What are they?
Alpacas belong to the camelid family and were bred by the pre-Incan people of the Andes around 5000 years ago from the vicuna (see photos below). Alpacas were bred for their fleece and meat, whereas llamas were bred (from the guanaco) to be beasts of burden.
Today, 80% of the world's alpacas are still farmed on the Altiplano of the Andes and the industry is vital for the peoples of Peru, Chile and Bolivia who live on this vast mountain plateau.
Alpacas were first exported from South America to the USA and Australia in the 1980s. But these exports have now been banned from South America to protect the industry in that continent. Similarly, and in order to protect and develop its own breeders, the US has also now closed its herd book, meaning that alpacas can no longer be imported into the country.
In the UK and Europe the industry is a little younger, with the UK having imported its first alpacas in the mid 1990s. Since then the aim of the UK's alpaca industry has been to grow numbers in the British herd in order to create and support a viable domestic fleece industry. Several British mills now process alpaca fleece and breeders often work in cooperatives to achieve economies of scale.
There are two breeds of alpaca, the huacaya (pronounced wuh-kai-ya) and the suri. Huacaya have a shorter, dense, crimpy fleece whereas suri have longer, lustrous locks without crimp. Although there are more huacaya breeders in the UK (the fleece from huacaya alpacas is easier to process), suris are becoming increasingly popular.
Alpacas live for 15-20 years and they grow to 1 - 1.5m in height.
They nearly always only have one baby ("cria") per year, and have a gestation period of around 11 1/2 months.
Compared to other livestock, alpacas are relatively low maintenance. They make fabulous pets and can be easily halter trained. However their feisty attitudes towards animal intruders mean they can also act as fox or livestock guards if necessary.
They do not have hooves like sheep or cows, instead having padded toes. This means they are very gentle on pasture.
They are curious and intelligent animals, each having a distinct personality and role within the herd. Many people love to watch their graceful movement and they are truly beautiful animals.
As herd animals they like to be kept in groups of a minimum of 3.
Housing and Feeding
Alpacas can be kept at a stocking rate of 5-6 per acre on pasture.
They are browsers and will happily strip trees and bushes. They are subsistence animals and do not require the huge amounts of lush green grass that is often available to them in the UK. Dry matter in the form of hay should be made available all year round regardless of the amount of grass available in order to keep their gut in good working order.
A supplement of certain vitamins and minerals should be provided. These minerals are not generally available in British soil in the quantities that alpacas require. We provide them with Camelibre.
and have noticed an improvement in skin conditions (generally caused by mites) when using this supplement. We also use Fibregest.
to provide extra energy for our pregnant females and youngstock. We avoid giving supplements containing grains as they are reportedly not suited to the alpaca digestive system.
Alpacas do not need to be barned in winter and cope well with the cold. In fact, they require all the sunlight they can get during the winter months (in South America they get around 12 hours of daylight all year round). In order to compensate for reduced daylight hours a supplement of vitamins A, D & E should be provided between September and March. However, alpacas do need some form of shelter in sun or in wind and rain. This can be as simple as a tree or high hedge although we find that 3 sided shelters work very well.
Alpacas need to be given a regular vaccination to guard against clostridial disease (we use Lambivac every 6 months).
They also need to be monitored and treated for internal and external parasites. Alpacas are not susceptible to fly strike or foot rot, however they are susceptible to mange mites. Skin problems caused by mites can be managed and/or resolved routinely. We do not use any preventative treatments for external parasites, except perhaps the occasional squirt of fly spray.
Their toenails need clipping every couple of months or so, but this is usually a simple procedure.
Huacayas need to be shorn once a year in spring by a specialist alpaca shearer
Breeding alpacas can be extremely rewarding, although you are in for a long wait as their gestation period is around 11 1/2 months. Alpacas give birth in the morning and tend to be easy birthers. They are induced ovulators and so can be bred at any time.