Once upon a time there was life without alpacas- but it fades into insignificance compared to the joy and excitement of owning my herd of huacayas.
Until 2007 I was a freelance farm secretary working for several different farmers in Herefordshire, but when I went to work at the Royal Show in Warwickshire I was smitten by the pedigree alpacas I saw being exhibited there.
I found the huacayas aesthetically pleasing, loved the feel of the fleece and the products that can be produced from the wool and decided on the spot to buy two pregnant females from Toft Alpacas in Warwickshire. In the summer of 2007 two cria arrived, boys of course, and my journey had begun with breeding alpacas.
My husband and I had been planning to move to France for some time, and eventually found an old Languedoc farmhouse in the south of France between Toulouse and Carcassonne which had everything we wanted - seven hectares of land with lots of outbuildings, two gites and amazing views of the Pyrenees. We moved to France in March 2008 together with four alpacas, two horses, and two dogs. Everyone settled down very well and in the autumn of 2008 four females arrived with their cria to complete my small herd of alpacas. The climate suited the alpacas very well with hot dry summers and cold winters resulting in the pasture being much poorer than in the UK and the fleeces improved statistically which was very interesting.
For the first two years we were there we ran holiday gites in the summer as well as having our own publishing company which was based in the UK. It was very busy but we loved the way of life and made a lot of new friends. Meanwhile I was slowly building my herd up and ended up with about 20 alpacas. I was sending the fleeces back to the UK to be processed by Farrlacey Mill and decided to start selling the yarn and hand knitted products locally. I managed to find some knitters, and so it began. I had Open Days at the farm so people were able to see the alpacas, learn about them, and feel how wonderful the fleece is. They became very popular and I also started to sell alpaca socks which also proved very popular with the cold winters, and being close to the Pyrenees for walking and skiing.
At one of these open days I met a talented artist called Gill Masters, who had moved to France from Kidderminster in Worcestershire. She mentioned that she loved painting farm animals, and I jumped at the chance to have some pictures done of my alpacas, two of which are now adorning the wall of my shop in Church Stretton.
Just as we were settling down to our new way of life in France we got the devastating news that my husband had been diagnosed with throat cancer. He was diagnosed in 2011 and after a brave battle he died in February 2013 in France. With two children living in the UK I decided to come back. Luckily I managed to sell the farmhouse, find a house near Church Stretton with some land for my alpacas and horses and also manage to be equi-distant between the children. I moved back to the UK in October 2013 and all the alpacas that I had came back with me in drips and drabs. I had some pregnant females which I had to leave in France until the cria were old enough to travel so they stayed with Nigel & Ginny Cobb and arrived back in January 2014.
After returning to the UK it was difficult to know what to do and whether I really wanted to carry on with the alpacas. I still enjoyed having them around so in 2014 I decided to start a small business from my new base in Church Stretton, Shropshire, and called it Coco Alpacas. My first female cria was born in France whom I called Coco after the iconic French fashion designer Coco Chanel, and of course alpaca wool is highly prized in the fashion industry.
I found a very good local knitter who began to knit for me and started to go to a local market in Ludlow on a regular basis selling alpaca socks, hand-knitted hats, scarves, shawls, snoods, and mittens, as well as hand-woven throws and scarves, and yarn for knitting.
For some obscure reason I?ve always wanted to have a small wool shop and the opportunity suddenly came up of a small retail unit in the High Street of Church Stretton. It is in an ideal location and I was lucky enough to get it ? there at the right time. This was in June 2015 - it had to be completely refurbished, but with a very helpful landlord I was able to open it in November just in time for Christmas and the winter.
Apart from the alpaca socks and hand knitted products from my wool I also sell a selection of quality blended yarns made from combinations of Alpaca, Silk, Merino, Corriedale, Blue faced Leicester, Linen and cotton. I am also doing sock wool with some amazing coloured yarns that knit up into wonderful crazy socks!
I have just started doing a range of hand-crocheted alpaca toys made from my own wool which are quite unique. My clever assistant Jenny Bartl modelled them on individual animals in my herd: Keira is a grey alpaca with a white face, Derby is fawn and white, Wizard is pure white, Alfie is a mixture of two shades of brown, and Freddie is a light fawn with grey ears. The toys are tactile and squashy, and appeal very much to the inner child within us. I am hoping they will be purchased for children of all ages - from toddlers right up to eighty year-olds.
The launch day of the shop which was on Saturday 14th November was a huge success and people came from all over Shropshire to see us after they read an article about it in the regional newspaper, the Shropshire Star.
Wizard and Derby, two of my alpacas, were on show for the public to admire in the town square which is directly opposite the shop ? people always seem to find the alpacas fascinating. I found that tourists and shoppers were keen to discover what?s involved in caring for the herd, and even the moderately heavy rain didn?t seem to dampen the visitors? spirits as they admired the boys. Wizard and Derby were very good natured and took it all in their stride.
Since opening the shop I?ve had amazing support and people have been hugely complimentary. It?s been very busy which is great news and it has been a perfect time to open.
Looking ahead, my aim is to make the shop a success and to keep on improving the quality of my fleeces to be able to use it for the hand knitted products. I?m definitely getting there but as we all know it takes a long time to get the results one is aiming for.