Intelligent and inquisitive, alpacas have become popular with UK smallholders because they are comparatively inexpensive to keep, and you don’t need huge tracts of land to keep them. They can, however, be an expensive purchase – so it pays to be clear about your reasons for buying them. Are they for fleece, for breeding, for stud, or do you just want them as pets… or unusually attractive lawnmowers?
The most common reason to keep alpacas is for fleece. Each animal provides an annual harvest of 3-5kg of luxuriant fleece, and the market for this is steadily improving as breeders achieve better and better fleece quality. Breeding and stud can also be quite lucrative, although naturally there is a lot more to learn, and reputation is everything.
How much work are alpacas?
Alpacas are hardy animals that thrive in the UK, but you should check on them twice a day. Early signs of illness in alpacas are often subtle and easily missed, so a twice daily check gets you used to their individual characteristics, helping you to spot these subtle signs early. If you do need a vet and have trouble in finding someone with alpaca experience in your area, the British Vetinary Camelid Society can help.
Compared with sheep and other stock, alpacas are simple to take care of. Owners usually do their own vaccination, worming and toenail clipping, but for best results shearing is best done professionally. Other than that alpacas have few needs; grass and hay (or haylage, if you make it), some shelter, and access to fresh water. Supplementary feed is advisable to provide nutrients not normally found in British pasture, especially for breeding females and babies, known as ‘cria’.
How much space do alpacas need?
Alpacas are herd animals and become stressed if they are kept singly. Keep at least two or three, for which you need half an acre which has been cleared of plants that are poisonous to alpacas. The animals can be stocked at four to six per acre, as long as there is always adequate grazing available. You will need to enclose the paddock with 4′ sheep stock netting or post-and-rail fencing. Do not use barbed wire because they can get trapped in it by their unusual fleece. For a less permanent solution, electric tape fencing also works well.
Alpacas are happy living outside all year round in the UK but you should provide at least some trees or a substantial hedge for shelter in bad weather. A field shelter is the best option if your budget allows, and will reward you with lower vet bills, healthier animals and top-quality fleece. Having somewhere dry to stand when things get too muddy makes foot rot less likely too, although this is unusual in alpacas.
Alpacas tend to choose particular areas for soiling, eventually resulting in a heap of manure delightfully known as ‘alpaca beans’. Whether or not you practice regular worming, this needs to be removed regularly along with any scattered beans to help prevent parasites building up in the ground. Happily the alpaca beans are much sought after by gardeners and are even sold as ‘alpaca gold’. They are so mild they can be applied directly around plants without fear of burning the foliage (although you should never apply any manure around plants which are eaten raw). The N-P-K value of alpaca beans is normally around 1.5-0.2-1.1.
By far the most popular type of alpaca is the Huacaya, which has a fine, dense fleece and is easiest to look after. The other type of alpaca is the Suri, which has a long, lustrous fleece that makes wonderful fabric. Huacayas are shorn every spring, whereas Suris can be done every other year if you need unusually long fibres or if the animals are for show. The British Alpaca Society maintains a pedigree register. Buying pedigree stock is strongly recommended to be sure that the animals have not been stolen and have sound genetic characteristics.
Stud services are offered by a number of breeders. You can either take your females to the stud animal or have the owners drive the stud to you. The latter is more expensive, but the more females you have the more economic sense it makes. The timing of mating is not crucial, because female alpacas are ‘induced ovulators’: they don’t release an egg until they mate. This effectively means they are always in season.
Alpacas have a long gestation period, with a single cria born 11½ months after mating. Births are normally in the morning and are usually trouble-free although, as always, you need to be on hand in case of complications. The cria are weaned from their mothers at six months, although because of the long gestation you can safely have the mother mated again just one month after giving birth.
Selling alpaca fleece
Alpaca fleece can be sold raw, but isn’t worth much this way. Some shearers tell owners that it is worth nothing and are happy to take it off their hands! To increase the value, you can have it spun into yarn at a dedicated alpaca processing mill (or micro-mill, if you only have a few animals) and either sell this, or use it to produce goods for sale.
Where to learn more about alpacas
A number of breeders in the UK offer beginner courses in alpaca husbandry. These let you learn the basics and ask questions, but more importantly they let you get some ‘hands on’ experience before you go it alone. The British Alpaca Society also offers a number of courses for non-members, but if you’d like to find out more without going to these lengths then Gina Bromage’s book Llamas and Alpacas: A Guide to Management is excellent. Factual and pragmatic, it pulls no punches and really lets you know what you’ll be in for.