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Articles by Alpaca World Magazine:

Alpacas in Belgium

Belinda White

Belgium!!!!! Alpacas !!!!! Why ??????
Belinda White

I sometimes ask myself the same questions

Belgium, that?s easy, because my husband Arthur, had been working here for some time and as his contract changed we started to see less and less of him. They were two solutions, for him to change jobs and he enjoys his work or, for us to move over. We chose the latter.

We looked for a long time and had almost given up when one evening I found this place on the internet. I phoned Arthur and as he had a rare day off the following day he said that he would drive down and have a look. I had no hopes that it would be suitable as we had been disappointed so many times before. At 3pm the next day I got a phone call ?I?ve bought it?. And he had, with the proviso that I get over as soon as possible and check it out so, the following Monday I found myself looking round a farmhouse in need of renovation with lethal electrics, no sanitation, no heating and with overgrown fields. Perfect, absolutely perfect. I told the owner that I loved it and she threw her arms around me and told me how happy she was to think that there would be children there again. Then she brought out the Belgian beer. There are hundreds of different beers here from the light thirst quenching pils type at one end of the scale to the heavy, stand a spoon up in it beers at the other end. We started on Chimay Blue, a Trappist beer. You can only call a beer Trappist if it is still brewed by the brothers at an Abbay and there are only five left like that. Chimay Blue registers at 9%. I am grateful that a friend had driven me down as after four I was in no fit state to drive anywhere. Chimay has remained my favourite although in the interests of science I have felt obliged to try nearly all of them and have the waistline to prove it.

Four months later in the October we moved in and started on the renovation work. At one stage four of us were living in one room on fold down beds so it wasn?t easy. Our dogs joined us from the UK and the local teacher gave us a cat so we were quite a houseful. Then other animals started to join our happy throng. We had inherited some very wild sheep and a few chickens. A cockerel called Freddie was thrown over the wall, a ferret called Chutney just appeared one night, another dog wandered in and wouldn?t leave, bags of kittens were left outside the gate and after a conversation in my stilted French with the farmer next door, three piglets arrived. How can you buy three pigs by accident? It?s a gift I have. They were destined for the freezer but only one made it. The other two became so friendly we couldn?t do it. Spot passed away peacefully last year but Mr. Jambon, Ham to his friends, lives on happily sharing with four goats. At over 150 kg he is the biggest pig in the area and also the oldest. He dines on potatoes left over from the village BBQs as the children love feeding him and, as the plums and apples drop from the trees in the fields he does the rounds twice a day picking up the windfalls. The children rode him when they were smaller and he still wants to walk round the fields with us on an evening as long as we scratch his back for him every now and again. We used to have butchers knocking on the door asking to buy him but they seem to have got the message now. Does he get on with alpacas, well yes; they have got used to him and don?t bat an eyelid when he is around

Alpacas well??

I had had an interest in alpacas for a while and knew a little about them and but as before I was married I had worked away from home a lot and then after I married I was moving with my husband and two small children, I never thought that I would ever have them ? until we moved to Belgium!!!.

