Alpacas were one of the first animals domesticated by man around 6000 years ago in South America, alongside their other camelid cousin the llama. Bred from the wild vicuna which are protected today, alpacas were domesticated predominantly for their fibre, whilst llamas were bred from the guanaco for use as pack (carrying) animals.
Our journey here started in 2012 when we bought 3 female yearling alpacas for our small paddock (Molly, Daisy and Sorrel) as family-friendly pets and fluffy lawnmowers rolled into one. That was it …we were completely hooked!
When they were old enough we bred them and had our first baby alpacas – known as cria.
Since then we have been selectively breeding them on a small scale with the aim to increase the quality of their fibre and the health of our herd. And as our herd has slowly grown so has the opportunity to “farm without harm”. These sensitive intelligent fibre producing animals can produce an increasingly sought after fibre product year upon year at shearing, without the need to slaughter or harm them. As prey animals you really have to earn their trust – it’s so much fun seeing them overcome their instincts to flee because they cannot help their curiosity or hungry bellies! When they bend over to sniff you on the nose (yes that’s an alpaca “kiss”) it really is a well earned gesture!
We keep and breed both types of alpaca. Firstly the huacaya alpaca, whose fibre grows in a tight wave, sitting vertically off the skin giving it the renowned “teddy-bear” look, comparable to cashmere in softness. Also the much rarer suri alpaca, whose fibre grows out from the skin in twisted locks without crimping, at best akin to silk in lustre and texture.
The demand for high quality alpaca fibre now outweighs the volume farmed in the UK. For that reason British sock manufacturers, for example, are still having to import yarn from Peru; and the British alpaca bedding is not made to a scale to supply the larger shops.
However we love to produce as many locally made goods as we can, using British mini mills to process our yarn, local crafters to knit, felt and crochet products for us, and we supply fleece for our luxurious bedding, pet bedding and even soap!
The exception to that rule is in our fur products. There is a high natural alpaca mortality rate in Peru where traditional methods of farming on the high plateaus in the Andes mean poor access to veterinary care, field shelters and cria coats. Alpacas are far too valuable to kill for their fur (although it is the softest thing you may ever feel!), but buying fur products supports these small indigenous farmers, especially in harsh winters when tens of thousands of animals can be lost due to severe cold snaps. Alpaca fibre globally is now increasingly seen as a more sustainable alternative to cashmere with many extra benefits such as it’s durability. Consequently there are large ranches of high quality animals expanding in South America which compete heavily with the small traditional farming communities which now supply the fashion industry.
In the West we are just beginning to discover for ourselves the incredible benefits of this most sought after fibre as a new rural industry of farming alpacas in Britain is slowly emerging. Our challenge is always to bring the fineness of the fleece of our animals we breed back to that of their wild ancestors the vicuna, yet with the density and lustre closer to the pure alpacas farmed by the ancient Incas.