Alpacas – A Guide (By Rachel Hebditch)
The alpaca herd in the UK continues to grow and so does the number of breeders. Most new and prospective alpaca addicts are looking for information about the care and welfare of these animals and this Alpaca World article is designed to fulfil that need. It will answer the questions frequently asked by new owners and although not definitive will cover most aspects of alpaca management and best practice at this point in time. There is still a lot to be learnt about alpaca husbandry in Britain and it is always worth asking experienced owners and veterinarians for their view on particular problems.
Alpacas are hardy and relatively easy to look after but they are not immortal. They are susceptible to most of the diseases that affect other farmed livestock. They should be treated with gentleness and respect and in return for this care you will find them a most rewarding animal to keep.
History of the Alpaca
Alpacas are members of the South American Camelid family along with the guanaco, llama and vicuna. Their traditional keepers are the Aymara and Quechua people of the high Andes. They used selective breeding to develop the llama as a beast of burden, and the alpaca for its high quality fleece. Both animals were butchered.
Today’s camelids evolved in North America between nine and eleven million years ago. Some three million years ago a wild form known as Hemiauchenia migrated across the isthmus of Panama into South America. This animal had long limbs, a long neck and was bigger than today’s guanaco. It developed into Palaeolama and Lama and other ancestral forms and eventually, some twelve thousand years ago, two species survived Lama (the wild guanaco) and Vicugna (the wild vicuna). For many years it was thought that the alpaca and the llama were descended from the wild guanaco. However archae-zoologist Jane Wheeler and a team of scientists eventually proved by using DNA that the alpaca was descended from the wild vicuña and its name was changed from Lama pacos to Vicuña pacos.
Archaeologists believe that the domestication of alpacas and llamas was underway between 4,000 and 5,000 BC and that the animals were central to a whole series of cultures from the Chavin, Moche, Nazca, Huati, Pucara and finally the Inca.
The Inca (1438 – 1532) were obsessed with fine cloth and measured their wealth in textiles. They had a highly regimented state-controlled textile industry aimed at ensuring fibre quality for consumption and trade. Records of flock sizes were kept on quipus, knotted recording devices made of alpaca cloth, and there was an emphasis on breeding for pure colours particularly brown, black and white for sacrificial purposes. Evidence supports the theory that fibre quality was far higher before the Spanish Conquest.
In 1991 a group of archaeologists working at El Yaral in the pre-Incan Chiribaya culture found alpacas that had been sacrificed and buried. Due to the extreme dryness of the climate the animals had been mummified and their fleece was found to be far finer and more uniform than fleeces today.
The Spanish conquest effectively brought to an end thousands of years of selective breeding. It is estimated that 90 percent of the alpaca and llama population disappeared within one hundred years of the conquest and eighty percent of the indigenous people. The Spanish introduced their own horses, mules, sheep and pigs forcing the surviving camelids to the marginal habitats where only they could survive due to their evolutionary advantage.
Andean pastoralism found itself sidelined and it wasn’t until the English entrepreneur Sir Titus Salt ‘discovered’ alpaca fibre in the 1860’s that European investment was involved, the major processing mills were built in Arequipa in Peru and alpaca became established as a luxury fibre.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1969 when a military coup heralded a period of radical land reform. Large farms were confiscated by the government and redistributed to the peasants and many of the new alpaca farmers lacked the skills to run large herds. The alpaca population dropped to a low of about two and a half million animals by 1992 – a decline of fifty percent.
Moves to help these farmers were disrupted by the Shining Path guerrillas who twice destroyed the La Reya research station that was funded by the government to improve alpaca husbandry. Today funding from America, the European Community and the Peruvian and Chilean governments is being invested in the region to attempt to improve husbandry techniques, to put an end to the cross breeding of alpacas and llamas and to improve fleece quality.
The export of large numbers of alpacas to the USA, Australia and Europe began in the 1980’s and continued through the 1990’s. Pedigree registers were set up in most countries and imported animals had to pass a screening test to prevent animals with genetic defects entering the country. Breeders in these first world countries with accurate DNA based registries are able to track bloodlines and develop pedigrees. This breeding accuracy should enable them to produce animals with finer, denser fleeces that can compete with other fibres such as cashmere.
Worldwide the alpaca population is estimated to be 3 million, with the majority in the South American regions of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. Today the alpaca is farmed not only in South America, but also in North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and most of the countries of Europe.
