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Belonging to the camelid family, Alpacas originate from Peru, Chile and Bolivia. They are now kept in many countries around the world. There are two types of Alpacas: the Huacaya and the Suri. Whilst the Huacaya has a fine dense fleece, the Suri has a fleece that hangs in long ringlets.
The UK herd, at around 21,000 animals, is small compared to in excess of 3 million in South America. However, Alpacas are increasingly seen as a viable alternative farming enterprise and more breeders are keen to take advantage of the rewards that are offered through the management of such endearing creatures.
Breeders are continually improving the quality of animals and their fleece and this is increasing the market opportunities for alpaca products. The fine, warm, light, lustrous, luxury fleece can be made up into yarn, pullovers, shawls, throws, hats, coats, duvets and other items.
Smaller than the Llama, Alpacas stand about 1 metre at the shoulder and weigh, on average, 70kg. They produce a superb, heavy fleece of fine, strong and dense fibre which will need to be sheared annually. When in full fleece, they are extremely attractive creatures, however, they are often not too keen to be touched. They are gentle by nature and can be easily managed and trained. Alpacas are found in a variety of 22 natural colours, from solid white to black and with varying shades and mixes of brown and grey.
Alpacas’ luxurious fleece makes extremely soft, hypo-allergenic garments and is of particular interest to hand-knitters.
As well as being adorable animals with a thick, warm fleece, Alpacas are also intelligent, curious and sociable. They are docile, gentle and with experience, easily trained. As they are natural grazers, they keep down pastures and they rarely challenge fencing unless they are frightened. In the UK, they require supplementary feed along with vitamins A, D and E and they can live outside all year round.
As Alpacas are naturally herd animals, they only feel safe with their own kind and so must not be kept on their own.
Spending time with Alpacas is important as it enables the owners to get to know their individual characteristics and idiosyncrasies.
Alpacas give little indication they are unwell but any unusual behaviour or symptoms of ill health can usually be detected when observing the herd, allowing early help to be administered or veterinary assistance sought.
Adults weigh 60–80 kg and can live for 15–20 years. The gestation period is 11½ months leading to a single cria (baby). Normally, birthing typically takes place during the daylight hours. Cria are weaned at six months.
Typical husbandry duties are as follows:
• Toe nails need to be trimmed three to four times a year
• During lengthy wet periods, animals should be provided with access to an area of drier ground
• Teeth should be checked twice a year, calling in an expert for advice to correct any abnormalities
• From 18 months of age, males should be checked for the presence of fighting teeth which should be removed by a professional
• Other routine husbandry duties include six-monthly vaccinations against clostridial diseases and worming
• During the winter months, a natural boost of A, D and E vitamins three times is particularly useful
Fleece is one of the primary reasons for keeping Alpacas and shearing should be carried out annually for huacayas but suris may be shorn every second year. Fleece yield can produce around 3–5 kg. A very wide range of natural fleece colours gives white, through fawn and brown, to black.
Alpacas should be stocked at 5–6 animals per acre with adequate grazing available at all times. Hay or haylage should also be provided, particularly in winter. Grazing rotation should be used and of course, there must be a constant supply of fresh, clean drinking water. Pregnant and lactating females, require a supplementary concentrate feed.
Post and rail fencing along with stock netting is suitable for Alpacas but barbed wire should never be used.
Alpacas can live outdoors all year round but they must be provided with some form of shelter. Purpose built field shelters are best but hedges and trees could suffice. A catch pen is essential when animals are required for routine examinations. Animals should be handled authoritatively but calmly and gently. Alpacas can be halter-trained from the age of about six months. Conveniently, they tend to choose specific soiling areas of the paddock which makes cleaning a relatively easy task.
Alpacas can be transported in a livestock trailer or horsebox. They must not be tied as they tend to sit whilst in transit. Entire males and females should always travel separately or partitioned off with a solid division. Should the journey be more than 2 hours, adequate stops must be made to provide clean water and food. This is particularly necessary for females with cria at foot to allow the baby to suckle.
Many benefits can be gained from owning and breeding Alpacas. Becoming an Alpaca farmer means taking up the challenge to breed toward the development of a new livestock and the fleece industry. There is a lucrative niche market for this luxurious, yet resilient fleece, both at the local level and on the international export scene.
Because of their short supply, particularly in the UK, Alpacas continue to command high prices, yet they are very economical to manage.
Where acreage is small, they are excellent herd animals and as such, good news for the smallholder. For the large landowner who wishes to diversify into the luxury fleece market, they will offer excellent returns from a small, easily managed herd.
There will eventually be top quality fleece in quantities to supply both local and international demand. There is currently a very strong market for Alpaca products both in the UK and internationally.
Alpacas are rare and precious animals. Treasured by the ancient Incan civilization, their fine fleeces were reserved for Incan royalty.
In 1986, the UK imported their first alpacas. With it's (relatively) more temperate climates and more sophisticated animal husbandry techniques, have proven beneficial for the species.
Today, the UK has experienced significant growth of breeders and with an increasing demand for Alpaca fleece, it has already developed past the cottage industry stage. Organisations, such as the British Alpaca Society exist to promote and guide breeders and now facilities and infrastructure are in place to compete with global demand.
Those who now direct their efforts into Alpaca breeding will receive top prices for quality animals and in the long term, increasingly generous returns for alpaca fleece from a proven luxury fibre market.