Bobby Schuck bought The Llama Park on the 13th May 2013, as a 60th birthday present for his wife Susan. Having recently returned to the UK from Dubai with their daughter Lily, where they spent 20 years, the Schuck family was looking for somewhere to live for both the family and their beautiful Andalusian stallion Vanidoso XXIX, ?Dani?. Basically, the original plan was to find a house with a field for Dani.
After much anguish and disappointment at the houses available, Susan came across The Llama Park, located in the beautiful surroundings of the Ashdown Forest with glorious long views, directly opposite the stunning Ashdown Park Hotel. Susan also thought that having a house with a business, 33 acres and 80 llamas, alpacas and reindeer would keep Bobby out of trouble.
?My husband has always been a bit of a lunatic. In Dubai, Bobby was a roving reporter and journalist, spending much of his life travelling around the deserts and jungles of North Africa, the Middle East and Australasia, later moving on to run a farming operation deep in the jungle of Sri Lanka. Leaving all that madness for a peaceful life in East Sussex was, in reality, quite frightening.
?So, I thought that a business that included a catering and retail operation and the management of 33 acres with 80 animals would be something to stop him from missing all that action, keep him occupied and stop him chasing girls,? says Susan.
The Llama Park started its life in 1995 as a llama farm, focused on breeding llamas and was later developed to include coffee and clothing shops. When Susan and Bobby came across The Llama Park, they realised that it was a business which, whilst reasonably successful, had the opportunity for development and was reasonably priced with a very nice house ? and costing not much more than any other property in the expensive area of the Ashdown Forest.
Having made the decision that this would be a great opportunity, they approached the Wealden Council Planning Department with ideas on how they would like to develop the business. Despite quite restrictive planning conditions for the area, their ideas were welcomed and so they set about preparing to purchase the property. After a lot of very heavy negotiations with the previous owner, they managed to conclude the transaction after several months which coincided with Susan?s 60th birthday, making for a very nice present, a happy Susan and attracting a lot of publicity in the Press.
Immediately upon purchasing the property, the Schuck family set about implementing the plans that they had prepared by approaching an architect to complete the planning application. Bobby had started his working life at Marks and Spencer?s and so had quite a bit of knowledge about the retail trade and later on went on to own and manage three restaurants in West London. This background was to prove very useful in the planning and preparation for the development of both the coffee shop and fashion and gift shop. Susan has worked with horses since her early childhood and whilst living in Dubai was known as somewhat of a ?horse whisperer? so the two of them felt quite confident that they could bring their previous experiences to bear on the successful development of The Park.
The previous owner had focused on the keeping and breeding of llamas with little attention paid to the catering operation and the customers, many of whom were children. So it seemed an obvious move to expand the playground and range of animals kept at The Llama Park to introduce a wider variety with more appeal to children and families. With quite a bit of the 33 acres occupied by woodlands, footpaths and buildings, it was felt that there was insufficient grazing land to maintain so many large animals. So a programme was started to reduce the number of llamas, many of whom were old, unsociable and untrained, to make way for new blood. Therefore, some 25 llamas were sold or rehomed to take the numbers of animals down to a more practical level.
Naturally, the first animal to be introduced to The Park was Dani, the Andalusian stallion, who was quickly followed by a mare with whom he mated, siring a colt, born 11 months later. The new boy was called Primero, which means number one in Spanish. When The Park was first opened in May, 2013, Bobby and Sue offered free entry to the park for two months which attracted an enormous number of visitors and interest from the local community. All were welcomed and informed about the future plans for The Park. This led to contact with many local farmers one of whom was Jenny Tate, a local Jacob Sheep breeder, who offered two very lovely ewes called Roxanne and Amelia to start the growth of the animal family. In an earlier life, Bobby had owned a 120 foot motor ship called ?The Ark? and so the concept of the animals coming in to The Park two-by-two was adopted as a pattern for the introduction of new animals.