Alpacas – A Briefing
- Origin: South America – Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina
- Lifespan: 15 to 20 years
- Breeds: Huacaya and Suri
- Colours: The textile industry in South America recognises 22 different shades but alpacas basically come in black, grey, brown, fawn and white
- Digestive system: Functional ruminants with three stomachs rather than the four in classical ruminants. Any change in diet must be introduced gradually to avoid digestive upset.
- Feet: Soft padded feet minimising damage to pasture
- Diet – Grazers and occasional browsers
- Dung: Tend to dung in communal piles thus reducing worm infestation
- Size: Adults weigh between 65 and 85 kilos and measure about a metre at the withers
- Breeding: Induced ovulators so no fixed breeding season. Receptive females can be mated at any time of the year
- Gestation: On average 11.5 months but can be any time between 11 and 12 months
- Newborns: Called cria, normally born during the morning. Twins are extremely rare
- Use: Bred for their fleece and producing on average 2.0 to 3.0 kg. Breeders aim to increase this to 6kg plus. The fleece is soft to handle, strong, lustrous with excellent thermal properties. South American camelids can be used as herd protectors for sheep and poultry.
- Travel: Sit down whilst travelling in a livestock trailer
- Temperament: Alpacas have a strong herd instinct and should never be run alone. They are generally docile, simple to herd and halter train and have a natural curiosity.
Alpaca Conformation and Assessment
Alpacas should be well proportioned, balanced and symmetrical. The breed type should be evident in the head, ears, tail set and fleece type. The head should be short, thick, triangular and symmetrical with an even jaw. The ears should be erect, spear shaped and upright. The body should be strong and have a reasonably straight top line with a broad rump, sloping slightly downwards to the tail. The overall balance of proportion should be that the neck is two thirds the length of the back and the leg length and neck are the same. The front legs should be relatively straight with generally forward facing toes and correctly angled pasterns. The hind legs should have correct angulations to the hock and pasterns, are relatively square standing, ankles, pasterns and toes pointing forward. All limbs should move freely and smoothly in a fluid integrated motion. Male organs should be developed adequately relative to age and both testicles should be visible and uniform in size. The female external genitalia should be normal in appearance and in size. Body condition should be good and mouth should be correct. Alpacas have front teeth on the bottom jaw only and these should meet the dental pad and not be over shot or under shot.
When assessing an alpaca, look for a strong, healthy individual with sound conformation. It is easier to breed in better fibre characteristics and volume than it is to breed out conformation problems and genetic defects. To lead a long and productive life as a fibre producer, alpacas need to carry their fibre on a sound frame. Alpaca faults can be categorised as being caused by genetic or hereditary traits, nutritional or environmental factors and injury. Those thought to be hereditary are the least desirable whilst those caused by other factors should have no repercussions in a breeding programme. You should look out for tall animals and very short animals – they could have llama genes or be a dwarf; Base wide or Base narrow – wide or narrow depth of chest effecting the placement of the feet on the ground and the size of the cavity. Inspect the animal – run your hands over its back and tail, look at the eyes, the ears and the mouth and teeth; pick up the feet, look at the genitals; watch the animal walk away from you and towards you looking for freedom of movement and the angulations of the legs.
Look at the fleece and assess its fineness, density, brightness and character. Crimp with clearly defined staples is likely to mean that the fleece is fine and dense. The brightness of the fleece, does it shine when you open it in the sun, is important too. Bear in mind that fleece coarsens with age and that an older animal that is still carrying a good fleece has proved him or herself.
There are two alpaca types – the huacaya and suri and they are distinguished by their fleece characteristics.
The Suri has a lustrous fine fibre with no crimp that hangs down from the body in long pencil like locks. The fleece moves freely giving the animal a flatter appearance than the huacaya. The suri fleece is distinguished by its lock structure, its high lustre, silky handle and long staple length. It is mainly used for woven fabrics.
The huacaya has a more ‘sheep like’ fleece in that stands at right angles to the body. The soft, dense fibre has crimp, brightness and insulating properties much sought after by the textile business.
Alpacas come in white, fawn, brown, solid black and more rarely grey. The fibre has excellent thermal properties and is second only to silk in strength.
