From the magazine...
Sheep and goats might have safety in numbers, but a South American invader is increasingly common on British smallholdings, writes Clare Hunt
They may be in the same family as whopping great bactrians and dromedaries, but alpacas are very different from their desert-dwelling camelid relatives.
They’re South American natives and have evolved to thrive in high-altitude environments, withstanding dramatic temperature variations. While their camelid cousins vicuñas and guanacos remain wild, alpacas and llamas have long been domesticated.
The difference between alpacas and llamas is all in the size – llamas are larger and, as a result, are popular as sure-footed beasts of burden. More diminutive alpacas come in two types: the more common Huacayo and rarer Suri.
Like sheep, alpacas are two-toed ungulates (hoofed mammals) but they have a very distinct claw at the front of their foot.
And while sheep have four stomach compartments for efficiently digesting highly fibrous feed, alpacas have only three.
Up and up
In recent years, alpacas have seen a surge in popularity, and they’re certainly a more common sight in fields and at agricultural shows.
As awareness grows, so the species gains traction as a popular choice for smallholders. Neil McAndrew, from Rushmere Alpacas, attributes their rising popularity to the animals’ manageability and endearing character. They’re far less grumpy (and less prone to aggressive spitting) than llamas and are amenable to training.
Beware, though, it’s easy – according to Neil – to be bewitched by the alpaca. Before you know it you’ll have a growing herd and unshakeable addiction.
Justifying their keep
When smallholding space is at a premium, livestock has to be more than decorative. Luckily, alpacas combine good looks with lots of other talents. The main commercial appeal is in their fleece. Hollow alpaca fibres make excellent insulators and are as silky soft as Angora or Merino. Many people find the lustrous fleece to be less prickly and irritating than sheep’s wool and the absence of lanolin means it’s hypoallergenic and suitable for sensitive skin.
Coming in an array of natural colours running from sparkling white to inky black, alpaca fleece is a draw for lots of crafty smallholders. It can be sold to processors or cleaned, carded, spun and made up into soft-as-soft blankets and cosy socks.
Alpacas also make efficient lawnmowers and have some advantages over other species in this department. They’re light-footed so don’t churn up the sod, they don’t crop too close to the ground, they’re fairly modest eaters for their size and are known for creating communal dung piles, making paddock cleaning less of a chore.
As pets, alpacas are appreciated for their gentleness. Lots of people find hanging out with them beneficial for a sense of wellbeing and they’re used as therapy animals to help children and adults overcome mental or physical health issues. This companionship goes a long way in explaining the rising popularity of alpaca trekking.
A possibly less obvious role for alpacas is as protector. Their herd instincts mean they tend to ‘adopt’ other animals and take responsibility for their safety. So they’re handy bodyguards for lambs, kids and free-range poultry threatened by predators. Their scent seems to repel foxes and as they can run fast, kick and spit when roused, hunters are best advised to steer clear. Alpacas also make good chums for solitary horses and ponies.
As with any livestock, alpacas have peculiarities and owners often learn by experience. Overall, alpacas are undemanding, but that isn’t to say they can be ignored altogether. To stay healthy and happy they need an appropriate ration and mineral supplements, as well as routine worming, foot care, vaccinations and annual shearing. Buying alpacas that are halter trained, or training them yourself, will make handling them far easier.
Importantly, alpacas are herd animals, so solitude is not for them. You’ll need at least a pair and that pair is easiest when it’s same sex. Entire males kept in sight of females will get rowdy and as alpacas are induced ovulators (meaning the females come into season only when the male is present) they can breed at any time of the year.
While alpacas don’t share the reputation sheep and goats have as escape artists, they’re broadly immune to electric fences. A little zap is no match for that dense fleece so you’ll need permanent fencing that’s up to the job.
Depending on pasture quality, half an acre is enough to meet the nutritional needs of an alpaca, but take account of the need to rotate. And while a field shelter will be much appreciated by your herd (a rain-soaked alpaca being a pitiful sight), they can get by with a good bank of overhanging trees.