Alpacas: The pet that does it all

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After samba, tango and world-class footballers, the alpaca is one of South America’s most famous exports.

After samba, tango and world-class footballers, the alpaca is one of South America’s most famous exports.

Often confused with their load-bearing cousin the llama, alpacas have been bred for centuries for their luxurious fibre that can be used to make woven garments and fabrics.

The charming and useful creatures are enjoying growing popularity in the UK with an increasing number of people spinning yarn from their fibre and others finding them to be useful pets who keep the grass short and scare off the foxes.

Karen Oglesby runs Meon Valley Alpacas, a 22-acre alpaca farm at Droxford in the Meon Valley.

With the help of her husband Peter and 16-year-old daughter Rebecca, Karen has been raising alpacas for more than a decade.

‘We’ve been involved with alpacas for 16 years,’ says Karen. ‘It’s grown from a hobby into a family business. We bought this property for horses because I used to do dressage, then we got alpacas to help keep the grass short.

‘Over time we got more and more alpacas and less horses and now we only have alpacas.

‘It takes me an hour in the morning to feed 60 alpacas and to check them over but it used to take me that long to do the same thing for just two horses.’

Alpacas are often mistaken for llamas and though they are both domesticated South American animals which are part of the same family, the camelids, the two species are quite different from each other.

Karen says: ‘Llamas are probably twice the size of alpacas and they are much taller. Llamas are bred as a beast of burden and they also have a double coat.

‘Alpacas are much smaller and have been bred for thousands of years for their fibre, not as beasts of burden.

‘Their fibre was prized by the Incas and only worn by nobles, but now that fibre that was the preserve of royalty is available to everyone.’

Within the alpaca family there are two breeds of animal; the suri and the huacaya.

Karen explains: ‘The suri’s fleece feels cool to the touch and is silky –it lies in twists and ringlets.

‘The huacaya look more like teddy bears. Their fleece feels warm and it stands out.’

Meon Valley Alpacas have a heard of 60 huacaya alpacas which each produce around 2kg of fibre every time they are sheared.

‘When the alpacas are sheared they look like pink panthers, all leggy and long necks, but I think they’re quite elegant,’ laughs Karen.

‘We sell a lot of our fibre to hand spinners and the rest we send off to a mill where it’s washed, combed and spun.

‘The white fibre takes any colour, it dyes very well and in South America the majority of alpacas are white but there are actually 22 recognised shades.

‘Alpaca fibre is warmer than sheep’s wool and it’s good for anyone with allergies because there’s no lanolin so it’s hypoallergenic.

‘The fibre from suris looks good as a fabric, but the huacaya is used more for clothing and both breeds’ fibres can be used to make duvets.’

Alpaca fibre can be spun into yarn and used to make many items from blankets and sweaters to gloves and socks. And the animal’s versatility doesn’t end there – it can be used for different jobs too.

Karen says: ‘People have alpacas as field pets which is probably the most common use – they’re cheaper, more attractive and friendlier than a lawn mower! They’re also a tourist attraction. Some people have ‘‘walking with alpaca’’ farms, and they’re very good guards for animals like lambs and chickens.’

With their herd mentality and natural instincts to protect the group, alpacas make excellent guardians for groups of smaller, more vulnerable animals. Their loud warning brays and sturdy hooves see off predators such as foxes and they also have another unique skill – spitting.

Karen explains: ‘There are three types of alpaca spit. The first is an air spit which is just what’s in their mouth. The second spit is what they have chewed and swallowed and then when they are really mad they bring up semi-digested grass.

‘The first spit is a “back off”, the second is “I mean it” and the third is “you’re really going to get it now!”.’

Alpacas will use spit to defend the herd and also to communicate displeasure with another member of the group. When alpacas spit at each other it is known as a spit-off, but according to Karen they rarely spit directly at people.

‘You might get caught in the crossfire but I’ve rarely been spat at, probably only three or four times in 16 years,’ she says.

As well as spitting alpacas also communicate with a variety of unique sounds.

‘Alpacas hardly make any noise at all but they do have some noises. The most common sound is a humming that they do when they’re not happy about where they are and the mums also hum to their babies to reassure them.

‘If alpacas are fighting they can scream very loudly. They also have an alarm call that sounds like a cross between a woodpecker and a donkey and when they are mating the males make a sound called orgling.’

The Oglesby family regularly show their animals and have won several awards for their breeding.

‘Last year we won the Medium Size Herd Award at the Heart of England Show in Warwickshire. Our two best home-bred males have also won 11 championships each since they first showed three years ago.

‘Showing alpacas is very important. You are looking to find certain blood lines that will pass on good qualities. Our breeding programme is going well and we have imported blood lines from the States which have had quite a big effect on our herd.

‘We are about to have our babies from the herd this year. They are always playful and like to run around and get up to mischief. You can tell what they are going to be like within a few days.

‘They all have their own personalities, some are quite shy and nervous while others are bold, some are leaders and some are followers. It’s important to have a balance of personalities in a herd.’

Karen thinks that looking after alpacas is straightforward with the right training.

’It’s not difficult to look after alpacas once you know the husbandry.

‘Anyone looking to get into alpacas needs to have at least an acre of grazing for two to three animals and they need to have a shelter for them.’

Meon Valley Alpacas runs a range of workshops and experiences, teaching people everything from how to look after their animals to how to prepare fleeces for processing and what to look out for when buying an alpaca. The farm also runs children’s birthday parties and school visits where all the family can meet the fascinating animals.

With her years of experience with alpacas, Karen knows that patience brings its own rewards.

‘People love alpacas because they are unique and nurturing but they’re also naturally a bit shy – they’re always wary of strangers. Their trust is hard earned but if they allow you to be near them it’s because they trust you.

‘They’re very special animals.’

Karen’s husband, Peter, helps to run the farm, keeping the ground in good condition for the alpacas.

Peter says:‘There’s a big difference between looking after alpacas and horses.

‘We have a soft spot for horses, but your life’s not your own if you’ve got a horse. They are very labour-intensive but alpacas aren’t.

‘There’s a better work life balance with alpacas, they’re very easy to manage and I couldn’t think of any animal that would be easier and they don’t try to escape or jump out. ‘

They’re quite inquisitive though.

‘If you walk into a field you will think they’re ignoring you but give it five minutes and you’ll be surrounded by them.’

Alpaca facts

There are two breeds of alpaca, the suri alpaca and the huacaya alpaca.

Alpaca fibre is warmer than sheep wool and has no lanolin in it, making the wool hypoallergenic.

Alpaca fibre can be used to make a wide variety of items including blankets, gloves, socks and coats.

World champion alpacas can sell for almost £300,000.