Alpacas are bred for their fibre and so the quality of that fibre is extremely important. Breeders in Britain and the rest of the world are trying to produce alpacas with uniform fine dense fleeces that will give them the maximum return. Alpacas are shorn every summer once the frosts are past and most will clip between two and three kilos. In this country the fleeces are graded into baby, fine and coarse. Baby alpaca is not necessarily from a young animal, just from one with a very fine fleece of under 21 micron. The fine grade sits in the range 22 to 26 micron and coarse is, well, coarse. Grading is done by hand and some fleeces have a much better handle than others due to their uniformity.
Most breeders will have the fleeces of their herd tested at shearing time. This involves taking a mid side sample close to the skin and sending it to one of the many labs worldwide. The resulting histogram will give you statistics on the fineness of the animal, its micron; the uniformity of the fleece, it’s SD, it’s CV, and the number of fibres over 30 micron. Histograms can vary on the same fleece between one and three micron depending on the operator, the machine and the quality of the sample. They should be used as a guide in your breeding programme. All alpaca fibre coarsens with age and it is the rate at which it coarsens over time that will reveal the true quality of the animal.
There is no special requirement for fencing as alpacas do not challenge it and are reluctant jumpers. For perimeter fencing standard medium stock fencing and top plain wire to a height of four feet is adequate to contain them. Barbed wire should not be used and electric lines have limited effect because of the overall fibre coverage. Gates should be placed in the corners of the field so that the fence lines create a funnel making it easier to move the herd. Pay careful attention to layout and ensure that all fields either open into a run or straight into the work area so that any one group of animals can be moved without having to move the rest of the herd.
Bio-security is an important consideration and breeders should fence out wildlife such as badgers or deer that could carry bovine tuberculosis. Feed and water troughs should be raised high enough above the ground so that badgers cannot access them. Any contractors coming on farm that will have contact with the alpaca fields should disinfect their footwear and the wheels of their vehicles.
However small the herd is, a work area is still required for vaccination, feet trimming, mating and shearing. This could be a large barn, a yard or a field shelter with a fenced area and gates. Routine husbandry tasks are much more easily managed in a small catch pen of around seven foot square made up of four-foot hurdles or gates. If these areas are also used for feeding the alpacas will enter more willingly.
Hedges and trees provide essential shelter for alpacas. They provide shade in the summer and protection from cold winds and rain in the winter. Access to some form of stabling or stall is also essential should an animal become sick or injured. Wintering out is quite normal with free access to simple three sided field shelters for protection from the extremes of weather and to provide dry areas for winter feed.
Alpacas need access to clean drinking water at all times. Water troughs with a piped supply are very efficient and ensure that sufficient water is always available.
Alpacas should have access to soft meadow hay during the winter. It should be fresh and sweet smelling. Mouldy hay should be thrown away. They will eat happily from a sheep manger in the field or a round bale holder. Anything containing hay should have a cover to prevent it from getting wet in bad weather.
Alpacas cope well with foxes seeing them off with a combination of screeching and advancing as a herd. However alpacas are no match for a group of dogs and if straying dogs are a problem in your area then more secure fencing may be advisable.
Alpacas are lovable and endearing animals that are a pleasure to be around and to work with. Their docile nature and natural curiosity makes for easy handling and yet they are hardy and adapt well to our climate. They are equally at home in a small paddock or as part of a larger herd in a field. They will happily graze with other livestock although they might not compete at the feed troughs. They are instinctively herd orientated preferring to rest, graze and move together. Stocking rates of five an acre are comfortable on good pasture, with examples of 10 to the acre being achievable with proper rotation management. They communicate by body posture, tail and ear positions and a variety of soft humming noises. They warn each other if they feel crowded and spit at each other if necessary. They are rarely aggressive to humans and spit only when mishandled.
All stock should be checked regularly, at least once a day and twice a day in the case of heavily pregnant females. Alpacas are susceptible to most of the diseases that affect other farmed livestock. Getting to know the animals will mean you can spot when something is wrong. Alpacas are prey animals and try hard to disguise any weakness. A sick animal will often sit alone away from the herd. Cria that are ill will be lethargic. If they are not running around with the rest of the youngsters ask yourself why. Assume the animal is sicker than it looks.
Accurate record keeping is essential to herd health. Keep a note of all births, deaths, weanings, breedings, vaccinations and worming. If an animal is sick make notes – this will help the veterinarian to reach a diagnosis. There are many herd management programmes available for the computer literate – if you prefer pen and paper that’s fine too as long as your records are accurate and up to date.
