A bit about Alpacas

That’s ALPACA, not llama!

llama-alpacaAlpacas take great offence at being called llamas, although they are related. So what’s the difference? Well, alpacas are smaller, fluffier, and better tempered! If it’s big, ugly and grumpy looking (OK, OK – maybe that’s just a question of taste!) with a shaggy coat and banana-shaped ears, it’s probably a llama. If it’s cute and fleecy with small spear-shaped ears, it’s probably an alpaca.

And yes, both alpacas and llamas do spit sometimes, but usually only at each other – if you’re unlucky enough to get spat at it tends to be because you’ve got caught in the cross-fire or otherwise have unwittingly said something very rude (such as calling an alpaca a llama!).

Where… do alpacas come from?

alpaca_scottieWell not actually from Scotland, of course, but they do seem to like it here! Alpacas and llamas belong to a group of animals called the South American camelids, descended from an ancient form of camel that migrated to the Americas millions of years ago. They were domesticated by the Incas from the wild vicuna (in the case of alpacas) and guanaco (llamas) for their meat, fleece, fuel, and as pack animals.

There are thought to be about 3.5 million alpacas in South America, and during the last century they started to be bred successfully in North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China, and throughout Europe. There are now about 40,000 alpacas in the UK, including at least 2,000 in Scotland, with numbers increasing every year.

Alpacas and llamas can interbreed – the resulting offspring are called huarizo. We’ve never actually seen one, but they’re supposed to have a beautiful fleece and gentle nature … which sound just like an alpaca to us!

Why… do you keep them?

alpacas_tropfishBecause they’re such fabulous, friendly, fluffy, complete lunatics, that’s why!

Seriously, we couldn’t put it better than Gina Bromage does in Llamas and alpacas: a guide to management: “The odds are that if you are contemplating keeping any of the South American camelids you have been enchanted. The most level-headed and commercially minded of people can be bewitched by the grace, beauty, gentleness, intelligence and enormous eyes of these animals, and once this has happened they simply must find an excuse to keep them.”

So, those potential ‘excuses’ include:

  • trekking companions – alpacas are too small to use as pack animals, but they can easily be halter trained and quite enjoy going for a walk
  • flock guardians – protecting sheep or chickens from foxes
  • lawn mowers – a very decorative (and environmentally friendly) way to keep the grass under control if you’ve got a big garden
  • therapy – alpacas have been used in therapy for a range of mental and emotional disorders, and are certainly very calming to be around: “like fleecy, friendly tropical fish – we can watch them for hours!”
  • fleece – last but not least, there’s all that wonderful fleece! Alpacas are shorn each year, producing 2-3 kg of exceptionally fine, warm, lustrous, soft fibre.

Please do remember that you mustn’t ever have just one alpaca (or llama, for that matter). They’re herd animals and would literally die from the stress of being kept alone.

What… do they eat?

alpaca_mouthgrassGrass, mainly, and hay in the winter, but some of them are very partial to the odd apple or carrot as well. Now, I’m not saying they’re daft or anything, but you have to be a bit careful with what they have access to – as a non-native animal, they don’t have any natural sense of what plants are good to eat and what’s not; and being curious beasties, they’re likely to try just about anything. So you have to make sure that there aren’t any poisonous weeds (such as ragwort) growing or bushes or trees (such as rhododendrons) overhanging their paddock.

Alpacas also need a daily feed supplement. In their native South America, they’d usually have to eat large quantities of poor quality grazing; whereas here, where the grazing is much lusher, they don’t need to eat as much to get the calories they need, so tend not to get enough minerals. We use Camelid Complete Feed, which they really enjoy – charging down the field to be first in line at feeding time.

We also give the alpacas a vitamin supplement in the winter, to make up for the lack of sunlight. Again, most of them enjoy this (especially Horatio, who’ll be off with the tube of vitamin paste given half a chance!).

How… do you look after them?

WelliesAlpacas are really pretty easy to look after, even for complete novices as we were when we started out. You need a field or paddock (obviously!) – a minimum of ½ acre for three alpacas, but the more space they have to romp about, the better. They need a simple field shelter to hide from the wind and rain (although they will often choose to ignore it and stand around in the middle of the field getting soaked); and a secure fence with no barbed wire to get tangled up in.

They need fresh water available at all times (although you may find that they use it for paddling in, as much as for drinking), their daily mineral supplement, and a few regular treatments such as toenail trimming, vitamin supplements in winter, and occasional treatments and vaccinations to control mites, worms, and various diseases (very similar to those for sheep). You can easily learn to give these routine treatments and injections yourself.

Otherwise, it’s just lots of grass in summer and plenty of hay in winter, with just a bit of pasture management to control weeds and to clear up their poo patches from time to time (but very helpfully they tend to make their ‘deposits’ communally and all the same place, making this pretty easy – and it really is the most fantastic manure).

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