Alpacas, Animals with Attitude

29th July 2009

There are a number of reasons to love alpaca fibre products – they are soft, warm and luxurious to the touch, as well as light weight and fashionable. There is another factor which makes the fibre all the more appealing to some - its amazing creature of origin. The alpaca has been bred for thousands of years in the Andes region of South America, but keeping them in the United Kingdom has only really taken off over the last decade. The majority of people who keep these intriguing animals do so for their fibre, though there are several other advantages that make alpacas stand out to farmers, smallholders and hobbyists.

Both the Huacaya and the Suri alpaca are packed with personality and are generally docile, affectionate and gentle. They do not have hooves like many other herbivorous livestock, meaning that there is less risk of injury through kicking. Their padded feet are also kinder to pasture, they do not churn up the ground and damage valuable grazing land. The fact that alpacas have an exceptionally efficient digestive system also minimises their environmental impact, they can thrive on relatively small amounts of food, though owners need to bear in mind they browse as well as graze, so will almost certainly make a meal of hedges! Careful attention needs to be paid to how much alpacas eat, as they can become overweight easily which, like being underweight, can impact on the quality of their fibre. Experts recommend giving alpacas at least an acre of pasture, as they enjoy space to exercise as well as to graze. For larger herds approximately an acre of land per six animals is preferable. As social animals, alpacas should not be kept alone. For those with limited space, a pair of either females or gelded males is a popular choice, as the animals can keep each other company with minimal arguments!

The strong herding instinct of the alpaca means that it is also ideally suited to another, more surprising role – it is an excellent guard animal. It is possible for alpacas to ‘adopt’ other species as their own herd, meaning that they will defend them from predators as they would their own group in the wild. In the UK they are most commonly used to guard sheep or poultry from foxes, especially during early parts of the year when young are born. Since 1986 Prince Charles’ Duchy Home Farm has been a trailblazer in the world of organic farming. Today Home Farm is the home of a flock of around 450 organically farmed sheep. Like many other farmers, His Royal Highness used to lose a number of young lambs to foxes each year, some seasons as many as 50 new lambs were taken by the efficient predators. Recently, however, the foxes have met their match – a group of four male gelding alpacas! Whenever the foxes slink into view, the observant alpacas set about chasing them away from their sheep ‘family’, running after the foxes and even giving them a kicking if necessary! It doesn’t take long for the foxes to get the message and hunt for their dinner elsewhere. Thanks to the trusty alpaca Prince Charles didn’t lose a single lamb during 2008.