Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years and are native to South American countries of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. They are camelids, like Llamas, Guanacos and Vicuñas. Two breeds of alpaca are kept in this country, Suri, and Haucaya. The Huacaya have a dense, soft fleece, while Suri have a longer ‘dreadlock’ style fleece.
Both types of alpaca are bred specifically for their fibre, which comes in many colours and is incredibly fine and soft. They are also smaller than the other most common camelid in the UK, the llama. To shoulder an alpaca is normally between 81 and 99 centimetres (32 and 39 inches) and they usually weigh between 48 and 84 kilograms (106 and 185 pounds).
Are Alpacas for me?
– Alpacas are very social creatures, and should never be kept in groups of less than three.
– They need a minimum of an acre of grazing for for every six animals, but four animals per acre or fewer is more preferable.
– Alpacas are not naturally fond of being petted. With time, trust and training, they will tolerate it, particularly in exchange for a treat!
– They are tidy. Their feet are far less damaging to the ground than hoofed animals, and males will poo in only a few neat piles.
– They do require attention to diet and general health, much of which you can do yourself with a little knowledge and research.
– Alpacas will spit at other alpacas, and you may get caught in the crossfire! They rarely spit at people.
– Standard stock fencing works well for alpacas. They enjoy browsing hedges and trees.
– Alpacas need shelter from heat and cold. A square meter and a half per alpaca works well, more if you live somewhere very wet.
Your alpaca’s herd is very important to them, which is why they should never be kept in groups of less than three. It is cruel to keep a single alpaca on its own, and an alpaca kept as a pair will have a very tough time (and may stop eating) if its partner dies, so we recommend keeping a minimum of three.
Alpacas will tell you when they are nervous by making a humming sound, and the pitch of the hum will rise as they get more anxious. You may hear them make a distinctive honking screech when alarmed or communicating something new, like a walker in the next field, to the rest of the herd. Some alpacas will spit at humans when they are distressed or feel threatened. Though it is much more common for them to spit at each other when they are competing for food or trying to establish dominance.
Alpacas are generally excellent mums, and a baby alpaca is called a cria. Alpacas are induced ovulators – so they don’t come into season. The act of mating with a male induces the female to ovulate, which allows you to manage the timing of births if you choose to. Most breeders prefer to time births for the spring and summer so the baby cria are born in better weather. Females have a 345 day gestation period, though this can vary and sometimes be a lot longer. About 90 percent of the time they don’t need help in the delivery of the babies, but given their value as animals and pets, most owners prefer to check them frequently when a baby is due.
Alpacas love to sunbathe, they will lie flat out on their side, sometimes all at once, which can be pretty scary sometimes, I poked many a happily sleeping Alpaca in our first year with them!
When alpacas eat grass, they snip off the top of the plant, unlike some other animals that pull the grass up by the root when eating. If kept in the field, they will eat the grass down further, but are not really ‘lawnmowers’ and there are good reasons not to let the grass get that far.
Alpacas in a herd all use the same area as a bathroom instead of defecating in random areas like many animals do. This behaviour helps control parasites and makes it a lot easier to clean up, as many farms do with higher stocking levels. Poo piles for males tend to be very conveniently condensed, but females will choose a larger area. If your grass is short everywhere, but long in a few locations, those areas will likely be poo-piles and it is time to move them into the next field, or clean the current field, to avoid your animals eating the grass around their poo and suffering with parasites.
Standard stock fencing is perfectly adequate for alpacas, as they seldom challenge fences. Uncastrated males who can see females are an exception, and it is normally recommended that you keep your stud males out of sight of your females.
Alpacas will naturally move away or around people, unless they are trained to accept treats from your hand. Catch pens make the herd’s capture for husbandry and training much simpler. The principle is to herd the animals away from you into a smaller penned space, where they can be controlled. You can created fenced areas for this, but either way, get hold of a number of lightweight galvanised ‘hurdles’ (pieces of linkable fence you can reposition) for this, you can never have enough.