The next animals to arrive were two donkeys from the famous ?Hunt?s Donkey Derby? based in Guildford. To buy donkeys from such a well-known and well-established outfit instead of rescue donkeys was a difficult decision but, as the donkeys were to be used for children to ride, it was felt that having experienced and trained donkeys would be safer than using untested and untried donkeys. The two donkeys were Muffin and Rocky, who soon became favourites with both adults and children and their braying was something that the neighbours soon got used to. Both donkeys had wonderful personalities, were quite mischievous, but gave a lot of enjoyment to the children and staff. Sadly, Rocky died of cancer in early 2016 and has since been replaced by one of Muffin?s old friends, called Tommy, again from ?Hunt?s Donkey Derby?.
Another ?two-by-two? set of animals to The Park were two Mangalitsa-Wild Boar cross pigs which were exchanged for two llamas with Godstone farm. These two girls were given half an acre of woodland, at the bottom of The Park, which they set about destroying in a totally pig-like fashion.
?We have all heard about the way that pigs can trash a piece of ground but we had never seen it in action. So it was with amazement that we watched these two 100 kilo sows knock down trees and bushes, eat the tree roots and anything green and turn this half acre into what can only be described as a scene from a disaster movie,? says Bobby. ?Observing the destruction that lay in their wake, I named the two pigs Claudia and Janice after the two best friends of my ex-wife. Sadly, like their namesakes, the two sows were very badly behaved, often attacking the livestock staff who soon became wary of going near them. So started the introduction of the, now famous, Llama Park home-produced sausages.?
One day Bobby was in the shop engaging with customers as usual, this time with a local farmer, who was buying a pair of shoes that Bobby felt didn?t suit him. A small argument ensued and the end result was that the farmer, who had a family of 10 Kune-Kune pigs which he wanted to dispose of, gave Bobby the pigs, receiving in exchange the pair of shoes. The farmer and Bobby are now firm friends.
The Kune-Kune Mum and Dad were named Rita and Bugsy and their introduction prompted the breeding of pigs for home-produced, organic pork for The Llama Park. Whilst absolutely lovely, friendly and sweet animals, the Kune-Kune pig does not offer much in the way of weight and so a decision was made to introduce Welsh pigs and Rita and Bugsy were given to Ellie and Stein on the Brambletye Fruit Farm where they still live happily today.
?So, we went to the Hailsham livestock market and bought a healthy sow and boar, both Welsh pigs, and brought them back to The Llama Park, two-by-two, named them Rita and Bugsy and they remain here to this day breeding us lovely piglets which we try not to name for obvious reasons, but which give us some fantastic pork, which we use to make sausages ? 95% pork, with no llama, horse or chicken ? which are served up for Sunday roast lunch.
?When we started doing Sunday roast lunches, pork was the least favourite of the three meats, but today we sell more pork for Sunday roasts than we do beef and chicken combined,? says Bobby. ?It really says a lot for the taste and quality of our pork?.
Later on, two more saddleback sows were added to Bugsy?s harem and today The Park?s pigs just cannot produce enough pork to meet demand.
Further animals were added with the arrival of two pygmy goats, followed by Isa ? a golden Guernsey who gave birth to twin kids before very sadly passing away. Her two babies are still with us, thriving and are named Chuck and Berry. Finally, another two goats, Boer and Nubian crosses, called Blaze and Ember have been added to the goat menagerie.
On a lunch visit to friends who had just purchased a new house in Heathfield, Bobby and his daughter Lily found two miniature Shetland ponies who had been rescued and were living in one of his friends? spare fields. They were not able to keep the two lovely ponies and so The Llama Park gained another two family members called Hercules and Star.
Having depleted our herd of llamas from 53 to around 27, a decision was made to re-start a breeding programme for both the llamas and the 15 alpacas on site. Over the last two years, The Park has bred two female llamas named Domino and Dolly as well as four alpacas named Pedro, Pachu, Grace and Lily. This breeding programme continues today with the aid of Vicky Agar and her beautiful stud males from her ?Spring Farm Alpacas? operation. In addition, The Park has on loan from ?Bluecaps Llamas?, a fabulous stud called Juno, thanks to Tina O?Donnell. At this moment in time, he is currently impregnating, at least when they let him, our nine female llamas.
In addition to all the large mammals, The Park has also introduced both wild and domestic fowl, the favourites of which amongst customers are our two peacocks and a peahen who roam wild around The Park, as do the family of seven guinea fowl and a whole host of chickens, proving very popular with the children. Safely behind fenced enclosures are Geese, Ducks and Turkeys, which ?gobble? to all and sundry.
