Joanna and I are both English but have lived in rural Latvia now for eight years, we first came in the year 2000 to help out with children?s camps and we just kept coming back. Various career opportunities took us to Copenhagen Denmark for three years, then Colorado USA for two and then finally Latvia. We have around 13 hectares (32 acres) of land made up of grassland, forest and swamp and an old ski hill from Soviet times where we cut our hay. On our farm there are currently nine alpacas, four sheep plus three lambs, around twenty chickens and two cats. We grow the vast majority of our own food and love to experiment trying to grow different things, there is a large (18m x 6m) greenhouse for grapes, tomatoes, peppers etc. in the summer and it doubles as shelter for the caravan and chicken arks in the winter.
For the last four years we have had the great pleasure of caring for our alpacas. We first came across alpacas while on a trip to Australia for our daughter?s wedding, during a visit to a place called Denmark near the south west coast. We went into a shop that sold alpaca products and Joanna, who is into fabrics, was in heaven. This planted a seed in our heads, could we keep alpacas on our land? A few days later we went to an alpaca farm and saw them for the first time. We talked to the owner about what was involved in keeping alpacas. Both of us had no experience of keeping animals apart from the three chickens and a cat we owned when we lived in England. I was worried about how the alpacas would cope with the sometimes harsh Latvian winters. (-30oC and over 1 meter of snow is not unusual). She helped put our minds at rest and on returning to Latvia we started doing a lot of research into alpaca keeping; what type of shelter do they need, how much and what type of feed do they have, could our land support alpacas if so how many, what about medical issues, shearing? Many, many questions and the biggest perhaps, could I cope with looking after the alpacas. Both of us have scientific backgrounds and as I have already mentioned love to experiment, so we decided to go ahead and get some alpacas and see what happens.
Maybe we would be the only people in Latvia to have alpacas we thought. Through the Internet (a wonderful thing) we discovered there was an alpaca breeder in Latvia but communication with him was not very forthcoming so we decided to look elsewhere to get our alpacas. Finally a breeder in Sweden not too far away from Stockholm was found who had three males we could buy, Tellus a stud male, Turbjorn and Herkules both castrated. So a hasty overnight ferry trip from Riga to Stockholm was booked so we could see our new alpacas and I suppose to also prove to the breeder we were serious about buying. He was very, very helpful and gave us lots of information about taking care of them. It just so happened there was a lady near to him who had an international horse transport company, she had never been to Latvia and was willing to transport our new boys. So 3 am one July morning we set off on the 6 hour journey to the port of Ventspils with our horse box to meet the ferry; we made the transfer in the ferry car park and then set off for home. Once the boys were safely in the paddock we sat down with a cup of tea (very English) watching them and thought, ?Oh crumbs what have we done?. Of course at first they were very wary of us and trying to get them into the alpaca house was not going to be easy, many an evening was spent chasing them around the paddock. After a week though they quickly caught onto the fact I would come with some trays of food and they would follow me in. I do like to lock them away at night, as there are occasionally wolves and lynx in the area.
Over the next few months I read books and articles from the internet on alpacas and alpaca care, then spent a lot of time just watching them and their behaviour trying to match what I was seeing with what I had read and trying to spend time with them so they got used to me and I with them.
We live in a very rural part of Latvia and the alpacas were something very unique, I watched many cars slow down as the passing drivers were staring and remember thinking ?I wonder how long before there will be an accident? luckily its not a very busy road. A good neighbour who used to be a vet in Soviet times who has helped us out on numerous occasions with the alpacas told us a friend of hers had asked ?what are those animals with funny haircuts?? Our ?official? vet also told us she had been asked numerous times, ?have you seen those strange animals, what are they?? Our vet has been fantastic; it has not only a steep learning curve for me but for her too. We did buy her a book on camelid veterinary care before we got the alpacas so at least she had some idea of the anatomy / problems an alpaca may encounter. However, this is rural Latvia and a lot of the things mentioned in the books are not easily available, so it?s been a ?lets try this and see approach?, and of course there is always the Internet as a resource.
The first winter came and went and the boys were fine?. Phew! As April approached we began to think about shearing but we did not want to use local sheep shearers, as we had been told stories of how by the end of the day they could be inebriated by the generous consumption of vodka. I was not letting anyone like that near my alpacas. So I bought my own shears and with help from two friends from a nearby sheep farm, one of them had at least sheared two sheep in the past, we did, one of our boys. Then two weeks later Joanna and I sheared, well hacked actually, our other two boys. Two hours per animal and not a pretty sight but at least it was done and with no skin cuts.
