Leader of the alpacas

Lancashire Life - - Great Outdoors - WORDS: Roger Bor­rell PHO­TO­GRAPHS: John Cocks

The cat­walks of Europe will soon be graced with high fashion made from a very spe­cial fi­bre pro­duced in a re­mote part of Lan­cashire

The wild moor­land of East Lan­cashire seems a mil­lion miles from the glam­orous world of cat­walks and su­per mod­els as­so­ci­ated with the Mi­lan fashion in­dus­try. And yet a slightly com­i­cal, camel-like creature from South Amer­ica links the two.

Lan­cashire has one of the world’s top al­paca herds and de­mand is rock­et­ing for the qual­ity fi­bre pro­duced by shear­ing these fas­ci­nat­ing crea­tures. Even the great Ital­ian fashion house of Ver­sace is pro­duc­ing some evening gowns us­ing cloth wo­ven from an­i­mals kept at Blackberry Alpacas in Lane­shaw­bridge near Colne.

Harvey and Claudeen Brown farm 250 acres and they’ve been in the al­paca busi­ness for just over a decade. The cou­ple – Claudeen is from Clitheroe and Harvey orig­i­nates from the Cotswolds – de­cided to sell their

en­gi­neer­ing com­pany and looked for a small farm where they could look af­ter their horses. They ended up in Oswaldtwis­tle.

‘It sounds a bit corny but we wanted to get back to na­ture and we loved ev­ery minute of it,’ says Harvey. ‘At the same time, we wanted to find a way of mak­ing a liv­ing but it’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to do that with a small farm.

‘Then, I got talk­ing to a friend in haulage. He was trans­port­ing two alpacas to Italy. I was as­ton­ished to dis­cover these top grade stud alpacas were each worth be­tween £13,000 and £18,000.’

Af­ter re­search on the in­ter­net they hunted out the UK’S best black alpacas to cre­ate their own herd which is now at Laithe Farm in Lane­shaw­bridge. ‘I wasn’t in­ter­ested in com­pet­ing on cost be­cause if you do that your qual­ity just isn’t good enough,’ adds Harvey.

‘I bought four girls at £8,000 each and it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. As a busi­ness it has been re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful and it has al­lowed us to meet peo­ple across the world.’

They have trav­elled to

Aus­tralia and New Zealand as well as Peru, the home of the alpacas.

‘I spoke to a friend who was a tai­lor and he got quite ex­cited by the prospect of cloth made from al­paca fi­bre and a chap in Sav­ile Row wanted more than we could pos­si­bly pro­duce for suits. The qual­ity is ex­cep­tional – they are the only an­i­mals that pro­duce this amaz­ing blue-black fi­bre. It doesn’t re­quire dy­ing and it doesn’t fade.

‘Un­like most wool, it doesn’t con­tain any lano­lin so it doesn’t need de­ter­gents to clean it – you can use cold wa­ter which makes it eco-friendly.’

From those four fe­males, they now have a herd of more than

200 in Lan­cashire and more than 300 farmed by a friend in Aus­tralia. ‘One of the best al­paca breed­ers in the world wanted to sell up, so we bought the herd,’ says Harvey.

Blackberry Alpacas and the Can­chones herd in Aus­tralia form one of the big­gest spe­cial­ist black fi­bre herds any­where in the world and the Lan­cashire an­i­mals have been ex­ported to many coun­tries in­clud­ing Qatar, Italy, France, Nor­way and Swe­den.

‘More peo­ple are re­al­is­ing the busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties cre­ated by the qual­ity al­paca fleeces which are in­cred­i­bly fine and re­mark­able ver­sa­tile,’ adds Harvey. ‘It is even used by the mil­i­tary for socks be­cause it doesn’t ab­sorb mois­ture like tra­di­tional threads.’

‘I can’t be­gin to tell you how much plea­sure it has given us. Some­times, I have to pinch my­self!’

While the de­mand for lux­ury fi­bre goes up, drought con­di­tions around the world have made life dif­fi­cult for those pro­duc­ing merino from sheep and cash­mere from goats. Alpacas need rel­a­tively lit­tle space – an acre can ac­com­mo­date be­tween three and five – they drink lit­tle wa­ter, cope well with poor qual­ity veg­e­ta­tion and, un­like sheep, they don’t try to break through en­clo­sures.

They eat grass with­out rip­ping it out by the roots so they are gen­tle on pas­tures and their dried poo makes ex­cel­lent ma­nure. They also have a friendly dis­po­si­tion, although males can be a lit­tle feisty – they have been known to spit when they are put to­gether.

As breed­ers, Harvey and Claudeen sell many for pets or to peo­ple who want to farm them for their wool. They never go for meat pro­duc­tion. They also op­er­ate a col­lec­tive that helps own­ers sell the fi­bre. ‘I could sell the en­tire herd to­mor­row if I wanted to – the de­mand is in­creas­ing all the time and we don’t pro­duce any­where near enough,’ says Harvey.

He op­er­ates a stud with some male alpacas that have won ma­jor in­ter­na­tional awards. ‘In the last 30 years the num­bers in this coun­try have gone from a few hun­dred to 45,000 but we can’t keep up with de­mand.’

The only down side is that Harvey has strug­gled to find a Bri­tish mill that is able to turn the fi­bre into this spe­cial cloth be­cause they are mainly geared up for sheep wool so much of its goes to Italy to be wo­ven.

Harvey de­scribes it as one of the most suc­cess­ful and prof­itable farm­ing en­ter­prises. ‘Some of the tra­di­tional farm­ers around here thought we were bonkers,’ says Harvey. ‘But I can’t think of an­other way we could have made the money we have with so lit­tle land. And, most im­por­tantly, I can’t be­gin to tell you how much plea­sure it has given us. Some­times, I have to pinch my­self!’

To find out more go to black­ber­ryal­pacas.co.uk.

ABOVE: Harvey Browns with a three-weekold Al­paca at Lane­shaw­bridge

BE­LOW: Harvey Browns Blackberry Alpacas at Lane­shaw­bridge

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