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Alpacas are growing in popularity with hobby farmers and commercial breeders alike and there are now 32,000 of them in the UK. Jenny Mark-Bell loses her heart at the Alpaca Stud Farm, near Pulborough
FORMER City lawyer John Potts is sitting in his office an incongruous log cabin, fondly dubbed the chicken shed, surrounded by tributes to the alpacas that have taken over his life. The walls are bedecked with paintings and framed photos of award-winning studs, the desk covered with fleece samples and paperwork.
When I retired my wife thought I was going to come home and ruin her life! guffaws John. She presented me with a number of projects to keep me occupied. We had visited Peru a number of times and I already loved alpacas so, rather impetuously, I decided to get a herd. John met his business partner, experienced stock farmer and alpaca judge Nick Harrington Smith, when he became a client of the Australian company Nick was working for. The pair joined forces in 2005, travelling around Canada and the US to source high-quality stock.
When John takes me to visit some six-month-old weanlings, just separated from their mothers this morning, I begin to understand his enthusiasm. The little animals make anxious chirruping sounds and huddle around John and each other for comfort. Although very tame, they are curious and watchful: dozens of wide eyes fix curiously on me. Supervising the weanlings are two aunties 12-year-old females who keep the little ones on the straight and narrow.
Alpacas come into season when they are mated. John and Nick are therefore able to choose their own breeding season they have narrowed it to between March and August, which means that the cria (babies) are of a better size to tolerate winter weather. Alpacas can withstand severe temperatures - they are indigenous to the Peruvian altiplano - but variation in temperature can cause problems with parasites. These youngsters will begin their halter-training next week, by which point John and Nick will have selected their show team. A by-product of the selection process is that almost every male cria that I meet today will be castrated the standard of breeding alpacas is so high that males need to be all but flawless. Gelded males are sold as pets, costing from 200-800.
There are 20 stud males at the farm, including four or five world-beaters, according to John. These include Jaquinto, a solid white huacaya, and Nyetimber, a grey huacaya who has won 16 world championships in a row and is, according to his proud owners, the best grey in Europe. The Stud offers smaller breeders the chance to buy a share in their stud male. They get their own matings free and earn a share in the fee for outside mating.
Although in the USA and Australia alpacas are bred for meat, here in the UK they are farmed for bloodstock and fibre, and as pets for the hobby farmer. Because they are herd animals, the minimum initial purchase is a pair, although Nick and John prefer to sell three together in case two of the animals dont get on.Gregarious they may be, but you dont need a huge amount of land to keep these animals: You can keep five to an acre, but we have just over 600 on 320 acres: the more space they have, the healthier they seem to be, says John. The alpaca is an extremely hardy animal, with modest requirements for a happy life: plenty of grazing, hay as required, and an optional three-sided shelter.
Above all, they are affectionate and biddable, even with children, says John: An American judge told me a story about delivering a couple of alpacas to a school for disabled children. One of the boys, who used a wheelchair, was very excited and wanted to meet them straight away. Unfortunately, he had a seizure while in the enclosure. One of the alpacas kushed (kneeled) down and laid its head on his lap, and the seizure stopped. Needless to say, all the adults there were in tears.
There are two types of alpaca: huacaya have a dense, fluffy fleece and suri have long, lustrous dreadlocks
Baby alpaca are called cria
Gelded males wethers are the usual choice as pets because of the relatively high cost of breeding females
An alpacas gestation period is 11 months and most breeding females will have one cria each year
Cria are almost always born in the morning. In their native environment, very cold nights follow warm days, and an early birth would enable the cria to be on foot and less vulnerable by nightfall
Alpacas make excellent guard animals for sheep and chickens and will chase and even attack a fox
Alpaca farming is currently not governed by DEFRA