Alpacas are members of the South American camelid family, found naturally on the high altiplano of Chile and Peru. There are two domesticated species the Alpaca and the Llama, with two protected wild species the Vicuna and the Guanaco. Alpacas come in two types – the Huacaya, with a incredibly soft and dense fleece and the Suri – whose fleece hangs in silky spiral locks, giving fine lustrous fibre.
These animals were originally bred by the Incas in South America, where they were used not only for their fleece but also for meat, hides and leather. In many parts of the world the alpaca is now used for its fleece only and in the last 50 years the fleece quality has improved through careful breeding programmes to satisfy the increasing world demand for this luxury product.
Alpacas are gentle, inquisitive creatures which live in herds. The fleece comes in 23 different shades, from white through fawn, brown, grey to black. They are usually shorn once a year in the spring. The structure of the fleece differs from wool in that the individual fibres, which are measured in microns, are smooth and therefore there is very little or no ‘prickle factor’. They do not bite, as they only have teeth on the bottom jaw at the front, occasionally they will kick out backwards if startled but as they have soft padded feet it doesn’t hurt. They sometimes spit but usually only at each other but beware the line of fire!
Alpacas live out all year round, eating mostly grass and hay. Their feed can be supplemented with alpaca feed and feeding a small amount once a day not only ensures they have the correct nutrients and vitamins but also enables the owner to get close to check them over for any problems. They should have access to fresh, clean water at all times.
Alpacas are well adapted to our climate and have waterproof coats but they should have somewhere they can shelter from the wind or hot sun, maybe a thick hedge or tree cover. It is helpful to have a place they can come into in case of sickness or to do routine husbandry tasks.
Alpacas live up to 20 years, and females will have one baby, called a cria, per year. Twins are extremely rare. Cria are usually born in the morning and most females give birth easily and without fuss. Alpacas can be kept with up to 7 animals per acre and as they have padded feet they don’t damage the ground. Their toe nails should be trimmed regularly and teeth filed if necessary, regular vaccinations and worming are essential.
Alpacas are very quiet, they hum at times but make much less noise than sheep. They are intelligent animals and can easily be halter trained.
Alpacas are undeniably cute and often kept as pets and are excellent lawn mowers. Young males are often kept as flock guards for sheep and chickens, as they are very observant and will repel and kill foxes.
Alpacas are graceful, enchanting animals with great personality and charm – beware they can become addictive!