All alpacas should be shorn annually once the frosts have gone. There are a number of contract alpaca shearers who tour the UK in the spring and summer or you could learn to do it yourself by enrolling on a shearing course. The alpacas should be sorted by colour so that the lighter animals are shorn first proceeding through all the colours and ending up with black. The prime fleece area is the saddle and this should be bagged separately from the neck. Coarse fibre from the legs and belly should be discarded. If the animals have a lot of vegetable matter in their fleeces it should be removed as far as possible. Generally it is not advisable to shear pregnant females in the first or last 60 days of pregnancy. Shearing should be done in a clean area under cover. The more helpers that are involved the easier it is to handle the animals and to bag, label, weigh and skirt the fleeces. This is also the time to take mid-side fleece samples that will be sent off to the labs for micron testing. Keeping accurate records of skirted fleece weights, staple lengths and micron are all essential to any breeding programme.
Alpacas can be stocked at five an acre on good pasture that is regularly rotated and this can rise in the summer when the grass is growing fast. It should be noted that higher stocking rates require stricter parasite and infection control.
Alpacas are ruminants that are efficient converters of fodder, grazing happily on pasture grass, preferring the shorter moist grasses, with hay and small amounts of low protein supplement recommended in winter, during lactation and the final stages of pregnancy and for young stock. They should be pasture fed and rely on foregut fermentation like sheep and cattle and need a continuous supply of food in their stomachs. Hay should be available all year. (1.8% of body weight DM per day). Mineral supplementation will depend on naturally available concentrations within the grass and hay feed. Owners are advised to test their grass and hay to see what mineral supplementation is needed. Alpacas are browsers as well as grazers and will enjoy stripping young trees if allowed. The common toxic plants such as ragwort, laurel, laburnum, rhododendron, bracken and yew should be avoided within grazing areas.
Alpacas have the habit of defecating at a small number of fixed dung piles and avoid grazing around these sites, making the spread of parasite infestation low and cleaning of pastures much easier. The firm and dry pellet makes an excellent fertiliser.
Alpacas have soft padded feet with two toes on each foot. The nail on each toe should be flush with the pad as overgrown nails may twist and cause lameness. Nails will generally need to be clipped two or three times a year using a pair of sheep foot-rot shears. This task can easily be accomplished with one person holding the animal and the other picking up the foot and trimming the nails. Veterinary assistance should not be required. Alpacas do not suffer from foot rot.
The alpaca’s incisors should be flush with the dental pad. If they protrude the teeth can be trimmed back at shearing. Males develop fighting teeth at sexual maturity and these should be trimmed to avoid injury to other males. Tooth abscesses can occur and are often found when a lump on the jaw line is observed. These can be difficult to treat and a veterinarian should be consulted.
Alpacas are normally vaccinated and then boosted once a year with a clostridial 5 in 1 injection (2ml) administered subcutaneously. (If Clostridium A or Pasteurella is present in your area then consider using a 7 or 10 way vaccine and Pasteurella vaccine. Consult your vet or other local farmers). There are various regimes for cria – the most common being a first injection at 4 weeks and a booster at 8 weeks. Other regimes are a first injection at 2 days, one at 4 weeks and the last at 8 weeks. Once the cria are weaned they follow the main herd pattern. Worming is also often done twice a year either as an injection or as an oral drench. It may not be necessary if regular faecal testing is undertaken. However alpacas running with other livestock should follow the same regime and if an alpaca is scouring or not thriving, worming may well be necessary. If you are in a liver fluke area, consult your veterinarian on preventative action. Owners should learn to administer injections and can enrol on a husbandry course or ask the breeder they bought their animals from to teach them.
Alpacas in South America get sufficient Vitamin D because of the high altitude and clear skies. The short days of winter in the UK mean that growing alpacas should be supplemented with Vitamin D. All cria and young stock will benefit from Vitamin D injections at eight week intervals during the winter to ensure good bone growth. There is an argument for supplementing pregnant females as well. Consult your veterinarian.
Body scoring is an essential tool for herd health along with weighing. Alpacas in full fleece may appear to be in perfect condition but just looking at the animal can be deceptive. Body scoring is hands on and involves checking the spine, the ribs, feeling the chest and looking at the upper rear legs, front legs and chest. The optimum condition for an adult is when you can feel a 45 degree angle along the spine, the ribs can be felt with slight pressure, the chest is firm and muscular and the chest makes a straight line between the front legs. Any animal that has a very steep curve along the spine is emaciated and needs attention whilst an obese alpaca will have a flat backbone and also needs attention. Body scoring should be done regularly. Weighing scales are useful to track the weights of the cria as they grow and to check the condition of thin and sick adults.
