Alpacas belong to a group of animals known as camelids (other camelids include: llamas, vicunas and gucinacos as well as camels). Originally from South America, the alpaca was domesticated over 6,000 years ago by the Incas and played a large part in the Inca economy providing meat and fleece. They can be found in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. The first alpacas in the UK were seen in zoos rather than on farms. However, the alpaca has become increasingly popular in this country over the past 20 years or so with more alpaca breeders appearing each year. This said, numbers are still relatively low (approx. 30,000) and the vast majority of breeders have emerged within the last 10 years.
- What are Alpacas called? The Spanish term for a male alpaca is a ‘macho’ and a female is a ‘hembra’. A baby alpaca is called a ‘cria’ and weaned cria are called ‘weanlings’.
- Alpacas are closely related to Llamas. They both belong to the South American Camelid family, along with the guanacos and vicunas. They are also related to camels. The main differences are that the Llama is twice the size of an alpaca and has banana shaped ears, whereas the alpaca has spear shaped ears. The Alpaca is a fleece animal, whereas the Llama is a pack animal.
- Alpacas weigh between 60 and 80kg and reach 75-95cms at the shoulder.
- There are 2 different breeds of alpaca, Suri and Huacaya (pronounced Wuh-kai-ya). Huacaya alpacas are fluffy like teddy bears, they have a shorter, dense fleece with crimp and Suri alpacas produces a long fleece made up of locks.
- Alpacas usually live to between15 -20 years of age. A female will commonly breed for most of its life. First becoming pregnant at 12-24 months and frequently breeding without problem until the age of 13-15 years.
- Alpacas usually give birth in the morning or early afternoon, but evening births do happen. Night time births are unusual and commonly indicate some kind of problem.
- Alpacas rarely spit at humans, if they do it is usually provoked. Alpacas all have their individual personalities and are gentle creatures. You are more likely to get caught in the cross-fire of 2 spitting alpacas, rather than a direct hit! And when you do get a face full of spit you will certainly know it as the smell of it is a very strong smell. Here at Churchfield Alpacas we know all of our animals by name, and are familiar with the distinct characteristics of each alpaca. It is very rare for an alpaca to bite a human. Alpacas only have teeth on the lower jaw at the front, which meet a hard upper pad on the top. Friendly alpacas can sometimes chew on your clothing, but this is an affectionate gesture, not a bite. Alpacas also can kick. However, you can desensitise them at a young age by handling, touching their hind legs. If you have a ‘kicker,’ make sure you keep as close as possible to them so there is the minimum impact! Fortunately, an alpaca’s foot is made up of a soft pad, so injuries to humans are minimal.
- Alpacas are friendly by nature and will try hard to maintain a peaceful environment where possible. Regular contact with your alpacas increases their trust in you, and consequently your enjoyment of them.
- Alpacas are relatively easy to halter train. They are naturally inquisitive and majority of them enjoy the opportunity to explore when on the halter, especially if a friend is with them.
- Alpacas are shorn usually in springtime. The Huacaya is shorn annually and a Suri’s can be shorn annually or every other year. An average fleece weighs between 2.5 kg and 5 kg each year. Alpaca fleece produce excellent fiber for spinning, which is light, warm and durable.
- Alpacas are recognised in 7 different colour groups with 22 natural shades. The colours are ranging from Black, white, fawn, brown and grey.
- Alpacas are not part of the food chain. Therefore, they do not require passports, nor do they fall under the DEFRA movement restrictions.
- The majority of the alpacas in this country are registered with the British Alpaca Society (BAS). The society not only works at ensuring the quality of the national herd is maintained, but also sets high standards for alpaca health and welfare. We would strongly recommend that only registered alpacas are purchased.
- Alpacas should be transported in a closed trailer or van. If possible, always have a companion to alleviate stress. They usually Cush (sit down) when in transit.
- Alpacas are gentle on the land as their feet are made up of a soft pad and do not churn up the ground as other animals such as horses do.
