The in­side story on what it’s re­ally like to keep your own alpacas

The Knitter - - Content -

THE BEN­E­FITS of al­paca yarn are well known: the scales in al­paca fleece lay flat­ter than those of sheep’s wool, mak­ing it softer against the skin; al­paca fleece doesn’t con­tain any lano­lin, ei­ther, so it avoids issues with wool al­ler­gies. As al­paca is a hol­low fibre, it’s warmer than wool, and it wicks away wa­ter, mak­ing it al­most wa­ter­proof.

Alpacas are also gen­tle and at­trac­tive an­i­mals, so if you’ve won­dered about keep­ing alpacas as pets, and us­ing their fleece to spin and knit with, we’ve got some ad­vice on what to con­sider.

There are two breeds of al­paca, the Hua­caya and the Suri. The most com­mon by far is the Hua­caya, which has a dense fleece that grows out­wards. The Suri fleece is dif­fer­ent, grow­ing down­wards in corkscrew spi­rals.

Be­cause alpacas are herd an­i­mals, they shouldn’t be kept alone; a group of at least three is best, so that if any­thing hap­pens to one of your an­i­mals, you’re not left with a sin­gle al­paca. On each acre of land you can keep five or six alpacas, but it’s best to have other land avail­able for them to graze, too. Sim­ple post-andrail fenc­ing is enough; you shouldn’t use barbed wire around the field, as the alpacas’ fleece can get tan­gled.

If you’re in­ter­ested in keep­ing alpacas mainly as pets, and us­ing the fleece for your­self, non-stud males are cheaper to buy - from around £250 up to £3000, de­pend­ing on the qual­ity of the fleece. If you in­tend to sell your al­paca fleece or spin it your­self and sell the yarn, the white fleece is more pop­u­lar than brown, grey or black as it’s easily dyed to other colours. Buy­ing a stud male al­paca can cost up to £20,000, while fe­males cost be­tween £1000-£3000 (or £4000-£6000 if they’re al­ready preg­nant).

Liv­ing with alpacas

Janet Mark­well bought her first pair of Hua­caya alpacas in 2008 - two males, called Magic and Corey, who were then nearly a year old. “The best thing about them is know­ing that these wild an­i­mals al­low me to in­ter­act with them, and be part of their life,” Janet ex­plains. “I love the smell and the look of them, too. There’s only one down­side: hav­ing to go out and feed them when it’s rain­ing.”

Magic and Corey live in a pad­dock mea­sur­ing half an acre, next to Janet’s house. They mostly graze on the grass, and she sup­ple­ments their diet with half

a hand­ful of Cameli­bra al­paca pel­lets, for vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, and Fi­bregest for ex­tra fibre. Their drop­pings can be left on the ground, as the alpacas won’t eat the grass around a dung pile.

Alpacas are hardy an­i­mals, orig­i­nat­ing in the An­des, where tem­per­a­tures can range from -30°C to above 35 de­grees. So although they’ll hap­pily live out­doors, you should pro­vide a sim­ple shel­ter, and this will also keep their hay dry.

Magic and Corey pre­fer to stay out in the open and rarely use the shel­ter; Janet feeds them in there to en­cour­age them to use it. Janet also added a plas­tic mir­ror to the back wall, to give the il­lu­sion that they are part of a larger herd. “You can’t ex­pect an an­i­mal to walk into a dark en­clo­sure, but if they see an­other an­i­mal in there they’re hap­pier to walk in.”

You need to de­vote time ev­ery day to feed­ing and check­ing your alpacas. In ad­di­tion to shear­ing, there are sev­eral hus­bandry tasks to per­form. Toe­nails need to be trimmed three or four times a year – they nat­u­rally wear down more on hard ground if it hasn’t rained. De­pend­ing where you keep your alpacas they may also need an­nual vac­ci­na­tions against clostridial dis­ease, and worm­ing; Janet gave her an­i­mals the Blue­tongue virus vac­ci­na­tion when it was com­pul­sory. She has had her alpacas’ dung tested for worms and in­fec­tions, but it was clear as they have no con­tact with other live­stock.

Janet’s top piece of ad­vice if you’re think­ing of own­ing alpacas it to be pre­pared to spend time train­ing them, so that they’re fa­mil­iar with you and will let you touch them. Alpacas are easily hal­ter-trained, and Janet rec­om­mends the book, CAMELIDy­nam­ics. “This ex­plains a method of work­ing with the psy­chol­ogy of alpacas,” she says. “You should be gen­tle and non-threat­en­ing – so don’t make di­rect eye con­tact – and work with the an­i­mals’ nat­u­ral in­stincts.

“For ex­am­ple, if you stand be­hind them they move for­ward; you stand in front, and they move back. So use those prin­ci­ples to move them around. We also used tem­po­rary fences to ini­tially get them into their shel­ter.” When you need to clip their toe­nails, you should al­ways al­low them to walk for­ward so they’re not trapped – hold­ing one foot means they can still walk round in cir­cles.

Shear­ing ad­vice

Janet ini­tially hired trav­el­ling New Zealand sheep shear­ers to shear her alpacas, but then she and her hus­band Alan took a hus­bandry course and bought the kit to do the shear­ing them­selves.

Shear­ing takes place be­tween May and July, to keep the alpacas cool in warmer weather, and to give enough time for the fleece to grow back be­fore win­ter. Janet and Alan con­structed a pul­ley sys­tem to fas­ten the al­paca’s feet to­gether. With its legs se­cured, the al­paca is gen­tly laid on the garage floor, and a bag placed over the mouth to pre­vent spit­ting!

Shear­ing starts with the first cut fleece from the back and sides. The sec­ond cut is bagged sep­a­rately, with poorer qual­ity fleece from around the legs (where the fi­bres are coarse) and neck (where the fi­bres are too short for spin­ning).

Magic and Corey shel­ter in a shed in Janet’s gar­den

Janet’s grand­chil­dren love help­ing out with the alpacas! 1 Alpacas are gen­tle creatures, although it’s im­por­tant to spend time train­ing them so they are com­fort­able with you 2 The fleece is in­cred­i­bly nd soft 3 Shear­ing starts with the first cut around...

Janet has trained her an­i­mals to wear a hal­ter

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