A visit to Hamilton and the Southern Grampians brought me face-to-face with the gentle alpacas. Originating in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, these South American camelids now call parts of rural US, UK and Australia home. However their numbers are still minute as 99% of the world's approximately three million alpacas are still found in South America.
Smaller than their llama cousins, the alpacas were definitely winning admirers with their long eyelashes, pointy ears, cute woolly faces and fleecy hair that makes you want to give them a hug and squeeze. Curious by nature, an alpaca came to stand next to me as I fidgeted with my camera. Before I knew it, I was looking into big dreamy doe eyes. It moved slowly towards my face and breathed on me. This legendary "Alpaca Kiss" was the magical snare that hauled so many people into the industry. I was wrapped in an enchantment that pulled me towards several Alpaca breeders and a deeper understanding of this alluring creature.
Alpacas have been in Australia for 17 years and now number some 65,000 across all states expect the Northern Territory. They actually arrived on Australian shore as early as 1858. Unfortunately out of the 336 shipped over, only 276 survived but they eventually died out. In 1988, a stock was imported via Chile and North America. In 1997, Australia made a direct import from Peru. Alpacas eat grasses and chew a cud. They don't have incisors, horns, hooves or claws. Growing to about 36" tall and weighing between 100 and 200 pounds, Alpacas generally live about 20 years and gestation is 11.5 months. They are shy and gentle animals who have coexisted with humans for thousands of years.
Huacaya alpacas make up 95% of the world's alpaca population. They have dense and fluffy fleeces that make them look squeezable. Their fibre is very soft to touch and usually spun into yarns for making garments like jumpers. The Suri types are alpacas with long pencil-like locks that hang straight down and their fleece are used for more specialised and delicate garments and fabrics.
The main sound made by the alpaca is a "Hum". It is common when the alpaca is concerned or stressed out about something, which explains what I was hearing thorough the show. Mums and babies also hum to each other. When annoyed with each other, you can expect the sound of regurgitated food flying at high speed, otherwise known as the "Spit". Unless you are really annoying the alpacas, there is rare chance of being spat at.
Suri alpaca fleece
The value of alpaca fibre remained an Incan civilisation secret for a long time until the mid-1800s when Sir Titus Salt of England began studying and fashioning the raw fleece into textiles. Alpacas produce one of the world's finest and most luxurious natural fibres which are soft as cashmere but warmer and lighter but stronger than wool. They come in approximately 22 basic colours with many variations and blends of white, silver, all shades of grey and fawn, chocolate brown and true jet black, more than any other fibre producing animal.
Huacaya alpaca fleece
In the recent decades, the soft, warm, durable, non-allergenic, cashmere-like fleece of the alpacas has stamped its presence on the Australian fashion and homewares market. Artisans working the fibre have commented that it feels great next to the skin, yet it has the durability of a coarser textile. It is warm, yet amazingly light. In addition, alpaca fibre will dye beautifully. The fibres are processed into high quality fashion garments such as suits, jackets, skirts and coats and also used as a continental quilt filling because of its natural warmth. Coarser fibres are used to make luxury carpet and car seat covers. The Australian Alpaca Fleece Ltd (AAFL) operates a national fleece collection network and classes fleece through its Melbourne warehouse.
Alpacas have been domesticated for more than 5,000 years and are becoming favourite farm animals for several reasons.
They can live comfortably in relatively small acreage of 5 to 10, making them great for small landholders. So hobby farmers can quite easily have a couple and babies without stressing the land.
They are principally grazers who can thrive without consuming a lot of water.
They can be used as herd guards for poultry and sheep to reduce losses by foxes.
They have soft padded hooves and move around the farm without tearing up the ground.
Their dung makes for excellent rich fertilizer perfect for growing fruits and vegetables and are usually found in one or two areas in the pasture.
Other than annual shearing, twice-yearly vaccinations and occasional trim of toenails and teeth, alpacas require very little care.
As a result of these reasons and the joy of raising these gentle animals, many people are attracted to rare alpacas either as a business or a lifestyle choice. Many owners in Australia are small breeders with 80 % of alpacas being reared in herds of fewer than ten animals. Some families with young children even choose to own and care for alpacas like pets because they are generally clean, safe, quiet, intelligent and disease resistant. Some breeders also choose to get involved in spinning and weaving the fibre and selling products made from alpaca fiber as a hobby or an additional home-based business venture.
There are now plenty of family-oriented alpaca events around the country, including local and state fairs, alpaca farm open houses and auctions, and larger shows hosted by the Australian Alpaca Association.
You definitely don't want to just run off and buy a herd of alpacas, even if you're just looking for new pets. There are a few important considerations before donning the alpaca owner's fleece. It doesn't hurt to be more knowledgeable about the animal and its specific living requirements. If you're keen on wearing the breeder boots, a discussion with an accountant familiar with the primary industry would help identify key financials and business requirements. Some people have started in a small way by buying a couple of wethers (castrated males), which are the cheapest since they have no breeding potential. A breeding male on the other hand will cost several thousand dollars. Females can be worth anything from a few thousand dollars to a few tens of thousands of dollars.
With a better understanding of the dollars and cents of rearing alpacas, they then take the next step to start a breeding herd. You will also need to become a member of the Australian Alpaca Association and apply for Herd Registration (Herd Prefix and Herd Code). As a member, you will also be able to attend any workshops or seminars in your region that will educate you about all aspects of breeding.
With so much to learn and understand about this alluring animal and the industry, I've decided it's best to chat further with some experienced breeders about their recipe for breeding alpacas before I receive any more "Alpaca Kisses".