Myths and Realities

Alpaca Myths and Realities

Alpacas are wild animals
False. Alpacas were domesticated many thousands of years ago in South America. They are descended from the wild vicunas, and bear about as much resemblance to them as modern-day cattle do to their ancestors the aurochs.

Alpacas are very intelligent and have their own personalities
Alpacas are probably more intelligent than sheep, but compared to things like dogs, alpacas are thick. Cows, pigs, horses, and goats are also more intelligent than alpacas. While individual alpacas have variation in traits such as docility, curiosity, and obstinacy, they don't have the same dimension to their characters that I've observed in brighter animals -- for example a dog who is fascinated by flies and moths, or a horse who loves to be brushed but hates to have his mane touched.

Alpacas are extremely hardy, more so than traditional livestock
This is not true. Alpacas are similar in this respect to sheep, in that as herbivores who need to stay with the herd for their safety, they have a high pain threshold and often by the time illness is apparent, they are on the banks of the Styx if not already in it. As alpacas are not native to the UK, they also seem to be less clued-in to avoiding eating plants that aren't ideal for their digestion.

Alpacas deter foxes and can protect chickens and sheep
This is true. Alpacas will chase and attempt to kick and trample foxes (as well as small dogs if one should get into their enclosure). They are however very accepting of other livestock and can live harmoniously with poultry and sheep, and when they are in the same enclosure they will reduce attacks and deaths from foxes.

Alpacas are ruminants.
True

Alpacas are cuddly/gentle/harmless
This is not entirely true. Well-raised alpacas are trained to walk on a halter and come into a pen to be fed. With this training, they are relatively easy for a person with not much experience to catch and take for a walk or carry out basic husbandry. Some alpacas are more accepting of close human interactions such as cuddling and stroking than others. Alpacas tend to get upset by more invasive handling, such as having their feet picked up or their bottoms touched, and can kick and spit under pressure. Spit is composed of cud (ruminant bacteria and partly-digested grass) and has a foul odour, but is generally harmless. A kick in the chest or the head, or to a small child, can cause injury, and an adult alpaca weighs roughly the same as a full-grown person, so being trampled or fallen on while trying to handle a panicking one can hurt. Alpacas generally do not bite, but mature males and some females can have 'fighting teeth' and there are a few instances of people being injured when the teeth are not trimmed properly. The most friendly alpacas are generally castrated males and non-pregnant females. Pregnancy takes nearly a year or sometimes more, and mothers are remated a few weeks after birthing, so females used for breeding tend to spend most of their lives in a foul hormonal strop. However, they are animals that are fun to watch, as they are active, social, and inquisitive.

Alpacas are good pets and easy to care for
True for the most part. If you want a pet that lives outdoors and have enough grazing, alpacas may be for you (you can keep a group of three on about an acre if it's properly managed and they aren't pregnant). They aren't a traditional pet like a dog or cat, but they are fun to watch and you can pet them to some degree, and often they will learn to eat from your hand. Food expenses are relatively trivial: a small amount of concentrate each day and access to hay and water. It's a good idea to vaccinate with Lambivac annually, and feet and sometimes teeth will need to be trimmed, and of course they need to be sheared. All these needs can be taken care of once a year at the same time by a good shearer.

You should use your alpacas for 'trekking'/'glamping'/therapy work/rent them out to weddings and parties as I heard of someone who made a fortune doing that
I get told this frequently by people when they find out I have alpacas. These terms are just modern rebrands of petting zoos, tourist farms, and donkey rides at the seaside. I don't actually object to any of these traditional animal activities provided they are done with an emphasis on animal welfare. They can be educational, and for children who live in cities and families who are not well off, it can be the only contact with animals and the countryside they get to have. However I don't like how people seem to see them as politically incorrect and the need to use euphemisms and subterfuge and sanctimonious excuses, for example a tourist farm calling itself a 'sanctuary' and making up stories about 'rescuing' the animals, or contact with animals in a petting zoo being marketed as 'therapy'. It can also be difficult in some situations to ensure welfare needs are being met. Weddings and parties tend to involve large crowds of noisy people wearing funny costumes and throwing things. Alpacas are less 'spooky' than sheep but more flighty than most horses and the stress from this sort of environment will be difficult to mitigate.

Breeding alpacas is a get-rich-quick fix
False. Although there may be some people who made money out of importing and breeding alpacas when they were very new to the country, and some people who have invested a great deal of time and money into a business and managed to stay ahead of the game and make a profit, it is unlikely that someone starting out breeding alpacas today will make a profit. You are doing well if you manage to break even. A stud service from a decent quality but lower-price-end male tends to cost £450+ (and most stud service providers will charge VAT on that) and if a male offspring results, it can usually be sold as a pet for little more than the stud fee. A female offspring suitable for breeding might sell for £1,000 at a year old. In the meantime you have veterinary costs, food, and shearing to pay for over the two years the mother is pregnant and the cria is growing up. Any breeder with a wish to move their programme forward is also likely to want to keep most of the females they breed for their future.

