Getting Started with Alpacas

Getting Started With Alpacas

For the majority of new alpaca owners it is a case of love at first sight, but as Barbara Hetherington of Beck Brow Alpacas of Cumbria explains, time spent doing some research before making a purchase can be time well spent.

Having decided that you wish to own alpacas, it is important to consider what role you wish them to have. There are numerous reasons to have these endearing animals in our lives and different alpacas will fulfil different needs.

  • You may have a small plot of land and wish to keep alpacas purely as pets, mainly to keep the grass down. In which case fleece quality may not be the most important factor to you.
  • Do you wish to keep alpacas as an attraction to a glamping business/for trekking/as wedding attendants/to provide therapeutic support? Here a friendly temperament is essential.
  • You have a number of acres and wish to breed, but mainly for pleasure. It is important with all breeding stock that they are of sound conformation. However, fleece quality may vary and is generally reflected in the price paid.
  • Do you intend to breed show quality alpacas and plan to make this in to a business? If so the quality of the alpacas (both fleece and conformation) should be of great influence. Lots of research and training will be of real benefit here.
  • Are you are mainly interested in the fleece and fibre? In this case boys who have just missed the stud grade (maybe due to a slight conformational fault) may be of interest.
  • Do you wish to keep alpacas as flock guards? Both non-breeding females and males may fit this role.

Other influences may be:

  • Amount and quality of land – a few pet boys will require less land than a breeding herd.
  • Budget for alpacas – show quality females will be considerably more expensive than pet quality females, but are likely to bring the biggest financial return. Boys for trekking will be cheaper than females (but remember temperament is important, so well trained boys are worth the investment)
  • Budget for fencing and shelters – breeding females and cria (babies) may require more advanced housing than a basic field shelter.
  • Work commitments – breeding females will require more observation during the birthing season.

Of course few of us as prospective first-time buyers know what constitutes a quality fleece, or how a well handled alpaca should behave. It is therefore important to visit a number of farms. See lots of alpacas and farm set-ups. Ensure the breeder is a member of the British Alpaca Society (BAS) and that the alpacas are registered with the society. It may not be the alpaca breeder nearest to you who has the right alpacas to fulfil your needs, don’t be persuaded to buy alpacas who do not fit your remit.

Some considerations when visiting farms:

  • Does the farm look clean and have evidence of high levels of bio-security?
  • Do the alpacas look healthy?
  • Is a full medical history available?
  • Are you invited to be hands-on with the alpacas?
  • Have you had the fleece shown to you and the qualities explained? (if this is important to you)
  • Is husbandry training provided before your alpacas are delivered?
  • Is on-going support provided as well as help with initial farm set-up?
  • Do you feel at ease with the breeder and their alpacas? It is important to have a good relationship with both.

We would recommend becoming a BAS member (www.bas-uk.com) as part of your research into ownership. This will give you access to the members’ area of the website, where lots of useful information is available. The Society has also recently started a training programme whereby BAS trained breeders will deliver husbandry and welfare courses in line with the society’s recommendations. There are also regional groups within the society who offer training and support. Details are on the BAS website.

If you are interested in showing, a visit to the BAS National Show is very worthwhile.  Approximately 100 breeders exhibit at the halter show each year, most of whom have a wealth of experience. The show also displays the National Fleece Show and Fleece and Fibre zone (www.basnationalshow.co.uk).

Whatever your reason for choosing to own alpacas, it should be a pleasure. Alpacas are the most engaging and empathetic animals we have ever had the joy to live and work with. Add to this the wonderful friends we have made along the way, then what’s not to recommend about having alpacas in your life!

 

Answers to some prospective owners FAQs :

Q: Can a single alpaca live with other animals on my farm?

A: Alpacas are herd animals and are happiest in a group. We would recommend a minimum of 2 boys or 3 females as a starter herd. Although we prefer boys also to be in groups of 3. They will live happily with sheep and goats, but be aware of shared parasites.

Q: How many alpacas can I have to an acre?

A: This will depend on the amount and quality of the land. Well fertilised land will allow stocking rates of around 6 alpacas per acre, with some allowance for rotation to be made. A single acre would accommodate approximately 3 alpacas, allowing for some resting. Cleaning paddocks of dung is important in order to keep alpacas free of parasites, especially if stocking levels are high.

Q: What are their husbandry needs?

A: This is where you would expect to be given lots of training and advice from the seller. They are not difficult to look after, but confidence in handling makes all tasks much easier. The BAS DVD Caring For Alpacas is also a very useful training tool. Basic care includes; trimming of toenails, drenching against parasites if necessary, protection against clostridial disease, provision of AD&E vitamins, condition scoring, and general observation of health.

Q: What is required for farm set-up?

A: Whilst alpacas tend not to test fencing especially, ideally, fencing should be approximately 4ft high and be free of barbed wire. Runways can be very useful for movement around the farm. Taking advice from established farms before starting with fencing can save a lot of time and money. Alpacas do need some kind of shelter. We have found that they prefer light and airy space, open-fronted barns/shelters facing away from prevailing winds are ideal. Gates/hurdles allowing the alpacas to be closed inside for tasks or in especially bad weather are also required.

Q: How often do they need sheared and where do I find a shearer?

A: Alpacas generally get shorn once a year during the summer months, although the Suri breed may get shorn bi-annually. Your seller may be able to refer you to their shearer, if not a list of shearers is available on the BAS website.

Q: What do alpacas eat?

A: Alpacas mainly live on grass, hay and a small amount of supplementary feed. A number of specialist feeds are available which have been tailor-made to meet the nutritional requirements of alpacas in the UK. During the winter months addition nourishment may be required, especially in the case of a nursing female, this may be sugarbeet or alpha alpha pellets or similar. Feeding needs will depend on the land available and the status of the alpaca e.g age/health/pregnancy state. We have to give addition selenium due to a deficiency in our area. Your local vet/farmer will be able to advise on local needs. A supply of clean water is required.

Q: How often are alpacas pregnant?

A: Females can be expected to have a cria (baby) every year (although you may wish them to have a year off as they age). They are pregnant for approximately 340 days gestation. However this is very approximate. We have had healthy cria born between gestation periods of 320-days to 385-days. They are re-mated at around 21-days post-partum. Females are generally bred for the first time at between 16 months and 2 years of age