- Alpacas tend to go to the toilet in certain areas, making ‘poo picking’ simple. Their droppings are virtually odorless and make great fertilizer. Alpaca manure consists of small, oval droppings resembling beans and are known as "Green Beans" within the alpaca breeding industry. With three stomachs to process food, the alpaca diet of grass, hay, vitamins, minerals, and fresh water moves efficiently through from product to poop. Green Beans are a natural source of slow releasing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium/potash-all in small percentages - so there is no problem burning or over fertilization. Poop in piles is easy to collect! Compost it (removes the slight amount of ammonia from urine) or put it directly on outdoor plants. NOTE: composted beans are best for vegetable gardens.
- Alpacas get along with sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, cats, dogs and chickens to name but a few! Alpacas can be used as guard animals to protect sheep in lambing season and also to protect chickens from foxes.
- Alpacas are ruminants, having 3 compartments in their stomachs. This means that the food goes into one part of the stomach when they eat it, but then they will bring it back to chew again later. It then goes to a different compartment. This means they get more goodness from it i.e. ‘chewing the cud’. Alpacas graze on grass in the summer and hay is offered in the winter. Also a specially formulated vitamin/mineral mix e.g. camilibra is given daily.
- Alpacas are great pets; they are very peaceful animals who hum to each other. They are clean, intelligent animals and make great pets, companions and fiber producers. They are inquisitive, but shy animals and do not like being touched on the top of their heads. You are more likely to get a good response from an alpaca if you let them approach you, rather than chasing them!
- Can an Alpaca be kept by itself? It is not unheard of, but it’s not advised to keep an alpaca by itself as it is a herd animal and will suffer from stress with no companions of its own kind. Ideally, alpacas should be kept in groups of 3. Males may be kept in pairs but females require to be kept in groups of 3 or more. Alpacas get security and contentment from having other alpacas.
- Three alpacas can be kept on half-an-acre of land. Obviously this is dependent on the quality of the pasture. Rotation of paddocks is beneficial. Alpacas benefit from a field shelter, unless there is adequate shade available from trees etc. We provide field shelters in all our paddocks to give protection from extreme weather. It is equally important to provide shelter from the sun as well as the cold and the wet.
- We have found that alpacas rarely challenge fencing and are usually content just to graze with the herd. However, stud males are more likely to risk escape when females are nearby. We use fencing; both post and rail, and sheep netting, with either a wire or wooden rail on top. We keep the height at a minimum of 4 feet. Barbed wire should not be used.
- Paddocks should be kept as clean as possible and we recommend regular poo picking or hoovering, we use a Trafalgar paddock cleaner to hoover our alpaca poo. We also check land for poisonous plants, for a list of plants visit the British Alpaca Society (BAS) website www.bas-uk.com
To find your local Animal Health Offices in England, Scotland and Wales using your postcode, click here.
To find details of camelid vets, see www.camelidvets.org
Support and advice also available from: The Farming Community Network - 08453679990
- Most handling is easier to carry out in a small area, so a designated area to catch animals is a must.
- Always handle animals with the respect they deserve; if you enter a pen in a mad rush with flailing arms and bullying tactics in mind you will never win. Calm, quiet and gentle, but with an authoritative manner is the way to go.
- Alpacas can be taught quite successfully to lead on a halter. This can be initiated with brief but frequent sessions. It takes time and patience and an understanding of your animals. A halter-trained animal can often make life easier when the vet comes to call.
- Some animals become stressed, nervous or frightened when being handled and respond to this by simply lying down and refusing to move. The more they are handled, the more they will become accustomed to it.
- As a rule, alpacas will usually walk away from you. When moving your animals always walk behind them gently, guiding them to where you want them to go.
- If no catch pen is available, it is possible to catch an animal in a field with the aid of ropes, poles, or even a few friends or family walking around with outstretched arms.
- Always remember that stress is a killer, but not always clearly visible. Please be aware of what you are doing to your animals.
- It is very important that an alpaca's head collar fits correctly. Advice on halters and fitting can be downloaded here
- Different groups of animals will have different nutritional requirements.
