Alpacas originate from the high Altiplano of South America. They belong to the camelid family, with two domesticated species – the Alpaca and the Llama, and two protected wild species – the Vicuna and the Guanaco.
There are two types of alpaca, the Huacaya (pronounced Wuh Kai Ya) whose fleece most resembles a sheep fleece but is softer, dense and incredibly light and the Suri with a fleece that hangs in silky spiral locks. The alpaca fibre is known as ‘the fibre of the gods’ and for good reason as the fleece produces a yarn that is one of the most desirable in the world. It has a softness that is comparable to cashmere but has strength like the Merino wool. The fleece comes in 23 differing shades from white through fawn, brown, grey and black. Its amazing softness comes from the individual fibres that are smooth and therefore none or very little ‘prickle factor’
Alpacas are gentle and social animals that live in herds. They have adapted to our climate and are able to live out all year. They eat mostly grass and hay with a supplement of alpaca feed at times. They should always have access to fresh, clean water and some form shelter is advisable to protect them from hot sun and high winds. It is necessary to have somewhere they can come inside in case of illness and to do routine husbandry tasks such as vaccinations, worming and shearing. They require similar vaccinations and worm treatments as sheep and their toes should be trimmed so as to get too long.
Alpacas can live up to 20 years and the females will have one baby per year, called a ‘cria’. The gestation period is approximately 11 months and birthing usually takes place in the daylight hours. People often ask if alpacas bite, the answer is not usually, they only have teeth on the bottom jaw at the front, with a hard pad on the top jaw. They will occasionally kick out backwards if startled but their padded feet do little damage. They sometimes spit but usually it is only at each other, but beware the line of fire!
Alpacas should be kept in groups of at least three and will live happily on around 5 animals per acre. They can be kept behind most fencing, which they will respect, but it is advisable not to use barbed wire as it can damage their exquisite fleece. Their soft padded feet do not damage the ground and they make excellent lawn mowers! They are inquisitive by nature and will repel foxes and other unwanted intruders especially when young are around. Alpacas are often used as guard animals for chickens or sheep.
These delightful animals are highly intelligent and can be easily trained to walk with a halter on. Many owners and breeders take their best animals to show competitions where rosettes and trophies are highly sought after.