The joys of Alpacas

Peering over a hedge to find a small, woolly camelid staring watchfully back can come as a bit of a surprise. The alpaca has been grazing the British countryside for about 20 years, but, together with bison, ostrich and other unusual imports that cause distracted drivers to swerve into ditches, it comes, for some farming folk, firmly under the heading ‘exotic, foreign’. For a growing number of smitten others, however, the alpaca is a burgeoning love affair: the British Alpaca Society (BAS) has 1,150 members who own some 30,800 animals between them, every single one of which has a name, and there are estimated to be another 7,000 unregistered ‘pet boys’ in the country.

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BAS members range from a few big time breeders-Bozedown Alpacas, started in 1989 by genetics enthusiast Joy Whitbread, grazes an astonishing 800-plus on the banks of the Thames -to smallholders who prefer to avoid a dilemma about eating their pets and fraught businessmen who want something soothing to look at in the evening. Alpacas do have a hypnotic effect, as they maintain perpetual, dreamy movement-nibbling grass, scratching their ears, rolling-and the look in their large eyes is a mix of soulfulness and knowing amusement. Some owners have even ‘inherited’ them with a new property, such as guitarist Jason Huxley of the band Honey Ryder, who has them at his Staffordshire home. For retired farmer Tom Vesey, an alpaca used to be something that made his young horses shy, but he admits that he and his wife, Fran, are now attached to the group that potter about endearingly in front of their west Somerset home. ‘When we bought the house, the seller, who didn’t know what to do with his alpacas, made it clear that he would favour anyone who was prepared to take them on and we were keen not to lose the sale. They’re no trouble and everyone who comes here enjoys watching them -they’re always a talking point.’

Margaret Steinschaden-Silver with her alpacas

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Margaret Steinschaden-Silver, who breeds the prize-winning Pinkney alpacas near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, first encountered them 13 years ago on a trip to their natural home, South America, where they’re as common as sheep. ‘I’d never given them much thought before, but there was something arresting about their eyes,’ she says. Unwittingly, she also ate some: ‘It tasted delicious, a cross between lamb and veal. I wasn’t told what it was until later, and, by then, they’d got to me.’ She explains: ‘We were looking for a realistic farming activity that fitted our 20 acres and here was an appealing animal of high value that was gentle, hardy and utterly peaceful to watch.’ Mrs Steinschaden-Silver’s herd of some 60 suris (the ones with Rastafarian coils of wool) do look, even to the untrained eye, particularly chic. Belinda leans cosily against me in appealing fashion, Patch, a perky skewbald bought for the grandchildren, is the herd’s ‘Just William’, and Araminta blinks coyly as she’s held up as a perfect specimen: her neck and body are in neat proportion (like a horse, the animal should fit in a ‘square box’), her fringe points forward and her cheeks are fluffy yet defined-she’s the Audrey Hepburn of alpacas. ‘Someone described suris to me as the niche end of a niche market, and I breed specifically for the appearance I want,’ explains Mrs Steinschaden-Silver. ‘There are very few all-suri herds and mine is very much my own look.’

Soon after acquiring her first dozen alpacas, all pregnant females in a variety of colours, she sold off the huacuyas (the more usually seen type), borrowed Auravale Alpaca’s leading suri sire Wonder Dream and began her own breeding programme. Her latest champion is Angelica, winner of the Golden Fleece, a world title; her fleece was judged ‘exceptional in weight and lustre’. Mrs Steinschaden-Silver is as particular about the feel of the wool as she is about the beauty of her animals, and is currently experimenting with different blends for the next stage of her enterprise. And, although she’s clearly dotty about her alpacas, she’s stringent about herd quality; some that don’t make the grade are put down-‘it’s far kinder’-and turned into salami (which tastes similar to biltong and is low in fat) by butchers at Tucks Farm Shop in Sherston.

Her friend Fiona Smith, who keeps 20 suris-and a few rheas-on 10 acres in Frilford, Oxfordshire, is proof of the possibilities with alpacas. She began Simply Suris in 2007, investing £16,000 in a starter herd of five animals, and, after learning some hard lessons about the quality of her stock, won back-to-back BAS awards for the most successful small business.

She isn’t from a farming background -‘most people who get into alpacas haven’t had livestock before,’ she explains-first encountering them at an agricultural show. ‘I thought they would be pretty lawnmowers for my paddock, but also a way of running a business from home.’ Mrs Smith breeds and sells mostly black suris, mainly to first-time smallholders- females go for £3,000- £10,000-and reports the spinning industry to be on the rise as mini-mills that can cope with suri fleece are springing up in Britain. ‘It’s important get out to shows so that people know your name, but it’s a nice industry, in which everyone knows each other.’

The eclectic nature of alpaca keepers is borne out by the board of the BAS, which includes a retired policeman, a part-time GP and an occupational therapist. The registrar Libby Henson (sister of the television presenter Adam) reports a significant growth since she began in the job nine years ago. ‘It was very small potatoes, with 200 members and 4,000 animals. Then, there were some big importations and there has been a rapid rate of growth,’ she says. ‘Alpacas are attractive with their big eyes and people fall in love with them. They’re relatively high value- more than a sheep-and owners can enjoy showing them and producing fibre for Christmas presents. It’s an appealing package, and then, of course, they become family.’

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British Alpaca Society 0845 331 2468;
Pinkney Alpacas, Wiltshire 01666 840540;
Simply Suris, Oxfordshire 01865 823355;
Toft Alpacas, Warwickshire 01788 810626; www.
Bozedown Alpacas, Oxfordshire 0118- 984 3827; www.