- Always ensure that there is enough grazing. If there is not, and especially in winter months, the animals should be offered hay or haylage.
- There must be a constant supply of fresh, clean drinking water.
- Heavily pregnant and lactating females and other animals also require a supplement concentrate feed during the winter months. When feeding concentrate, ensure that the food is suitable and offered in the correct quantities to meet your animals’ nutritional requirements.
- Feeding of sugar beet in the winter is a good source of energy.
- Don't use hay nets because animals could get their heads caught and hang.
- Be aware that a number of plants are poisonous to alpacas and steps should be taken to ensure that they are removed from paddocks. For details of the effects of various poisonous plants and a list of a number of common ones that can harm alpacas, click here.
Alpaca fibre is one of the most luxurious fibres in the world. It comes in 22 officially recognised colours and every shade in between.
Its most remarkable quality is its softness – alpaca fibre is inherently soft. This is due to the fact it has less scales on each individual fibre, compared to sheep's wool which has many, and more prominent scales on each individual fibre. (Suri alpaca have less scales than Huacaya alpaca so their fibre is even softer.) Even at its coarsest, alpaca is inherently softer than sheep's wool and often a certain percentage of alpaca fibre is added to sheep's wool during the woollen process to enhance the handle or feel.
The lack of scales and smoothness of the fibre also gives alpaca a natural brightness as the smoother surface reflects the light better. Suri alpaca (because it has less scales) reflects the light like a mirror and is renowned for its deep lustre, as well as its luxuriously smooth handle.
Alpaca has been a must have item ever since Sir Titus Salt introduced it into the UK marketplace in around 1836. Alpaca coats, gowns and materials were very fashionable during Queen Victoria's reign – in fact they were so prized and so hardwearing that they were bequeathed in the wills of the deceased to the next generations. Sir Titus became the largest employer in Bradford, West Yorkshire, building the model industrial village of Saltaire in 1851 on the back of this success.
Today, many UK breeders process their own alpaca fibre and sell the yarns and products direct to the public. Google British alpaca fibre you will be amazed at what you will discover about the enterprising nature of the UK alpaca community. BAS members are making and selling all kinds of alpaca products, ranging from insoles for boots and wellingtons with coarser fibre, to babywear and exclusive luxury fashion items at the other extreme.
The BAS National Fibre Committee consists of representatives from the regional groups who meet together to discuss the uses of alpaca fibre. Its aim is to provide a national focus through which the membership can advance their initiatives towards the creation of a viable commercial market for alpaca fibre and product in the UK.
Knitters adore alpaca and rapidly become addicted to it once they have felt the softness and quality of the yarns. South Americans use a lot of heavy bright dyes on their yarns which suit the garments and products they want to make for their home market, however, here in Europe the attraction is the vast range of natural colours. The natural, subtle but expansive colour palette offered by the alpaca is one of its main attractions. In its natural state, undyed, it also comes with an environmental cache, making it very attractive to the 'green' market.
Properties of alpaca
Alpaca is a dry fibre with a minimum lanolin content which means it does not need to be scoured prior to spinning. It can be spun into yarn straight from the fleece and is often washed at the hank (a coiled bundle or yarn) stage of processing.
At its finest alpaca fibre gets as low as 15-16 microns (the mean of the fibre diameters or average diameter) which is very fine indeed, in fact it is often described as a hard wearing cashmere. At its finest it is used like cashmere to produce high quality, luxury garments in both the woollen process for knitwear and weaving and in the worsted process for fine suiting and materials.
The fibre from the Huacaya alpaca (those that look like teddy bears) is more suited to the woollen process and the fibre from the Suri alpaca is a lot like silk and more akin to the worsted process. At its finest, women's lingerie can be made from Suri fibre.
However, even on a global scale, alpaca fibre is still very much a niche market. There are roughly three million kg of alpaca fibre produced in South America every year and this still only represents .04% of all the fibres processed in any given year. The average alpaca produces around 2.4kg of alpaca fibre per annum, with some having the potential to produce around 4-6kg per annum.