Alpacas can be used to gain planning permission
Although people have managed to get planning permission to build houses in the countryside through a loophole in the past, the authorities seem to becoming wise to this. Any houses that were built would be restricted by an agricultural occupancy condition. This condition generally means that anyone who lives there must derive the majority of their income from farming or forestry. If you were to change careers later in life, you could end up being forced to leave your own home. Inheriting a house with such a condition can also be a nightmare, as we found out when we inherited an estate with inheritance tax and other large debts, where most of the value of the estate was tied up in a house that was for all intents and purposes unsaleable and unmortgageable, and technically we weren't legally allowed to live in it ourselves or rent it to tenants. We had to fight the planning authority and pay large amounts of money just so we could get the condition removed and pay off the debts.

Alpaca fibre is so valuable that the fleeces will pay for the cost of shearing the alpacas
Mostly false. A professional shearer will charge about £20 per alpaca to come out and shear them. On top of this you will have to pay for the shearer's travel and possibly a set-up fee. The very best quality fleece from the animal's back will earn about £10 per kg sold to a commercial producer, if it is clean and sheared well. Usually only alpacas in the first year or two of life produce fleeces this good, and if they are really good they might produce about 2 kg of this a shear. The fleece degrades as the animal ages, and by the age of 10 most will produce a fleece that will be worth about £1 in its entirety. It is possible to save money in the long run by learning to shear your own alpacas. It is also possible if you have the time, inclination, and inspiration, to make something out of the fleeces that you might be able to sell for more. Fleeces tend to become riddled with insects and cocoons if they are stored for any length of time, which will contaminate the area they are stored in.

Once the infrastructure is in place and there are enough alpacas in the UK, making clothing from fleeces will become highly lucrative
Very likely false. Alpacas as they are bred in the UK at the moment are too inconsistent in terms of fleece quality and colour to provide the raw materials for this hypothetical industry. Even if this changed, an industry based in the UK with the sort of prices required to support British producers would be uncompetitive. The alpaca is native to the South American countries and these countries are still home to the largest population of alpacas by far. The farmers in these countries produce mainly white animals with consistent fleece quality (ageing or poor-quality animals tend to end up in a stew). They can produce this large consistent volume for a low price compared to what anyone in the UK can produce. And to be fair, this is the way it should be. These countries have weak economies as a result of historical harms done to them by other nations, and it is right and proper that they can corner the market on a product that is rightfully theirs. Alpaca fibre production in Western countries should remain as it is -- a niche high-end market.

Alpacas cannot be eaten
False. Alpacas were originally domesticated in south America for both their meat and fibre and are still eaten in their native land. In Australia, where the industry is advanced and alpacas have arguably been bred to the best standard in the world and farming them is thought to be more sustainable than here, there has been a significant effort made to promote and develop the meat industry. In the UK, a few small abattoirs have a licence to slaughter alpacas; the alpacas are always humanely made unconscious with an electric current stunner before slaughter. The meat is apparently lean and in their countries of origin is often made into jerky or slow-cook stews. Alpaca meat and electric current stunning before slaughter can apparently be halal (acceptable to eat in Islam) but neither the meat or the stunning method are considered kosher (acceptable for Judaism). As alpacas are usually farmed in a sustainable way with year-round access to pasture and have high welfare throughout their lives and at slaughter in the UK, British alpaca meat is something to seriously consider for anyone who is concerned about their carbon footprint and the welfare of more ubiquitous meat that comes from pigs and chickens intensively farmed indoors and fed soy products.

Alpacas are not endangered and don't need to be bred outside of their native lands
False. Alpacas were domesticated in South America thousands of years ago and were the traditional livestock of the Incas and other people native to that region. In the 1500s, Peru was invaded and the people and livestock massacred and their lands taken. Those who lived fled and had to survive as best they could for many generations, and in the struggle alpacas ended up mating with llamas, another species used as a beast of burden domesticated from the wild guanaco. Llamas, guanaco, alpacas, and vicunas are considered four separate species, but are genetically related enough to be able to produce viable offspring that are capable of breeding. As a result of this, all alpacas today are thought to carry llama DNA. Llamas are bred to be large and carry loads, and alpacas are bred to produce fibre. The offspring of an alpaca and a llama produced poor quality fibre and is smaller and weaker than a llama. This phenomenon is called outbreeding depression. This caused the quality of the fibre to deteriorate catastrophically. The fleece from the remains of an alpaca found in an ancient tomb was analysed and had an average diameter of about 14 microns. Fleeces this good are very rare in modern animals, and even after many years of selection to improve, most alpacas produce fibres with an average diameter of 20 microns or more. There is no quick fix for outbreeding depression. Once harmful or unwanted genetic material enters the gene pool, the only way to remove it is to select away from the traits it causes for many generations. In this way, the qualities of the alpaca in its heyday may one day be restored. But tragically, the unique gene pool of those alpacas is lost forever and can never be recovered.