Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, founder of international welfare charity The Donkey Sanctuary has died, aged 81. She died peacefully on Wednesday 11 May after a stroke.

Dr Svendsen founded the charity in 1969 after finding seven donkeys in a poor state crammed in a small pen at Exeter market and decided that she would dedicate her life to saving donkeys in distress.

Since then The Donkey Sanctuary, based in Sidmouth, Devon, has given lifelong care to more than 14,500 donkeys and mules in need across UK, Ireland and Europe.

The charity has also helped donkeys living in desperate conditions around the world. She was awarded an MBE in 1980, the RSPCA’s Lord Erskine Award in 1991, and an honorary doctorate in veterinary medicine by Glasgow University 1992, among other awards in recognition of her important contribution to the field of animal welfare.

“The loss of Dr Svendsen will be felt deeply by supporters all over the world,” said David Cook, chief executive of The Donkey Sanctuary.

“But the charity she built will continue its work in her memory, holding fast to her vision of a world in which every donkey and mule receives the care and respect it so needs.”

As well as her donkey welfare work she established The Elisabeth Svendsen Trust for Children and Donkeys, a charity giving children with special needs the opportunity to have contact with and ride donkeys at six purpose-built centres throughout the UK.