The Alpacas generate a lot of interest wherever we go and we have learnt huge amounts breeding our alpacas and are still learning. We thought we should answer some of the questions that people generally ask when thinking about owning alpacas.

The information we are going to give is the way we do things.  We have learnt from others, researched huge amounts and attended courses.  We have developed the elements that work for us, however our way is by no means the only way.

Alpacas are gentle, inquisitive, full of character and very intelligent.  Mary, our alpha-female alpaca and possibly the most intelligent alpaca in the UK, has a busy Marketing career as well as being a full-time mum.  Mary writes our quarterly newsletter, whilst the others are taught to read at a very early age! If you spend time with them, they can be very sociable.  They are happy to feed from your hand and will provide you with endless hours of fun and relaxation.

History of Alpacas

Alpacas are members of the Camelid family of which there are six living members: Dromedary Camel, Bactrian Camel, Llama, Guanaco, Alpaca and Vicuña.  The ancestors of today’s camelids evolved in North America between 9 and 11 million years ago and in its most distant form, the family dates back 35 million years.  There are two types of alpacas – Huacaya and Suris. We breed Huacayas (the cuddly ones!).

The story of South America starts three million years ago when a wild form known as Hemiauchenia migrated across the Isthmus of Panama into South America.

The ancestral home of these fantastic animals is the Andes Mountains in Peru, South America and home to the Inca civilisation who cherished the fleece referring to it as “the fibre of the gods”.  Here the herds roamed the southern foothills and mountainous pastures.

Then in the 17th Century the Spanish Conquistadors killed much of the Inca and Alpaca population.  The surviving Incas and Alpacas headed for the high plains known as the Altiplano.  The harsh conditions and the unforgiving landscape ensured that only the strongest animals / bloodlines survived.  These same bloodlines now provide us with hardy, agile animals with a dense, high quality fleece.  In 1984 the first alpacas were exported to North America and from there to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.   Twenty-five years ago Alpacas arrived on the shores of Great Britain.  However the largest herds today are still found in Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

Why Do You Have Alpacas?

There are number of reasons people have alpacas.  As pets, as flock guards, as grass cutters, as a hobby that comes with the advantage of an income or as a business that is perhaps more of a lifestyle change than a conventional business.  But be aware that if you make alpacas a business, there are still all the usual facets associated with running any business: marketing, sales, finance, SEO, VAT etc.

Alpacas as pets – many people fall in love with alpacas.  They have perhaps an acre or two and are fed up with endlessly cutting the grass or even worse having to pay someone to do it.  Horses churn up the grass, eat huge amounts  and can be expensive to look after.  Sheep, goats and cattle all come with massive amounts of red tape courtesy of DEFRA.  Alpacas do not poach the ground, they eat grass and hay and will welcome an optional daily supplement of vitamins and minerals.

Alpacas will keep the grass neat and tidy, generally poo in the same area and keep foxes away from chickens – what more can you ask?  Most people purchase pet quality males as pets.

In addition to all the great advantages you also get their wonderful fleeces!  If you are at all craft minded or perhaps would like to learn a new skill, hand spinning, felting, weaving etc and of course knitting can all follow.  We have sold alpacas to a number of lovely people who are not the least craft minded but cannot resist being able to produce something with their boys and girls fleece.

Alpacas as a hobby (with small income and lots of fun) – If as above, you have an acre or two but would like to breed on a small scale, an ideal model is to sell the crias at 6 months when they are weaned and re-mate the girls when they are ready (generally 2-3 weeks after birthing).  This is a perfectly sound investment and fantastic hobby.  In fact, it is how we started, so be careful – they’re very addictive!

The fleece will also complement your hobby and perhaps lead to new skills, income and friendship.

Alpacas as a business (or a complete life change) – If you have a little more land and have had enough of the “rat race” how about turning this idyllic life-style into a business?  You won’t make millions but the quality of your life will be much more relaxed and you will be the master of your own destiny.

What Do I Need to Own Alpacas?

