Alpacas as an alternative enterprise
Alpacas belong to the camelid family. They originate on the high altiplano in Peru, Chile and Bolivia but are now kept around the world. There are two types: the huacaya has a fine dense fleece while that of the suri hangs in long ringlets.
Compared with the three million animals living on the altiplano, the UK herd, at around 16,000 animals, is small. However, it is growing rapidly as the alpaca is increasingly seen as a viable alternative farming enterprise and more people are keeping them as pets.
Breeders are continually improving the quality of animals and their fibre and this is increasing the market opportunities for alpaca products. The fine, warm, light, lustrous, luxury fibre can be made up into yarn, jumpers, shawls, throws, suits, coats, duvets and other items.
Learning about alpacas
Many breeders offer introductory days for those considering alpaca ownership and there are other courses available ranging from ones on general husbandry and welfare to concentrated judge training events for those wishing to officiate at British Alpaca Society (BAS) shows.
All alpaca owners are urged to join the Society which offers support and aims to promote the alpaca. More information can be obtained by ringing 0845 331 2468, e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or through the website (www.bas-uk.com) from where a membership form can be downloaded.
Membership is open to all owners and also to those who are simply interested in alpacas. Members receive the quarterly Society magazine, Alpaca, free of charge. This publishes current Society news together with feature articles on all aspects of alpacas. Members can register their animals on the BAS Pedigree Registry, enter BAS shows and access the member-only area of the website. The website is a major resource which includes general information about alpacas and factors involved in keeping them.
BAS also encourages formation of Regional Groups for exchange of information, seminars, workshops and social gatherings which are open to new members, prospective owners or those simply interested in alpacas.
Looking after alpacas
Alpacas are naturally herd animals, only really feeling safe with their own kind and they must not be kept on their own. They are generally hardy but should be checked, preferably twice daily.
Spending time with the animals is important as it enables owners to get to know them and their individual characteristics.
Alpacas give little indication they are unwell and any unusual behaviour or symptoms of ill health can usually be detected when checking the herd, allowing early help to be administered or veterinary assistance sought. The Society can supply a list of veterinarians with practical knowledge of alpacas if required.
Adults weigh 60–80 kg and can live for 15–25 years. The gestation period is 11? months leading to a single cria (baby). Conveniently, birthing typically takes place during the day. Cria are weaned at six months and are usually wormed at the same time.
There are some practical matters that have to be attended to. Toe nails need to be trimmed three-to-four times a year. Foot rot is not common in alpacas but 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 includes six-monthly vaccinations against clostridial diseases and worming of the entire herd. During winter, a natural boost of A, D & E vitamins is useful, especially for cria as it helps bone growth and development.
The fleece is the primary reason for keeping alpacas and shearing should be carried out annually for huacayas but suris may be shorn every other year. The fleece generally weighs 3-5 kg. One of the wonderful things about alpaca fibre is the very wide range of natural fleece colours from white, through fawn and brown, to black.
Alpacas should be stocked at five-to-six animals per acre with adequate grazing available at all times and hay or haylage provided, particularly in winter. Where possible a grazing rotation should be used. There must be a constant supply of fresh, clean drinking water.
Pregnant and lactating females, and other animals in winter, require a supplementary concentrate feed. Four-foot sheep fencing using stock netting is suitable for alpacas but barbed wire should be removed.
Post-and-rail and electric-tape fencing can be used but electric netting should be avoided.
Alpacas can live outdoors all year round but they must be provided with some form of shelter – hedges, trees or purpose-built field shelters. A catch pen is useful when animals are required for routine examinations. Animals should be handled authoritatively but calmly and gently. They can be halter-trained, usually from about six months. They tend to choose specific soiling areas which makes paddock cleaning relatively easy.
Animals can be transported in a livestock trailer or horsebox. They must not be tied as sitting is the norm while in transit. Entire males and females should travel separately or be partitioned with a solid division, and adequate stops must be made during the journey to provide clean water and food. This is particularly necessary for females with cria at foot to allow the baby to suckle.
The BAS publishes guidelines for those wishing to buy alpacas and strongly recommends that only BAS-registered animals be purchased.
