Why keep alpacas?
You can keep alpacas for a number of reasons. You can use them to keep the grass down in a paddock if you want a relatively low maintenance grazing animal.
You can use them to guard chickens or sheep from predators, an alpaca will adopt other species and protect them from foxes or similar, both of our labradors have been evicted from the paddock at times by a fired-up alpaca!
You can breed them for the wool, although you will need quite a number to make this viable.
Finally, they make great pets, they are impossibly cute and once you have a couple it is very hard to resist getting more.
Go on, get the alpaca habit! (Apologies to the Abbey National!)
What can you do with their fleece?
You can do several things with the fleece. Firstly, you can sell it as yarn for knitting or alternatively you can get it made into clothing, teddy bears or anything you like. Alpaca socks are wonderful in cold weather! The fleece is very fine and soft and gives a very high-quality finish.
How big are alpacas?
Alpacas are about 4 foot high to the heads – their bodies are the same size as a sheep’s but they have longer heads and necks. You can keep around 5 or 6 to an acre, but should never keep one on its own so you need at least half an acre of land to keep alpacas.
What do alpacas eat?
Thinking of keeping an alpaca? Find out how big they are and how much space they need first
Alpacas are grazing animals and their main food is grass. An alpaca can just live on grass but pregnant and nursing females and working males do need supplements to ensure they get the right mix of minerals. They also appreciate a supply of hay durng the winter when the grass is less nutritious and may even be frozen or covered in snow.
Alpacas like a varied diet and we feed ours on a variety of items in addition to grass – mainly vegetables and fruit such as chopped carrots, apples, celery and even pineapple, lettuce, cabbage, parsley and brussels sprouts. We never throw away any veg or fruit now – anything we have left over goes over the fence to the alpacas! In winter we also give them some aflafa and they love lamb and ewe pencils, both of which we buy from the local feedstock merchants.
From October to April we also give them a monthly supplement of Vitamin D as the short days compared with their original South American home means they don’t always make enough themselves. This comes in tubes with a plunger which you put in the side of their mouths. They soon get used to the routine.
We have also discovered that sugar beet is very good for nursing mothers as it helps them lactate and ensures they don’t get too thin. However, it’s important not to over feed an alpaca as this can also bring health problems.
Some plants are poisonous to alpacas. A full list can be downloaded from the BAS web site, but avoid fox gloves, box, yew and deadly nightshade. Like other pasture animals they will avoid ragwort if it’s growing but make sure they never get any in hay.
How easy are they to look after?
What care do they need, and would I need special training?
Alpacas are probably one of the easiest pasture animals to look after and we have friends who keep a couple of neutered males which have no extra care whatsoever. Having said that, there are some simple procedures which will help ensure that your alpacas are kept in in the peak of fitness and which are important if you want to breed or show alpacas.
Many alpaca owners offer basic training in the care of alpacas and the British Alpaca Society offers training courses in a variety aspects of alpaca husbandry. If you buy any alpacas from us, we will stay in touch and be at the end of the phone for any questions or problems. If required, we will be happy to visit you to ensure everything goes smoothly if you are taking on alpacas for the first time
Huaycaya alpacas do need shearing once a year, otherwise their fleece gets too long, and they may be too hot in the summer. Shearing them is a little different from shearing sheep as they are somewhat larger, so we would recommend a specialist shearer. There are now quite a number of shearers and we will be pleased to recommend some that we know handle alpacas carefully.
They occasionally need their toenails cutting, especially if they stay on grass the whole time. This is not a difficult procedure, but you may need some help from someone more experienced a first couple of times.
It is also an idea to get them vaccinated regularly. We would recommend three types of vaccine: Firstly, for general pasture animals such as Heptomax (annual). Secondly a vaccination against blue tongue (annual). Although there have been no incidences of this in the UK, they can contract it. Finally, we suggest you give them a vaccination against worms and other infestations such as ivermectin.
They are pretty hardy and will stay outside in virtually all weather, but a shelter is a good idea, if only so that you can check them over in the dry! They can sometimes get foot rot or diarrhea in very wet weather – a well-drained area within the paddock will help avoid this.