Land – the recommended number of alpacas is 4/5 an acre. If you have slightly less land you can have less alpacas but remember you have to have at least two, preferably three or more.  All paddocks should be checked for poisonous plants which should be removed prior to your alpacas arriving.  If you need to top your paddocks at any time the animals should not graze it until the cut grass has had time to dry.  Alpacas will gorge themselves on freshly cut grass which can cause tummy problems.  For a comprehensive guide to poisonous plants go to the following link:

Shelter – most alpaca owners ensure that their new family members have shelter.  In actual fact the alpacas will only use the shelter when it suits them and that is not often.  However as new owners you will feel much happier if they have that option.  It will also be useful for carrying out routine husbandry.  However if you are planning on running out and spending a small fortune on said shelter perhaps stop and think.  We build our own shelters from jump poles, 6′ x 6′ fencing panels and corrugated sheets for the roof.  The alpacas love them – just as much as the first ‘off the shelf’ shelter we purchased, which was in excess of £3,000!

Fresh water – alpacas do not like dirty, stale water.  Think: if you wouldn’t drink it why would they?  They would rather go without than drink dirty water.

Grass – their staple diet is grass, hay in the winter or as a change in the summer, rounded off with an optional daily mineral supplement.  Some breeders don’t give the supplement, we do, as it allows you to socialise with the animal making them friendlier and easier to handle.

Fencing – Alpacas do not challenge fencing unless they have a reason.  We have erected 4′ fencing that consists of stock fencing on the bottom with two strands of high tensile wire extending the height to 4′.  Instead of the wire you can use wooden rails, these look better but are more expensive.

In addition you should check for barbed wire, or any item that may cause your alpaca harm.  If you look at something and think that’s not right then deal with it there are then.  An alpaca given half a chance will get into all sorts of mischief, they are very inquisitive.  Best to be safe than sorry.

Can You Use Electric Fencing?

Our advice would be no.  The whole idea of electric fencing is that the shock puts the animal off approaching it again.  An alpacas fleece can be so dense that the animal does not feel the shock and we have heard of a number of occasions when alpacas have got themselves caught in the electric fencing and have perished.

How Do I Choose My First Alpacas?

However much research you do, your first alpacas will be purchased due to a number of criteria.  Do you want males or females?  How much do you want to spend?  How much land do you have?  Do you want a hobby, pets or a business?

However after all that, you will probably buy the ones you fall in love with!   To us this was the most important criteria!

So if the decision is going to be emotional, it is best to check out the breeder before seeing the animals.  Do you like them?  Remember if you have not done this before you will need their help.  Do they know the animals; can they show you other progeny?  Do they keep a full medical history?  Will they show you how to handle and take care of your new purchases?  And is this included in the price?  Do they buy in to sell on?  This is a little more difficult to ascertain but if a lot of animals in their herd have different prefixes, then perhaps ask how long they have had the animals etc.  Are the alpacas sociable and easy to handle?  Have they had any human interaction?  Have they been halter trained?

How Do You Care For Alpacas?

Alpacas are very robust but show very few clinical signs of illness so observation and knowing your alpaca is paramount.

Medication – We vaccinate our herd against worms every six months and give an annual Clostridial injection.  During the winter months with administer AD&E vitamins (D being the important one).  This is a treatment primarily for black or dark animals that may struggle with the absorption of sunlight during the winter months.  We treat dark animals every month and lighter animals every other month starting in October ending in March.  And that is pretty much it.

Body scoring – this is in our opinion a really important husbandry task.  Carried out every month by the same people or person, gives you an indication to whether the animal is in good condition, over-weight or more worryingly, loosing weight.  When your animal is fully fleeced, noticing if they loosing weight is impossible without body scoring.

We body score monthly and record the result for each animal.  Over time you will be able to see patterns and if you think an animal is loosing weight you can do something about it before it is too late.

Cutting Toenails – alpacas have soft pads and toenails, the toenails need to be trimmed every three months or so.  Darker animals may get away with every 4 months as their toenails grow at a slower rate.

What is the Gestation Period? (how long are alpacas pregnant for?)

Alpacas are pregnant for 11-11.5 months but are not that great at dates and therefore we start birth watch two weeks prior to the calculated date.  It has been known, and indeed is not unusual, for pregnancy to last in excess of a year.

