Every time I receive a copy of the magazine and read about things going on in France or Spain I feel guilty for not writing about Italy. The fact is, everything seems to be moving more slowly here than in the rest of Europe. I'd like to give the heat as an excuse, but I?m sure Andalusian alpacas are not much cooler than ours. The year 2007 started for me with the excitement of qualifying as a British Alpaca Judge and with the launching of my new website (www.alpacaitalia.com). The idea was to create a website that gives basic information in Italian, as most people here are unable to access documents in English.
Meanwhile at the farm we were working like mad to finish a new paddock to house our precious British imports, and I still remember how the last bit of fence was being finished just as they walked curiously through the gate. It was a great day and everyone in the village enjoyed the sight of the huge truck struggling up the narrow roads while we drove in front hooting and stopping vehicles coming the opposite way. They also appreciated our efforts as we finally succeeded in stuffing the uncooperative alpacas into our small van to take them down our steep and narrow access road.
Most of April was spent looking after the pregnant British females and the two studs that came with them. The first thing we noticed was that they were completely different animals from our own: not only denser in fibre, but, most importantly, extremely voracious! In less than a month they completely scoured the new paddock, stripping it of grass, leaves and anything else they could reach with their mouths. The obvious consequence was that they also pooped three times as much as our original alpacas. Also, they were much more messy, using extended toilet areas. After cleaning them out a few times I can tell you that I started looking at my old, low-maintenance alpacas with new appreciation and started wondering about importing from places with a very different climate and pastures.
With the arrival of warm days I had to stop wondering and start acting: with the shearing season upon us, I had to get things ready, arrange dates and make sure I had enough combs, cutters and oil to defeat our Italian dust. It was my second season as a shearer and I had learned the hard way that most people did not understand when I told them that alpacas had to be kept in a clean place. I had found myself shearing a group of animals that had been kept for days in a small paddock that I can only describe as a huge rolling area. The dust had gone so deep into their fleeces that I still remember the desperate groan of the clippers, the dust whirling around me and the summer sun beating on my aching back. So I was very pleased when I managed to organise the shearing dates better, even if the weather seemed to be teasing me by always raining the day before the scheduled date. Still, I like shearing because it allows you to see what the other breeders are doing, to talk with them and share ideas. Also, being a young woman in Italy is not always an advantage, but after a hard day?s work most people change their attitude. My favourite trick is to give owners the hot clippers and tell them to try for themselves: they soon realise there?s more to it than at first sight.
At the beginning of June I had to attend an agricultural show at San Giuliano Terme, near Pisa in Tuscany, and decided to take the two studs, ACC Dante and Langaton Moby Dick with me. I was invited to give various presentations during the weekend, answer questions, and generally show off the animals for everyone to see. The show was packed with people and about four times a day I was given a microphone and had to tell ?the tale of the alpacas?: where they come from, what they are used for, and why they are so much better than sheep. It was a real success, with me in my wallaroo hat looking almost as exotic as the two halter-trained boys in the ring with me.
After those rather hot spring months I decided I'd like a change of climate and spent some time at my friends? at Langaton Alpacas, which also gave me the chance to attend the judges? meeting and Cameron Holt?s fibre seminar. Unfortunately, the change was drastic and I only remember one day of feeble sun out of the fifteen I spent there. To crown it all I fell sick and spent a week in my room, not helping at all, feeling horrible and worrying the Waldrons as I ?was not eating?! I?m well known for being able to eat for Italy.
The rest of the summer was uneventful, with nothing happening during July and August, which gave me a good excuse for coming back to the UK. In the autumn I also spent some very interesting days screening in Germany for the Alpaca Association e.V.
October and November saw the end of our birthing season and gave us food for thought: of the four pregnant females imported, only one managed to give birth and rear a healthy cria. The others had desperately premature crias that died no matter how much colostrum and glucose we gave them. We had high hopes for those crias and it was heartbreaking to see them fade away. However, this was another proof that importing animals is not as simple as it seems and that the old Italian saying ?mogli e buoi dei paesi tuoi? (wives and cows from your own region) is at least partly true.
The closing months of the year were characterised by the desperate search for good hay for the winter. I still remember my surprise when I first touched English hay and haylage. It was incredibly soft and green and smelled wonderful. I decided that being an alpaca was not that bad if I could eat that hay, but that was before I actually tried some. I also remember how the Stewarts would take hay samples at their farm in Oregon in order to know exactly what nutrients they were feeding their alpacas. In Italy things are much simpler. You feed them whatever you find (and consider yourself lucky to find it) ? which is mostly strong, straw-like stuff full of seeds that get stuck in fleeces (theirs and mine). I suppose this is what the native Italian alpacas are used to and what expats will also have to get used to if they want to survive.
Our imports have always eaten everything, but I guess it is out of desperation more than out of taste. They seem to be doing fine now, but it will be interesting to see what happens next. Also, are alpacas frugal animals or does that depend on the context? Most of Italy has nothing comparable to luxuriant British fields and there is far too little water to use it for irrigating pastures. If the animals get sick it?s always a challenge to find a vet that is not only willing to come to the farm but also understands something about camelids. There are obviously some very good vets around, but the nearest to us, for example, is a two hour drive away and no use for emergencies. I also wonder if the alpacas have settled into our climate. They should be pregnant now, so we will see, but are we facing another year of premature crias? And if the crias are born healthy, will they thrive and how will their growth and fibre characteristics be affected?
All these questions will be answered in a few months, so all we can do now is get ready for the new season.