The benefits of alpaca yarn are well known: the scales in alpaca fleece lay flatter than those of sheep’s wool, making it softer against the skin; alpaca fleece doesn’t contain any lanolin, either, so it avoids issues with wool allergies. As alpaca is a hollow fibre, it’s warmer than wool, and it wicks away water, making it almost waterproof.
Alpacas are also gentle and attractive animals, so if you’ve wondered about keeping alpacas as pets, and using their fleece to spin and knit with, we’ve got some advice on what to consider.
There are two breeds of alpaca, the Huacaya and the Suri. The most common by far is the Huacaya, which has a dense fleece that grows outwards. The Suri fleece is different, growing downwards in corkscrew spirals.
Because alpacas are herd animals, they shouldn’t be kept alone; a group of at least three is best, so that if anything happens to one of your animals, you’re not left with a single alpaca. On each acre of land you can keep five or six alpacas, but it’s best to have other land available for them to graze, too. Simple post-and-rail fencing is enough; you shouldn’t use barbed wire around the field, as the alpacas’ fleece can get tangled.
If you’re interested in keeping alpacas mainly as pets, and using the fleece for yourself, non-stud males are cheaper to buy - from around £250 up to £3000, depending on the quality of the fleece.
If you intend to sell your alpaca fleece or spin it yourself and sell the yarn, the white fleece is more popular than brown, grey or black as it’s easily dyed to other colours. Buying a stud male alpaca can cost up to £20,000, while females cost between £1000-£3000 (or £4000-£6000 if they’re already pregnant).
Living with alpacas
Janet Markwell bought her first pair of Huacaya alpacas in 2008 - two males, called Magic and Corey, who were then nearly a year old. “The best thing about them is knowing that these wild animals allow me to interact with them, and be part of their life,” Janet explains. “I love the smell and the look of them, too. There’s only one downside: having to go out and feed them when it’s raining.”
Magic and Corey live in a paddock measuring half an acre, next to Janet’s house. They mostly graze on the grass, and she supplements their diet with half a handful of Camelibra alpaca pellets, for vitamins and minerals, and Fibregest for extra fibre. Their droppings can be left on the ground, as the alpacas won’t eat the grass around a dung pile.
Alpacas are hardy animals, originating in the Andes, where temperatures can range from -30°C to above 35 degrees. So although they’ll happily live outdoors, you should provide a simple shelter, and this will also keep their hay dry.
Magic and Corey prefer to stay out in the open and rarely use the shelter; Janet feeds them in there to encourage them to use it. Janet also added a plastic mirror to the back wall, to give the illusion that they are part of a larger herd. “You can’t expect an animal to walk into a dark enclosure, but if they see another animal in there they’re happier to walk in.”
You need to devote time every day to feeding and checking your alpacas. In addition to shearing, there are several husbandry tasks to perform. Toenails need to be trimmed three or four times a year – they naturally wear down more on hard ground if it hasn’t rained. Depending where you keep your alpacas they may also need annual vaccinations against clostridial disease, and worming; Janet gave her animals the Bluetongue virus vaccination when it was compulsory. She has had her alpacas’ dung tested for worms and infections, but it was clear as they have no contact with other livestock.
Janet’s top piece of advice if you’re thinking of owning alpacas it to be prepared to spend time training them, so that they’re familiar with you and will let you touch them. Alpacas are easily halter-trained, and Janet recommends the book, CAMELIDynamics. “This explains a method of working with the psychology of alpacas,” she says. “You should be gentle and non-threatening – so don’t make direct eye contact – and work with the animals’ natural instincts.
“For example, if you stand behind them they move forward; you stand in front, and they move back. So use those principles to move them around. We also used temporary fences to initially get them into their shelter.” When you need to clip their toenails, you should always allow them to walk forward so they’re not trapped – holding one foot means they can still walk round in circles.
Janet initially hired travelling New Zealand sheep shearers to shear her alpacas, but then she and her husband Alan took a husbandry course and bought the kit to do the shearing themselves.
Shearing takes place between May and July, to keep the alpacas cool in warmer weather, and to give enough time for the fleece to grow back before winter. Janet and Alan constructed a pulley system to fasten the alpaca’s feet together. With its legs secured, the alpaca is gently laid on the garage floor, and a bag placed over the mouth to prevent spitting!
Shearing starts with the first cut fleece from the back and sides. The second cut is bagged separately, with poorer quality fleece from around the legs (where the fibres are coarse) and neck (where the fibres are too short for spinning).
British Alpaca Society:
British Veterinary Camelid Society: