signs and benches. Throughout the winter, he will be sorting the land out to make the ground level. Then after Christmas, he’ll start on the building so it’s ready for spring.

Next year, Richard also hopes to introduce more animals to the site, such as goats and lambs, with the future goal to foster or adopt abandoned farm animals.

Simon’s family did the Manchester Half Marathon in October and will continue to raise funds throughout the festive period. The whole village of Thurgoland have already jumped on board to support the project. Thurgoland Out of School Club regularly take children down to see the animals and have organised a raffle to raise money. And Richard says he was humbled to find an envelope of loose change taped to the fence left by some local children who gave their pocket money to the project.

If you’d like to donate to Sunflower Sanctuary and give these animals a new home, you can do so online.