Irish farmers are branching out and creating multiple revenue streams on their farms. Farmers have discovered the fun in keeping alpacas. And unlike some other animals, they won’t bite you or annoy you or work you to death. And they look after themselves, even poo-ing in the same place every day in neat piles!
Strangely, the numbers of people keeping alpacas in Ireland is growing solidly. Alpacas are members of the Camelid family, originating from the South American Andes. They are reared for their exceptional fibre which is soft, lightweight and lustrous, second only to silk for strength, comparable to cashmere for luxury and more durable than both. It is thermally efficient and does not pill like cashmere. It is also much more acceptable on the skin for those with an allergy to wool.
Alpacas were domesticated around 6,000 years ago by the Incas and the valuable fibre they produced became known as ‘The Fibre of the Gods’ and ‘The Gold of the Andes’. The Incas bred superb, very fine-fleeced alpacas before the arrival of the Spanish, who slaughtered most of the alpacas in order to make way for sheep.
So why are farmers in Ireland increasingly becoming interested in Alpacas? Alpacas are found high in the altiplano of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. The environment is very harsh with widely fluctuating temperatures and very poor grazing. Alpacas are very adaptable, so tend to thrive in the more moderate climatic fluctuations in Ireland.
They have a lifespan of about 15-20 years. Cria (babies) weigh about 6 to 8 kg at birth. Alpacas are very sociable herd animals. It is cruel to keep one in isolation: they should be kept in groups of 3 or more. Alpacas are normally very friendly and can be kept with other animals such as goats, chickens and sheep and in fact provide good protection from foxes for these animals. The adults use a shrill alarm call to alert the herd and the fox. The dominant ones then advance slowly without fuss, with the cria (babies) behind them. If the fox doesn’t get the message, they have very good acceleration and plenty of speed. They kick, spit, and use verbal battering and body posturing (head snaking along the ground) against an aggressor. A fox is no match for a mad mother alpaca. And they don’t scare easily.
Australians have recorded alpacas protecting sheep and themselves by killing dingoes who were trying to feast upon their young. In the UK, alpacas are increasingly being treated as guard animals for sheep and hens. Prince Charles even keeps a couple to guard his organic lambs. If introduced with care, a household’s cats and dogs will be well tolerated by an alpaca herd.
Alpacas are calm and non-aggressive to humans and have been domesticated for longer than either cattle or sheep. Commonly they are very gentle and can be halter-trained relatively easily especially when young. Alpacas can and do spit but this is usually reserved for settling hierarchical disputes within the herd, as a sign of dominance over other alpacas. At feeding times farmers may get caught in the cross fire (ew!).They also spit if they are very frightened or when provoked. You can imagine the fun of vaccination day! Females will also spit at males to show they are pregnant and not at all interested in their attentions!
Alpacas are one of the easiest livestock animals to care for and probably the most charming. They are also hardy; so vet bills tend to be small. And here’s some more interesting reproductive news: alpacas are induced ovulators – they don’t come into season. The act of mating with a male (macho) induces the female (hembra) to ovulate, so you can manage the timing of births if you choose to. Most breeders prefer to time births for the spring and summer, when grass is plentiful and the offspring can get some sun on their backs.
Westwind Alpacas, in County Meath, is owned and run by Terry Gill. It was established in March 2010 with two pregnant females. Here Terry gives us an idea about alpaca farming.
How did you get into alpaca farming?
I work full time in the lighting industry. A few years ago, when the economy started going down, I started looking to set up a small business to supplement my income. As I work 9 to 5, the new business would have to fit around this. I saw Alpacas for sale in Wexford on the internet and before I could even get down to Wexford that weekend to see them – they had sold. A little light bulb went on in my head. I spoke to the owner of the alpacas and he said there was a good demand for alpacas in Ireland. I now have over 60 alpacas, including two Irish Supreme Champions. We compete in the Tullamore Agricultural Show every year.
Do you make a profit on your alpaca herd?
Yes. The main business is breeding and selling alpacas. I also have 3 champion male alpacas which are used as studs for smaller breeders who don’t have their own male or want different genetics for their females. Other sources of income include importing alpaca feed and selling it to other alpaca owners. I also sell the fleece every year, and shear alpacas. Spinners and craft people from all over Ireland buy the raw fleece.
Who buys the animals once they are born?
Sheep farmers buy the males that don’t make the grade for breeding. They make very affective guards for lambs at lambing time against foxes. I have seen Alpacas chase foxes away from their own herd. Once the males settle in to their ‘new herd’ they look after it as if it were their own. People who are interested in breeding alpacas buy pregnant females or pregnant females with cria (baby alpacas) at foot. There is also a large demand for alpacas as pets or as lawn mowers – if you have a large garden or paddocks surrounding your house, alpacas will keep the grass down and are very neat about it. People who are interested in spinning might also buy 2-3 alpacas to provide them with some fleece.
Why are they a good animal for Ireland?
They really thrive here. We have a much milder climate than where alpacas originate. The have evolved on the higher slopes of the Andes – Chile, Peru and parts of Bolivia. There it is warm during the day and very cold at night, so even what we would call harsh weather does not seem to faze them. They remain outdoors all year round and are happy with a field shelter or some natural shelter from hedges or trees.
What advice would you give to anyone considering getting alpacas?
I would advise people to do some research or talk to an experienced breeder. Visit a few alpaca farms to see the farm set-up and husbandry needs. Only buy healthy, problem-free stock from healthy, problem-free herds. Take your time – it can be a big investment. I would whole-heartedly recommend alpacas – they are a real joy and fun to work with.
For more information on alpaca farming, see here.