Two years ago Arthur bought me two llamas for my birthday. When we went to collect them they were in a loose box with a single female alpaca. We asked the price and my husband was amazed at how much more the alpaca was worth. He started to ask questions about the differences between llamas and alpacas. I was surprised at how much I remembered. This rekindled my interest and got both of us thinking. We had the land and had looked at a number of possibilities to put it to work. These had included horses ? another passion of mine ? but there are so many very good animals here already, free range pigs, but we decided that that wasn't for us ? except for Mr. Jambon. And then there were alpacas - these delightful, fascinating different animals. So I started serious research and we made our minds up. It wasn?t a difficult decision.
For a number of reasons we decided to import from Chile and, on the 6th August 2008 fourteen females and one male arrived at Luxemburg airport. It was unfortunately the hottest day of the year but, as the agent had told us it would only take half to one hour to complete the transfer we weren't too worried. How wrong can you be.
Security had changed at the airport and it took almost five hours to be allowed to load the alpacas on to the wagon. The wagon was driven by Michele, a seasoned, old cattle dealer for whom I had had to draw a diagram to explain what an alpaca was and whose face was a picture when he finally met one face to face. It was blistering hot. We had gone as a family and sat in a car park waiting. Well Arthur, the two small children and I did , Alex my stepdaughter had forgotten her passport and they wouldn?t let her in so she spent the time sun bathing on the grass verge being leered at by truck drivers delivering and collecting cargo from the airport. I think that she was happy
We eventually were permitted to load up and the one hour journey from the airport to the farm was uneventful if a bit hot. When we finally dropped the ramp our little herd wandered out as if they had only travelled down the road, not spent over 24 hours in transit.
That first night we kept them in large loose boxes so as to keep an eye on them. I kept going out as I couldn't actually believe that they had arrived.
The next day after checking them over thoroughly then we let them out into the field. They just stood there as if over whelmed by the lush green grass and then they were off. Had a run round, a roll and then started eating and they haven't stopped since.
The summer passed with us getting to know them and slowly naming them. This caused a few arguments but, having discounted naming them after the Tellytubbies and a few other totally inappropriate suggestions, they kind of found their own names and those have stuck.
Every year we hold a big BBQ here for our friends in the village and from Brussels, As there were to be so many people I brought the alpacas into the box and spent most of the day showing them off to people who had never seen an alpaca before. The funniest were the old Belgian farmers who, to a man, rocked back on their heels, hand to mouth saying, ?well I never' ?who would believe it? and other phrases along the same lines. Then there were all the questions.
What are you going to do with them?
Do they spit? And last but not least, 'can you eat them'? Not on this farm you can't.
I had been worried about them getting stressed, that is the alpacas not the farmers, but I needn't have worried, and they took it all in their stride and were completely unfazed by it all.
Summer finally ended and we slipped into a mild autumn. It was getting exciting now. A number of the females had come over pregnant and we were looking forwards to the patter of tiny feet starting towards the end of November. At the beginning of November I went out first thing in the morning to check them as normal and found an aborted cria. After reading up and talking with various people I came to the conclusion that it was at least one month premature if not more. Not a good start. A few weeks later there followed three births in quick succession which were all normal but the cria were perhaps slightly on the small side. All the mums were happy and feeding the crias well. A big problem with importing animals from South America, Australia and New Zealand is that those that are pregnant are out of sync with the European seasons. They are birthing in our winter not their spring or Summer. Also, as these animals had been mated on the mountains the dates we had were only estimates and some were well and truly off the mark. We had foreseen this could be a problem and had accommodation ready for the births. However, we hadn't bargained on the terrible winter that we had that year. For three months here the temperature didn't get above -10 degrees even during the day and it was down to -17 degrees for a large part of the time. It was bitter. On top of that the alpacas hadn't read the books that say that they prefer to give birth in the morning or early afternoon. We had CCTV in the boxes but you need someone to watch the screen for that to alert you. My vet is a specialist horse vet and he foals up to 100 mares a year at his stables. He has an alarm system that actually telephones him when a mare starts to foal. We looked at adapting that for the alpacas but the sensor that is placed in the mare?s vulva was not suitable for an alpaca. Besides he only inserts them when he sees the first signs of an imminent birth and trust me it's easier to tell with a horse. Our girls had a window of about three months when they could drop. I hardly slept at all that winter. I was out every two hours and was there for some of them. One was just hitting the floor as I arrived, I went to the end of the barn for towels and iodine and when I came back there was steam rising off this poor little thing as if it was on fire. He was one of the lucky ones, We had him dried off and under a heat lamp which incidentally we had cornered the market in and he survived. Ten minutes in that temperature was too long for a new born. We lost another four despite having an insulated box and I even brought the sheep into the corridor at night in the forlorn hope that they might give off a little heat through their thick fleeces to raise the temperature a degree or two. As I say, it was a forlorn hope. It was so depressing, I didn't know what else I could do. Sadly I found it slightly reassuring that my neighbour lost the only two calves he had born during that period and other people had also lost calves, sheep and goats. I had had such high hopes and it was all going wrong.
