ALPACAS ? THERE AND BACK AGAIN.....
Jenny MacHarg, Fowberry Alpacas
It is interesting where life takes you. Little did, husband, Graham and I know that meeting alpacas in the Highlands of Scotland would change our lives for ever. We were visiting family when we heard that a friend had been left a herd of alpacas in someone?s will. We loved them at first sight and considered swopping our wild young thoroughbred horses for some even wilder alpacas. Graham received a quote for three alpaca females with three female cria at foot and commented that he could buy 10,000 sheep for that price! Eventually we made a poor judgement, bought our first alpacas, one of which was aberrant and put Graham in hospital for a week. We didn?t intend for alpacas to take over our lives, but once we owned them and they had employed their battery of enchantments, they had us hooked. We then felt that having secured the herd-sire who made our business what it is today, it would be wrong not to continue enthusiastically. Graham had been offered a choice of two males by Matthew Lloyd at EP Cambridge. Tim Hey was able to check out both in Australia and our preferred choice, EPC Top Account (white) was the outcome. Thirteen years later and we run alpacas on 50 acres of our farm, but only as many as we can remember individual faces - names, sires, dams, siblings, aunties and uncles, without the use of ear-tags. At the moment that is 68 alpacas with 15 cria arriving this summer. In ten years time as we deplete our brain cells, we may be down to five.
It would be difficult to say exactly what we most enjoy about alpacas. For Graham, perhaps ?everything?, sums it up, including their inquisitive nature, their intelligence, but most of all the trust that they have in us to ensure that they are properly cared for. I enjoy the babies arriving, although Graham says I am far too hard on them, because I only rate two or three a year. I also have a teaching qualification from the British Horse Society, so I do enjoy the training at the different alpaca courses we run from our class room. After working with and learning about alpacas for the day, we love to see delegates spinning out of the session with the same enthusiasm, positivity and encouragement that the BAS National show gives to established breeders. We are often asked on our courses how intelligent we think alpacas are and I tell delegates that our home-bred and half-owned herd sire returned to us after nearly two years away; he is a big, bold, confident male with many progeny, yet when he first heard my voice he crouched submissively with his tail flipped and then sniffed around my neck like he used to do. Our seven year old female, Kat, may not have seen our daughter for months, but she recognises her from a distance and runs to her, showing real affection by putting her head on Rosie?s chest. In 2013 our top female Keiko, having given birth perfectly four times, came up to Graham to hum loudly in his face and tell him she needed help with her fifth cria. She did need help. If I didn?t think our non-alpaca-owning friends would lose the will to live, I would literally dine out on these stories.
Hosting alpaca courses at our farm is important to us; we are determined to offer the kind of information which wasn?t available to us when we were making the decision to buy alpacas. To the extent that we would like to see the British Alpaca Society spending a lot less on judge training for the minority of breeders who want to become judges and to acknowledge the benefit to the industry of basic subsidised courses to introduce people to alpacas: assessing quality of conformation and fleece without resorting to show results; alpacas? requirements; alpaca carers commitments, financials, income and particularly how to market themselves, their alpacas and their farm etc. Maybe then we would not have welfare cases, including one recently played out on a social media platform, of a breeder threatening to slaughter her pregnant females if they didn?t sell. Surely this type of education is a prerequisite for a healthy alpaca market and certainly better than sending alpacas to livestock auction marts, with an uncertain future and poor prices. Alpaca auction prices achieved this year leave the industry damaged and well before we have a sustainable fibre market to rely on. If a young female sells at auction grossly undervalued, in the hundreds of pounds range, how does the outlay for her stack up in terms of birthing, raising, feeding, shearing, vaccinating and attending her needs up to the age of being pregnant and market ready? The over abundance of ?cheap alpacas? concerns us, especially when new owners feel that they have got ?value for money? with their cheap alpacas. On the contrary this may turn out not to be so. One of our females cost us £11,500, eleven years ago. Of the world-class, fine-fleeced progeny she has given us, her sons are herd-sires; in 2010 she produced a daughter who was Best in Show at the biggest show in Europe (2012). At the age of thirteen, she produced her fifth daughter who was 1st Junior White Female at the National 2015. Her daughter, grand-daughter and great grand-daughter have been sold into Europe and commanded top prices.This is value for money!
For a medium size farm our show success has been a huge reward, especially considering our first cria tested at 31 microns at 9 months old and then ten years later winning twice, back to back, Best in Show at the British Alpaca Futurity. We believe if you want a racehorse to win a race, you don?t feed it pony cubes; you look after it in a certain way; it must be properly bred but it is not just about genetics. It is about your alpaca?s ability to express its genetic superiority and that requires the correct environment, including nutrition. Consequently, for our alpacas to perform to their best ability in growth, fleece, health and productivity, we attend to their physical and emotional needs. Meticulous feeding of top quality fodder assists our aims, but we don?t always get it right and our alpacas came out of the mild winter of 2013/2014 fatter than when they went in. I find it an additional responsibility that I can sense when an alpaca is not happy - alpacas make you develop your intuition to farm them better. Helpfully, from a few days old, all the alpacas respond very well to my voice. Graham has learnt to as well!
Our tips for new breeders:
If an alpaca seems unwell, act immediately, don?t wait and see. If you feel that something is wrong, it probably is.
Never underestimate an alpaca?s need for thorough and regular vitaminisation. Rickets is a scourge in alpacas; it is a painful condition and can affect adults as well as youngsters.
Always give a Camelid-specific feed; essential considering alpacas evolved in one of the most highly mineralised places in the world.
Only buy the best, top quality genetics with uniform (low SD), fine fleeces, to maximise the success of your herd; this will also help towards our goal of a national and international demand for UK Alpaca fibre.
Looking to the future, we would encourage the BAS to employ a marketing strategy to promote gelded males to the farming community nationally, as herd and flock guards. Making boys more valuable alive than slaughtered for meat and also continue the good work to raise the profile and demand for alpaca fleece and breeders? knowledge of it.