Only the UK-born offspring of registered parents can be registered in the UK. All imports are screened to ensure they meet minimum standards.
Members can visit the Herd Book section of the BAS website to check the registered status and registered breeding record of any animal and potential members can contact the Society office for these checks to be made.
The strong advice is to look before you buy. A ‘perfect’ alpaca has a short muzzle, a triangular and symmetrical head, an even jaw and bite, erect spear-shaped ears, bright eyes with no discharge, a slightly sloping, straight back, good proportions between body, legs and neck, and an alert stance. Any suspected genetic faults or injuries, or problems arising from nutritional or environmental factors, should be checked by a vet.
The BAS Welfare Committee provides a 24-hour first point of contact on all alpaca welfare issues with a structured and immediate response in cases of neglect or mistreatment. It also provides information to members on general alpaca health and welfare. BAS with the British Llama Society are the two camelid breed societies which support the charity, British Camelids Ltd which deals with welfare issues for all camelids via its links with the British Camelid Veterinary Society.
It is also committed to furthering education of all those who own or are interested in these animals.
It is most important that owners enjoy their animals. They should never be afraid to ask another owner or a vet for help. There is always something new to learn about alpacas.
Lucrative niche market for this luxurious, yet resilient fibre
Many benefits can be gained from owning alpacas and not merely those related to investment. Becoming an alpaca farmer means taking up the challenge to breed toward the development of a new livestock and fibre industry. There is a lucrative niche market for this luxurious, yet resilient fibre both at the local level and on the international export scene.
Because of their short supply, alpacas continue to command high prices, yet they are very economical to manage.
They are excellent herd animals where acreage is small-good news for the small landholder. Good news too, for the large landowner wishing to diversify into a luxury fibre offering excellent returns from a small and easily managed herd.
Already, our talent for efficient fibre production is being channelled into the development of strong, UK bred alpacas.
Eventually, there will be top quality fleece in quantities sufficient to supply both local and international demand. There is a very strong market for alpaca product both in the UK and internationally with supply always falling well short of demand.
The UK has already developed past the cottage industry stage and now has the facilities and infrastructure in place to value-add to the local clip. Alpaca garments and yarn are produced by a number of companies and fashion houses demonstrate an increasing interest in the value of alpaca fibre.
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.
Alpacas are rare and precious animals. Treasured by the ancient Incan civilization, their fine fleeces were reserved for Incan royalty.
Together with their close relatives, the llamas, alpacas provide clothing, food, fuel, and, no doubt companionship as domesticated animals as long as 5,000 years ago.
Alpacas were close to annihilation after the Spanish conquest for the Incas. That they survived was due to their importance to the Indian people, and to the animals’ ability to tolerate extraordinary harsh climatic conditions. It was not until the mid 1800s that the beauty and resilience of alpaca fleece was ‘rediscovered’ and re-awoke the world’s interest.
Today, alpaca farming is concentrated in the Altiplano - the high altitude regions of Southern Peru, Bolivia, and Chile where life is difficult. Alpacas not only battle a harsh climate - burning sun by day, freezing conditions at night-but also receive few of the benefits of modern animal husbandry. Yet they survive, although in relatively small numbers. In their homeland of South America, Peru has approximately 2.5 million, Bolivia around 500,000 and there are only 50,000 in Chile and Argentina combined.
In 1984, the United States and Canada imported their first alpacas, followed by the UK in 1986. These countries, with their (relatively) more temperate climates and more sophisticated animal husbandry techniques, have proven beneficial for the species.
In 2001, there were approximately 10,000 alpacas in the UK and increasing rapidly. While the outlook for fibre sales is excellent, the emphasis in this young UK industry will be on breeding for the foreseeable future. To increase alpaca numbers is a ‘local’
challenge that will not be met by importing from South America.
Limited imports may arrive from Peru and Bolivia; however some quarantine restrictions and export limits control the number of animals leaving South America.
Again, the UK finds itself in the forefront of new rural industry development. Alpacas, for a multitude of reasons, are one of the most exciting herd options available in this country today.
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