At the end of January we only had two more to deliver. I was totally pessimistic at this stage so when a slightly undersized Diego arrived one morning, yes his mum got the time right, I was not in the least surprised that he didn't want to feed. His mum was happy to let him; we tried to guide him but no, he wasn?t interested. We tried to get him to take colostrum from a bottle but he was having none of it. After six hours worrying we got the vet out who checked him over for any defects that might be stopping him, nothing, so we tubed the colostrum into him and carried on watching. I was convinced that he was going to die. He continued to refuse to suckle or take a bottle and we are quite good at bottle feeding as we have had lots of practice with lambs and have never failed to get them to feed. He would nuzzle his mum in the right area so she carried on producing milk which we took off her. We had no choice so we carried on tube feeding him which I hate doing, At night we brought him into the downstairs bathroom between the wall radiator and an electric one and each morning well wrapped up he went back out with his mum. She was amazing throughout. She lets us milk her three times a day and never complained when we took him away and greeted him warmly when we put him back with her. He took it all with a good nature and interest. Then suddenly after three weeks my son came running in shouting he's feeding and sure enough, there he was with his head tucked under having a really good lunch. We weighed him and watched him very closely and slowly he started to put on weight and he has never looked back. I love him because he gave me my hope back, he had been at the point of dying but had survived. At this point I have to say a HUGE thank you to those experienced breeders that I telephoned in desperation. Thank you for your patience, your kindness and your advice. You know who you are. I can't believe that many other types of breeders would have gone to so much trouble.
We did make it through the winter and finished with five healthy cria and all our adults. This year we have bred the females so as not to start birthing before the end of March so fingers crossed for a far better result.
The summer of 2009 was the complete opposite to the winter, scorching hot. We had very little grass left so the hay bill was on the high side. But never mind, all survived OK and had long days standing in the stream that runs at the bottom of the fields. On the down side, my shearing partner went AWOL and although I managed to shear half of the herd the other half remained very hairy. It is all part of the steep learning curve. Fortunately, despite the heat none of them appeared to suffer any ill effects and, as I dipped my toe into the showing scene, it proved something of a blessing as those animals shorn did not have the minimum length of fleece required at the time that entries closed. I didn?t feel properly prepared for showing and I was proved right, but it got to the stage that if I didn?t do it now I was never going to get round to it
Our first show was at Verzion in France and nearly didn?t happen. I needed a license to take the animals from Belgium to France and at 9pm Thursday night I was still waiting for the government vet. He arrived at 10pm checked the animals and then found that his computer programme would not open on our computer so I had to follow him 40 km home, wait for him to print and sign it and then drive back getting in after midnight. Never mind, I had the paper.
Next morning I set out on my own with five alpacas and after an uneventful six hour drive arrived at our destination. Any worries about how alpacas travel were forgotten as I checked them regularly and they seemed very happy throughout the journey.
We had halter trained them all over the previous few months and they all led at home ? be it a little reluctantly however some of them took the change of scenery better than others. Two in particular found the thought of leading in a strange place totally unacceptable. I managed to get them into the ring with a lot of help from fellow competitors but once in and on my own they lay down and refused to budge. One even had to be wheel barrowed out. Very embarrassing but it seemed to amuse the public and other competitors. Fortunately the two girls in question, were happy back in their pen having made their protest. I hadn?t gone with any expectations but hoped only to bring a rosette home and I did. I even won a first with my little fawn female so I returned home very happy. The best bit for me was the help and encouragement received from the other exhibitors and the huge amount that I learnt about alpacas in general and my own individual animals whilst there. You can attend shows, watch at the ringside and talk to people but I was amazed at the difference made by actually being involved in the ring and seeing judging decisions being made close up. There is a huge difference and I would urge anyone who wants to learn more and is tempted to enter a show but nervous of doing so DO IT.
I have attended two other shows since with the same animals and am pleased to report that their behaviour has improved and they have suffered no ill effects. And as for alpaca show judges, is there part of their training which teaches them to always think of something encouraging to say? Along the lines of, I can?t place you because I haven?t seen your alpaca?s legs never mind it walk (said standing over a recumbent alpaca in the ring) but she does have a very fine fleece. Thank you, thank you thank you for not throwing me out of the ring which would have been a bit difficult as I would have had to drag the alpaca out behind me.
We have had our ups and downs over the last 18 months but we are very positive about our animals and the future of alpacas here in not just Belgium but the whole of Europe. We have a great position being based here as France, Germany and Holland are easily accessible. We have many plans including staging the first international alpaca show here in the south of Belgium in November
So, a big thank you to all who have helped and supported us, good luck in 2010 and maybe we will see you over here at some stage.
One final note on the showing, I had a lovely conversation with a lady at a German show. She was saying that alpacas are like dogs, owners and alpacas start to look alike. As an example she used a class she had just watched with the beautiful, slim, and elegant. Hanne Van De Winkel from Alpaca Flanders with her beautiful, slim, elegant alpaca and standing next to her was you {as in me} with your little, fat dumpy one. Well that is Belgian beer for you.