Apart from the addition of new animals, The Park has undergone a number of important changes and development which the new owners consider to be particularly relevant and important with today?s emphasis on hygiene and environmental health.
?When we first came here,? says Susan, ?there were llamas and alpacas peeing and pooing right next to the shop, creating a very unpleasant and smelly environment. We felt that this was inappropriate. So, when we made our planning application we asked to change the use of the livestock barn and create new, cleaner, sturdier shelters for the animals. Working closely with the planning department, we were able to develop a plan which would allow us to change the whole internal layout of the existing infrastructure to make it more user-friendly, hygienic and safe. Currently, June 2016, we are coming to the final stages of the redevelopment where we have created a new front entrance and swapped over the locations of the existing gift and fashion shop with the coffee shop, as well as creating a new kitchen. Two years ago, when we began the internal restructuring, we built a terrace to connect the main building with the newly converted agricultural barn and, as it was called in the old days, the ?museum?, now the licensed marriage barn.?
?The new arrangement has allowed us to focus more on the catering and events operations whilst directing the flow of customers through the shop,? says Bobby. ?This is a common practice in the retail industry referred to as ?driving customers through the retail? as anyone who has been to IKEA will have experienced. One of the things that annoyed us the most when we came here was that customers look out at countryside but not ?our? countryside, and so do not see our lovely playground, nor the exceptional view of the Ashdown Park Hotel, or the views of our beautiful llamas in their pens.?
In addition to these changes, The Llama Park now has a new restaurant in an old Sussex barn, which was previously used as the shop which, again, looks out over The Llama Park?s spectacular views of The Ashdown Forest. The old ?museum? has been converted into The Marriage Barn which doubles as Bobby?s ?Jam Jar?, a bar and venue which will soon play host to live music with the hope that customers will take advantage of The Park?s 2am music, dancing and drinking license.
Amongst other events, The Llama Park now hosts four craft fairs every year as well as a Barn Dance in June and its famous Christmas Wonderland. Father Christmas arrives at The Llama Park to see that his reindeer are being well looked after, taking up residence here from the last weekend in November until Christmas Eve when he flies off on his sleigh to deliver presents to children all around the world. The Llama Park?s website has full information about the Christmas Grotto and a customer comments section which informs readers that the ?real Father Christmas? really does visit and stay at The Llama Park. Several thousand children, and parents, who visit him at The Park every year certainly seem to agree that he is truly magical and ?the real thing?.
Having just returned from five years at the University of Leeds, Lily, Bobby and Susan?s daughter, has taken up the role of General Manager and Musical and Events Director and is applying her knowledge from her Business Management Degree to help with the development and running of the restructured and redeveloped business.
?When my parents called me three years ago and told me that they were buying The Llama Park I was, to say the least, very surprised. However, they have always been mad and always run businesses together. When we lived in Dubai, they ran a publishing company. I have always been included in discussions and decisions and I often found myself when I was 10 or 11, helping out with office chores and making coffee,? says Lily. ?Later on, as I grew older, my father taught me how to use a camera, going on photoshoots with him, as well as helping out with exhibitions and shows which they put on. So for me, working here at The Llama Park is a natural extension of my childhood.?
?It is three years since we bought The Llama Park and it has been a journey full of both pain and pleasure, working hard for 369 days a year, working 14 or 15 hours a day. We close for just three days ? Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year?s Day. You would think we would have a break but actually, these days can sometimes be the hardest. We have no staff and have to deal with all the animals on our own after a few drinks and a huge Christmas Dinner,? says Bobby.
?Sue and I managed to steal a week away in January 2016, where we basically just slept for a week in the hotel. We are almost at the end of the journey to complete the development of The Llama Park, to where we can hopefully relax a little and enjoy the fruits of our hard work. However, I would like to thank all the staff, the workmen and contractors, the architect, the planners, friends, neighbours and family for their support over the last three years, without whom we could not have got to where we are today. This is a truly beautiful place to live and we all feel honoured to be living and working in such a glorious environment,? he concludes.