The experiment was deemed a success so the decision was made to get some females, a new alpaca house was built and in October we headed off to Riga ferry terminal to meet our new arrivals. Transfer made again in the car park this time with the police taking great interest. Veronica and Snowdrop (10 and 9 yrs) who were both pregnant, Estelle (2yrs) and Alicia (18yrs) who we got for free to give her a retirement home. The girls settled in much faster than the boys, maybe due to the fact I was much more at ease and confident with handling them.
The following years have been times of great joy and sadness; we have lost four cria and three adults one with heart problems, one to liver cancer and another to heat stress. It really has felt like we take two steps forward then one backwards. I remember saying to Joanna ?I wanted to be an alpaca breeder not an alpaca undertaker?. But all of the losses were not in vain as we learnt so much that has been put into practice with the remaining animals. We helped our vet perform autopsies so that both our vet and we could learn about alpaca anatomy, we learned how best to deal with a bottle fed cria, dealing with mites, giving injections and taking blood. I used to work in a large haematology laboratory so am used to taking blood, just not from alpacas. The highlights have been the births of Agnese who we had to supplement feeding with goat?s milk, she was our first cria and then the following year of Brencis the first to be conceived and born on the land. In November last year we got three new alpacas from Estonia, Peedo a black male, and two females, Chanel a chocolate brown and Mari who is white with brown patches, all were two year old. We wanted to introduce some new genetics and colour into our herd. There were very few problems with acceptance, Veronica the old lady took exception to Mari at first, but we think it was due to the fact Mari was multi-coloured and Veronica had never come across one before.
Joanna is studying for a PhD at Tartu in Estonia and a fellow student, who is mad about alpacas, put us in contact with a breeder in Estonia (Wile farm). Wile Farm also organise the Estonian alpaca association and so we were also put in contact with another Estonian breeder (Alpakafarm). So last year we went to meet both breeders and it was such a joy to meet fellow alpaca lovers and share each other?s experiences, hopes and plans for the future. I am a great believer in co-operation and sharing information and experiences, I think the alpacas we care for benefit greatly from this approach. I am told there are probably around 120 alpacas in Estonia. Here in Latvia there are probably around 80 with maybe five owners, there was a Latvian Camelid association but that has folded. We have close links with Rak?i Zoo who also have camels, llamas as well as alpacas and have been very helpful especially in our early days of alpaca ownership. I think there are many more alpacas in Lithuania and it would be my dream to see all three Baltic States working together to promote alpacas and their products.
What about our little place, ?Griezites Alpakas?; griezites is Latvian for corncrake (the bird) and is the name of our land and yes alpacas is spelt with a ?k? in Latvian. Well we are now on the local tourist map and have had visits from pensioners groups, choir groups. school groups and kindergarten classes. As I said alpacas are very rare in Latvia so there is a lot of interest. To my great shame I still can?t speak the language. Languages were never one of my strong points (three attempts to pass my English O level) plus I spend all my time out here on the farm so don?t hear it much. I keep saying, ?I can?t speak Latvian but I am fluent in alpaca.? Seriously though this is a big problem, as of course it is impossible to communicate with none English speaking visitors, but we do have a friend who is willing to translate if we need it. We have had many different ideas and one them was to offer English lessons where children can come and learn about the alpacas and learn English as well. This worked well with the school group we had and the children listened attentively and asked questions in English. I have learned how to spin wool and we have a friend who is an excellent knitter so she is currently doing socks and hats we can sell. We have our first felting course with Galina Blazejewska a wonderful felter from Poland organised for July using our alpaca fleece. An area I would love to get into is the use of alpacas as therapy animals, as I see a great need for that here in Latvia. We are now also on Facebook at Griezites Alpakas and have a web site www.griezitesalpakas.lv
I finally admitted that the two hours per animal to shear and a hacked fleece was not good enough so I decided to take an alpaca shearing course at Classical MileEnd Alpacas in the UK. When I came home I invested in the pulleys for restraining, bought some new shears and a tool for cutting teeth. This time I was down to 30 minutes per animal including teeth and toe nail trimming, I am sure the alpacas were relived. I mentioned this to the two breeders we met in Estonia and it was then mentioned at the last Estonian alpaca association meeting; from that I started getting emails asking if I could come and shear. So most of May was spent traveling around Estonia shearing around 70 alpacas. We met some gorgeous alpacas and some wonderful owners and spent way too long talking. It is okay shearing your own animals but it was so nerve wracking shearing someone else?s alpaca. I would love to thank all the owners especially the two breeders for letting me loose on their animals.
I will admit I have succumbed to the lure of alpacas I think they are wonderful animals; they are like part of the family, each with their own personality. I won?t say it?s been easy over the years and I think we have had some hard lessons, but the joys we have had far outweigh the sadness. So I think our alpaca experiment has worked and in answer to the big question posed earlier ?can I cope with the alpacas,? I think it is now ?can I cope without my alpacas.?
Ian and Joanna Storie