Catching your alpaca
Never try to catch an alpaca in an open field. It is very difficult, frustrating for the handler and frightening for the animal. Move the alpacas in to a small area in a barn or yard. Move quietly and calmly towards the animal and place your arm around its neck and put your leg in front of its chest to stop it moving forward. Most alpacas will stand quietly particularly if they have all four feet on the ground and do not feel threatened. If you need to move the animal for routine husbandry it is easy to keep hold of the neck and walk the animal gently backwards. Once the animal is restrained in this way, a second person can do toenail trimming, vaccinations and so on. Owners can learn about handling and training alpacas by enrolling on a Camelidynamics course.
Chukkering is a very simple way of restraining an alpaca for some veterinary and husbandry procedures such as taking blood or castration. A broad rope is passed under the belly of the alpaca and tied firmly on the alpaca’s back with a bow or quick release knot. The hind legs are then lifted and placed through the rope making sure the rope is inside the stifles. The alpaca is held in the cush position.
All alpacas that are going to be shown must be halter trained and the more halter trained alpacas you have the easier it will be to handle and move them around. There are various types of halters but the most important thing is that the halter fits tightly and is high on the nose so that it does not slip down the muzzle and restrict the animal’s breathing. There are different methods of training but all require a firm and gentle approach. Never leave a halter on an animal in the field and never leave an alpaca alone that is tied up. Most breeders start halter training at weaning but adults can easily be trained as well and most are walking quietly within two or three weeks.
Alpacas are easy to transport and sit down when the trailer is in motion. The alpacas should not be tied up in the trailer as they prefer to travel in the cush position. Horse boxes or livestock trailers are ideal with internal partitions so that males and females can be separated. If females have very young cria at foot it may be safer to separate the cria so that there is no danger of them being crushed during the journey. The driver should stop every three to four hours to allow the animals to stand up and urinate.
Female alpacas are generally sexually mature at between 12 and 18 months. They should weigh at least 45 kilos and have a good body score to be mated for the first time. A receptive female will sit for the male but if a maiden refuses to sit then normally you would give up and try again in a week until eventually she does. Older females are usually mated between two and three weeks of giving birth assuming that the birth was normal. Again if the adult female rejects the male she is not ready. Try again in a week.
A receptive female will sit for the male who will mount her from behind. He pushes his pelvis forward and the penis passes through the cervix into the uterus. Check that the female’s tail is not obstructing the male and that he is in the right place. Alpacas are dribble ejaculators and the mating will last anything from five to forty minutes. Take a book. The male makes an ‘orgling’ sound throughout the mating. It is essential to keep records of all breedings so that a) you have an accurate date for the expected birth and b) if you have problems getting the female to conceive and have to consult a veterinarian you have accurate records of all breedings etc.
Be aware of when the cria will be born. Not many breeders want to cope with winter births although if you are on site and have good barns to house mother and cria in bad weather, the youngsters can do perfectly well.
The female should be brought back to the male one week after mating to see if she rejects him. If she rejects the male she has ovulated. If she rejects the male two weeks after mating she has conceived. These encounters are called spit offs and should be kept up until the pregnancy is advanced enough to be seen by ultrasound scan from around 40 days. At 60 days the pregnancy is positively confirmed, is far less likely to be reabsorbed and a pregnancy certificate can be issued.
Pregnancy confirmation is usually made by ultrasound testing. The gestation period is typically 11 1/2 months and will produce one baby or ‘cria’, with twins being rare, recently estimated at around one in every 2000 births. Alpacas are devoted mothers and the cria will suckle until weaning at five to six months of age
The length of gestation for an alpaca ranges from 315 to 370 days with the average being 342 days or eleven and a half months. Unfortunately alpacas do not give their owners very clear signs that the birth is imminent. Therefore you should be prepared well in advance and bring the pregnant females up to a paddock close to the house where you can keep an eye on them. Cria from the previous year should have been weaned and should not be with pregnant females as they have been seen to suckle the colostrum when the mother is distracted by the newborn. Males should also be in another field as they may attempt to mount the female.