They can be prone to infestations of mites. These are not life threatening, but they can lose hair over parts of their body and look a bit moth eaten! We have tried various remedies including ones from the vet such as Ivermectin and various herbal remedies such as aloe vera and calendula. We find the best solution a herbal remedy called neem from India – we purchase special oil – ‘Stop-it-all’ from Karen Ruggles.
How can I learn more about them?
I would like to learn more about them – where can I go?
The British Alpaca Society can provide other information. They produce a quarterly magazine, called not surprisingly ‘Alpaca’!
Otherwise do send us an e mail via the contact page and we’ll be happy to help with your enquiry.
Where do alpacas come from?
Alpacas originally come from the Andes South America and many are still imported from there. They are now bred all over the world with substantial numbers now coming from Australia and New Zealand.
Do they spit?
Alpacas generally only spit at each other, usually to determine pecking order in the herd. It is unusual for them to spit at humans, unless you happen to be between two of them when they are having a spat!
Are they aggressive?
Alpacas are not aggressive unless they are threatened when they will drive off potential predators. That said, at least one of our herd has an “Are you looking at me” expression which would make Al Capone think twice.
How many alpacas are there in the UK?
The numbers of alpacas in the UK is steadily increasing and now stands at around 25,000 animals in total. Mosts herds are small – there are few breeders with over 100 animals so that means there are likely to be other small owners near you with whom you can exchange stories and check on care methods.
The British Alpaca Society is open to all alpaca owners and lists are available of alpaca owners and their location.
Do they get many illnesses?
Alpacas are pretty hardy and are very easy to keep. However, it is important that they are vaccinated regularly against a few infections. Blue tongue came in to this country quite recently and Cloistridial infections (similar to ones which cows and sheep get ) should be vaccinated against. It’s also important to control parasites, either by careful management of the pasture or by vaccination.
Recently some alpaca herds have succumbed to TB and it is very important to observe good hygiene with your alpacas. Keep water bowls and buckets raise above the ground to avoid wild animals drinking from them. Always clear away uneaten food to discourage other animals coming in and feeding. be aware of any badger activity and keep alpacas away from badger runs and latrines if at all possible.
The best way to spot a problem is to get to know your alpacas so that you can identify if one of them is not behaving as they normally do.
How long do they live?
Alpacas live between 15 and 20 years. As alpaca breeding only started in this country around 20 years there have only recently been alpacas dieing of old age. Older alpacas can sometimes feel the cold more than younger ones and they may need some extra feed. Females can often breed until their late years, although it may be worth considering only breeding older females every other year to allow them to fully recover from nursing a cria.
If an alpaca dies unexpectedly it is worth getting a post mortem carried out. Your vet should help with this.
Are they easy to breed?
Mating alpacas can be done at any time as they are ‘induced ovulatory’ i.e. they only ovulate when a male is introduced. If females are ready for mating, they will sit with the male sitting over them. After mating has taken place it is usual to introduce the female to the male again the following week. If she spits at the male that is a good indication that mating was successful, although it is usual to confirm success with an ultrasound scan. Gestation takes 11 months and it is best to plan for cria (as alpaca babies are called) to be born during the warmer, lighter months as they do tend to do better.
Birthing is a lot more straightforward than for many livestock. A normal birth will almost invariably take place during the day time as alpacas have adapted to the high-altitude climate where it gets very cold at night. Help is rarely needed. Most cria are up and suckling within a few hours. If they are not this is an indication of a problem. Special alpaca colostrum can now be bought, and alpacas can be bottle fed, although care must be taken with males as if they become too familiar, they can become too difficult to handle later.
If cria are born during cold or wet weather, it is possible to buy waterproof jackets for them and they are vulnerable to the cold and wet for the first few months.
The young are usually weened at around 6 months to allow the mother to regain weight and if pregnant to develop the new cria fetus. Females can be mated soon after birth and the optimum time for mating is 3 weeks after the birth. This means that it is possible to have a cria every year from a female.