Alpacas are native to South America - specifically the Andes of Peru,Western Bolivia and Northern Chile - where they graze at altitudes of 11,500-16,000 feet. They look very sweet and delicate but are in fact very hardy animals. They are closely related to the vicuna, llama and guanaco. It is thought that they originated from a cross between the llama and vicuna over 6,000 years ago.
Together with llamas, alpacas were valued by the Incas for their provision of clothing, food, fuel and, no doubt, their companionship as domesticated animals on the high plains of Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
The alpaca fibre was highly prized for its strong and lustrous characteristics and the Incas would hand spin it on drop spindles, a method still used today by their descendants in South America. (Drop spindles are still used in the UK. However, most spinners would now use a spinning wheel). The yarn would then be dyed and woven or knitted into the most amazing patterned garments, the likes of which are still made today. Remains of ancient garments found in some South American archaeological sites have been found to consist of superior quality fibre to that produced today and it is the goal of many top breeders to replicate that quality.
In 1984, the United States and Canada imported their first alpacas, followed in 1989 by Australia and New Zealand. Currently Australia has over 250,000 registered animals and the industry is still growing. In the UK there are some 35,000 registered.
People in the UK buy alpacas for a variety of reasons:
- A lifestyle change
- A different ‘lawn mower’ type animal for keeping the grass down in a small paddock or orchard
- They make great pets
- Business enterprise
- Very good as field guards for lambs, chickens etc.
- Additional attraction to Bed and Breakfast type businesses, or similar
- The challenge of producing and improving the quality of animals and fleece
The most common alpaca in the UK is the huacaya, which forms about 95% of the population. They are very fluffy and sometimes resemble huge teddy bears. A fleece on a huacaya will average about 2-4 kilos, but on an outstanding quality animal this can be as high as 5-7 kilos of fleece per annum.
The remaining 5% of alpacas are suri. Suris have curled locks that hang down much like a Wensleydale sheep. They produce the most prized fleece, which is very smooth, silky and lustrous. Suris do well in the British climate but they do need shelter from the rain as their fleece parts along the backbone.
The fleece of an alpaca is different from that of a sheep as it does not contain any lanolin.
Many alpaca owners in the UK are sending their fleeces to mini mills to have them processed into yarn in order to sell on or make into garments for sale.
- Alpaca fibre is soft, fine and lustrous
- Alpaca fibre is warm, yet extremely light to wear.
- It is one of the strongest natural fibres, second only to silk.
- The fibre grows continuously and an alpaca will produce 2-4 kilos per year.
- There are 22 natural colours ranging from white through varying shades of grey to black and from cream through shades of fawn, chestnut and chocolate brown.
- Alpaca fibre can be spun by hand or machine and will take both natural and synthetic dyes.
- Alpaca is a luxury fibre
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ALPACAS AND LLAMAS
Alpacas, llamas, guanaco and vicuna are all members of the South American camelid (or camel) family. Alpacas are smaller than llamas and have a much more lustrous type of fleece. The alpaca has always been bred for quality fleece while llamas are bred for their carrying and trekking capabilities. Typically, alpacas weigh 60-90kg and llamas, 150-210kg.
Alpacas are easy to care for. Their normal feed consists of grass, with hay or haylage
given all year round. Concentrate feed can also be given as a supplement. Eating this from feed buckets in a pen also makes it easier to catch them when needed. Generally you can keep one more alpaca to the acre than you can sheep. We would recommend an average stocking rate of five alpacas per acre.
There are 22 internationally recognised natural shades of alpaca fleece ranging between white, fawn, brown, grey and black.