At what age do you start mating? – Although it is said that a female will be sexually mature at a year we would not attempt mating until they are 18 months old.

How do you know if an alpaca is pregnant? – Once we have mated the female with the chosen male, we wait 7 days then re-introduce the male.  If the female spits she is probably pregnant.  This process is referred to as the “spit off” and we carry out this process at 7, 14 and 21 days post mating.  If she spits all three times she is probably pregnant.  To confirm this, a scan can be carried out at 60 days.

What Do Alpacas Eat?

Alpacas eat grass and hay and we add a daily vitamin supplement feed called Camelibra (which we stock).  This in effect makes feeding an alpaca inexpensive.  Some breeders do not bother with the supplement.  Alpacas are quite partial to brambles and will nibble on other goodies given a chance.  You do have to be aware of poisonous plants, a list of which is provided at the link above.

In addition, and in particular circumstances we feed a mixture of sugar beat, alfalfa and micronized peas.  This aids milk production in lactating females.  It can also assist in increasing weight.

Do You Shear Alpacas?

Yes.  Huacaya alpacas are shorn once a year.  Ideally we like to shear from the beginning of May to the end of June.  The shearer will not only shear your alpaca but will also cut toenails and trim teeth if necessary.  It’s worth checking what is included in the price.  Some shearers include those things, others charge extra.

The process of shearing an alpaca is different to that of shearing a sheep. The animal is roped around the ankles back and front and stretched out.  A bean bag is usually used to steady the neck and ensure the animal can not

damage itself during shearing.  The whole process (dependent on the individual shearer) usually takes between 7 and 8 minutes.  It is worth noting your alpaca will be shorn whether it is pregnant, due or even over due –  so calmness, gentleness and speed are the order of the day.

The fleece should come off in three distinct cuts: the ‘firsts’ or ‘blanket’ (the best part), ‘seconds’ and ‘thirds’.  The firsts would generally be used for spinning, the seconds for felting or rustic weaving, and we sell the thirds as bird nesting material or use it for stuffing once it has been washed.

Do Alpacas Bite?

Alpacas only have one set of teeth, on the bottom jaw.  Above is a hard pad which they use to chew against, hence they are unable to bite. However male alpacas do have fighting teeth which grow at around a 45 degree angle and are razor sharp.  They are situated towards the middle of the jaw so again unless you are planning on putting your hand / arm or some other part of you body in the male alpaca’s mouth you should be perfectly safe.

If you hand feed your alpacas they can’t bite as such, but if they are enthusiastic they can pinch. This applies to both males and females.  Most alpacas feed from your hand very gently.

Do Alpacas Spit?

The short answer to this is yes!  However they are unlikely to just wander up to you and spit for no reason.  If an alpaca has a tendancy to spit, then it could become apparent whilst you are injecting or toenail clipping and certainly whilst shearing.  In general they spit at each other to show dominance, this can often be seen at feeding time.

Advice – if you love your alpacas, shower in the evening!

How Do Alpacas Deal With Our Climate?

Very well.  Alpacas have adapted extremely well to our climate and if anything, enjoy a much better quality of grazing than in their native homeland.   The weather conditions here are generally not as severe and with the provision of shelters to provide protection from the sun and rain, alpacas generally thrive in this country.  It is worth bearing in mind that if shearing and very bad weather coincide, it may be necessary to bring alpacas into their shelters post-shearing, as there have been reported cases of hypothermia brought on by the lack of fleece combined with cold winds and driving rain.  This is especially true in the young and old.

Can You Eat Alpaca Meat?

Alpacas are eaten in many of the countries that breed them i.e. South America and Australia.  In general, alpacas are not eaten in the UK.  There is one breeder that has announced they are slaughtering alpacas for meat, however we do not think this is wide spread but it certainly could increase.  We will absolutely NOT be eating any of our boys and girls!

In Summary

t is impossible to cover every aspect of alpaca care so if you are considering a purchase, please come and see us, have a chat and meet our boys and girls, there is absolutely no obligation. We love our life with alpacas and would not change a thing. Our business has evolved and is evolving. What started as a hobby has resulted in a lifestyle change for the family. It is hard work but we decide what we do and when. However, the best part is the alpacas.