Most crias are born in the morning or early afternoon and their births pass without incident. Occasionally births can be difficult if the cria is not positioned correctly in the birth canal and in those instances veterinary assistance may be necessary. The birthing process occurs in three stages. Stage One of the labour is characterised by contractions and lasts between one and four hours. Some females show few signs of discomfort, others make frequent visits to the dung pile, are restless, rolling and murmuring and continually getting up and down, others stand or sit alone, or sit on one hip. Stage Two is when the foetus enters the birth canal and delivery usually occurs within 30 minutes. Most alpacas deliver standing up and the cria presents with head and front legs first, the legs rupturing the membrane. During this phase the female may rest, lying down or even grazing. Once the head, neck and front legs are fully extended and the chest is delivered the cria may hang there for several minutes. This helps to clear mucous from the airways
Once the cria is delivered the navel must be sprayed or dipped with iodine, the cria dried with a towel if the weather is bad – do not dry the scent areas of the head and tail – and then move away to allow the two of them to bond. A healthy cria will be sitting up in ten minutes and standing within an hour and attempting to suckle soon after that.
Stage Three is the expulsion of the placenta that normally happens around 45 minutes after delivery of the cria.
Too much interference from humans can create problems. However the breeder does need to know when to call for help. So help may be needed when Stage One goes beyond six hours, when Stage Two goes beyond 30 minutes, when the cria is partly delivered but obviously stuck, when the afterbirth is retained beyond six hours or a uterine prolapse. A prolapse is a medical emergency and help must be sought immediately.
For the newborn umbilical bleeding needs immediate action by clamping to stop the bleeding.. Help must be sought if the breathing is laboured, the cria is lying flat with no attempt to sit up, if it is very small 5 kilos or less, if its temperature is low.
Newborns do not have ‘active’ immunity in their systems and are unable to fight disease well. The colostrum (first milk) provides passive immunity and if for any reason the cria does not get colostrum it is likely to be highly susceptible to infections. Powdered colostrum gives the cria adequate nutrition but does not counter the failure of passive transfer. Blood taken from other alpacas can be processed into plasma and given to cria orally in the first 12 hours and subsequently intravenously or intraperitonealy – it is a life saver.
Cria should be weighed once a week to make sure they are growing properly. You would expect a gain of between one and one and a half kilos a week for the first four weeks. The cria should be alert and active and follow their mother round the field. They tend to sleep a lot in the first few days but are usually very active in late afternoon particularly if they are with other cria.
Alpaca fibre is more akin to hair due to its cellular composition and is generally described as one of the ‘noble fibres’. It has a medullated core made up from air-filled cells which may be interrupted or continuous and this contributes significantly to both its insulating properties as well as its strength. Alpaca wool is second only to silk for strength. The number of scales on individual fibres is considerably reduced compared to sheep’s wool and this helps to explain why wool allergic people do not have the same reaction to Alpaca.
Alpacas have few guard hairs or secondary coat and careful selective breeding has ensured that this rarely exists within the prime fleece area. Overall the fibre has a soft and silky feel and exhibits a varying degree of crimp. Its fineness is measured in microns and on average fall within the range 18-30, with 18-20 being considered the finest.
Today some alpacas that have been selectively bred will have micron counts as low as 14 to 16 on their first fleeces. This is measured by the histogram which is a scientific measurement of the fineness of the fleece. The Average Fibre Diameter (AFD) shows the diameter in microns, a micron is one thousandth of a millimetre. Standard Deviation (SD) represents an average of deviations from the mean, so the lower the SD the more consistent the fleece. The Coefficient of Variation (CV) is the SD divided by the AFD multiplied by 100 and shown as a percentage. The histogram also shows the percentage of microns over 30 micron. Fibres over 30 micron are the ones that give you a prickle factor in the fleece. The histogram is a snapshot of the quality of the fleece at that particular moment in an alpaca’s life. All of them slowly coarsen as they age.
Alpacas must be shorn annually as they will not naturally shed their fibre and on average will clip between 2.0 and 3 kg per year. The fibre commands a good price on the world market where the relatively small worldwide population compared to sheep, helps to maintain consistently higher prices.
Alpaca wool is the only natural fibre that comes in such a range of colour. The mills of Peru recognise 22 natural shades from seven basic colours. These range from a true jet black, through the browns and fawns into white. In addition there is a blue or charcoal grey and a rose grey. If desired, it readily takes to dying and can be blended with other fibres offering textile designers endless possibilities.
Breeding programmes in the UK are aimed at increasing the number of animals in the national herd and more importantly increasing the fineness and density of the fleece by the use of carefully selected stud males.
The market for the fibre in Britain is relatively undeveloped as the number of animals is not large enough at the moment to support a large commercial processing industry similar to that for wool. However hand spinners are keen to buy alpaca fleece and are enthusiastic about its fineness and natural colours.
There are a number of mini-mills in the country where UK bred fleeces can be processed into yarn and many breeders are taking this route so that they can produce end products made out of their own fleeces for sale to the general public.
The largest operation in the UK buying huacaya fleece is our own UK Alpaca Ltd. This company buys huacaya alpaca fibre from British growers and manufactures a range of yarns for the wholesale and retail markets.
Cost of Ownership
Alpacas are not cheap to purchase but are economic to ‘run’. Breeding females cost in the range of £2500 – £10,000 dependent on age and absolute quality. This price includes a confirmed pregnancy, veterinary health certificate and delivery. Geldings will cost in the range of £300 – £750. Stud males can cost anything from £6,000 to £50,000, again depending on their quality and the quality of the progeny they sire. The exact number of animals and the mix of male to female will depend entirely on your aims and requirements.
The costs associated with each animal are typically:
Alpacas require access to soft meadow hay throughout the year. It is established that they need 1.8% of their bodyweight as dry matter fibre per day. During the winter months this equates to 1.4 kilos of hay per day or 40 kilos a month. A typical small bale hay might weigh around 20 kg and costs around £3.50 therefore costing £7 per month per head.
Alpacas require extra minerals and vitamins and we recommend. Typical ration is 75gms per day per adult which equates to 8p per head per day. During winter months additional supplementation might be required. A typical ration costs an additional 4p per head per day.
Veterinary provision and prophylactic treatment approximately twice yearly at around £50.00. This would apply to breeders who have been on a husbandry course and learnt how to do their own routine vaccinations, toenail trimming and so on.
There are a number of alpaca shearers who travel the UK and their costs depending on the number of alpacas and the distance involved range from £8 an animal to £25. They will also trim toenails and teeth if required.
Some provision must be charged for grass care and maintenance.
Re-mating of females from £350 to £1,500 per service.
Mortality and theft Insurance is recommended for breeding females and stud males at an annual premium of around 3.5% of value.
There are many ways of making a return from an alpaca herd. Some breeders use them as a visitor attraction in their tourist businesses, other find they enhance their bed and breakfast or holiday cottage ventures. Some run shops selling alpaca garments, others produce finished product from their fleeces and sell them online. The sale of male and female alpacas is the major return for many breeders who sell their animals in the UK and export to Europe.
Alpaca numbers in the UK are currently small at around thirty five thousand. There is no doubt that alpaca farming will remain a bloodstock breeding based industry for many years to come while animal numbers increase, bringing profit to careful breeders. Fibre sales will make a contribution to the profit as fibre volumes rise with the £/kg return to the growers, reflecting the added value attributed to the raw fibre by commercial processing into finished goods.
The alpaca and its fibre crop is not a new product. It has been the mainstay of the South American economy for many years, is recognised internationally and is traded successfully on the world markets. Commercial trade in fibre, yarns, cloth and finished goods is well established.
Australia and North America have had breeding based alpaca industries running for over twenty years. Prices for the best animals have held or risen and their breed societies have an enviable reputation.
The slow breeding rate ensures a controlled population growth that will not depreciate existing stock values overnight.
The future imports of stock are strictly controlled by DEFRA and entry on to the British Alpaca Society pedigree registry is conditional on passing tight physical and phenotype examinations. These are designed to protect the integrity of the registry as far as is possible by preventing alpacas with congenital defects from weakening the alpaca breed.
Life expectancy is around 15 to 20 years, throughout some of which offspring and commercial quality fibre are produced.
There is a lively show circuit in the UK that includes halter and shorn fleece classes. This includes very large shows like the British Alpaca Futurity, the BAS National Show and smaller regional events like the Honiton and Northumberland Shows. These are not just competitive events but a learning experience too where breeders can see how their animals match up to others and listen to the judge’s oral reasoning that explains why their alpaca is placed where it is.
The British Alpaca Society has a well respected judge training scheme which all judges have to go through and re-certification every so often is also required.