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Alpaca World Magazine
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Articles by Alpaca World Magazine:

Hebridean Alpacas

Sandra Powell

Sandra Powell
Hebridean Alpacas

Sitting in yet another meeting back in 2009, I glanced round the room at my colleagues going over and over the same issues, and realised I wasn?t taking it in any more and that I had to change what I did for a living. I was working as an Executive PA for the Senior Vice President in the oil and gas industry, and I was bored rigid. That night I googled ?find me a new life?. The first option which came up was for a farm for sale in Shetland. I showed it to my husband later that evening, and although he agreed it was lovely, it was too far away. And anyway, what would we do with all of that land?

A few weeks later he was working away in Edinburgh and sent me a text one evening which said ?put BBC2 on?. It was Monty Halls ?Hebridean Escape? ? the one where he spent six months living in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. A week later, Richard was in North Uist looking at houses and crofts. He found one he loved and so I travelled up to view it. I loved it too and before we knew it our house in Northamptonshire was on the market and we had put an offer in. Sadly, it wasn?t meant to be, the lady selling it was slightly bonkers and after months of haggling decided we were, in her words, ?not suitable to buy her croft?. We set about trying to find something else, and after months of travelling up and down the UK had an offer accepted on a small croft on Skye. Just seven acres, complete with a house, barn and sea views.

Whilst house hunting, we had been looking in to keeping alpacas. I had seen a news report of a herd which had been vandalised over night with spray paint. I was touched at how they reacted to their owner and started looking in to them. We visited some local small holdings and breeders, learnt about them, chose some animals and paid deposits on them. We thought we would be moving soon, but the legal process between English and Scottish law took far longer than we had anticipated, hence our first cria was born in livery.

We eventually moved in June 2011. Just the two of us, six cats and two dogs piled in to two cars at five in the morning, ready for a 12-hour trek up to Scotland. As our move had been delayed for so long, the alpacas were booked to follow us up just one week later, swiftly followed by the shearer one week after that. Nothing like diving in at the deep end.

The alpacas arrived and quickly settled in to their new surroundings. Our croft is in the north of Skye. On a clear day we can see across the Minch to the Outer Hebrides. Cruise ships can be seen passing from the front door. Dolphins, whales and seals are a common sight from the local beach in the summer. In the winter we get amazing stars and auroras. We also get appalling rain and wind. On a bad day, we can just about see the barn - Skye is known as the Misty Isle for a reason. The croft rises at the back of the house to a steep ridge from where you can see for miles. The girls quickly mastered the art of climbing up there. The rocky terrain seems to suit them. In fact, our shearer comments that it is ideal, and is reflected in the good state of their feet and teeth. It is not the lushest of pasture, but they happily pick their way through grass, heather, reeds, wild orchids, docks and nettles. They particularly love rolling in reeds, most of which have been completely flattened to make comfy beds for those warmer days when they just lay there, playing dead. We have had five cria successfully born here ? a first for Skye. All five were born on the ridge, requiring us to clamber up and carry them back down to the barn. Apart from our alpacas, there are just four pet males in the south of the island, and two llamas. Veterinary knowledge can politely be described as zero. I generally have to do research and print it off to show the vet if I think there is a problem. There is no-one ?alpaca? to turn to, and that can be very lonely. I don?t mind admitting there have been times when I have sat in the barn and cried for the want of someone with alpaca experience to help me out. Having said that, we did successfully manage to deliver a cria who was stuck, with just his head out, but no legs. Neighbours who used to farm sheep managed to get his legs out. He survived to tell the tale and is now a cheeky chunky monkey.

In hindsight, we had made no plans on how we were to make a living up here. Sure, we had savings, and Richard still had an income from the business he was in the process of selling, but that soon started to dwindle. Alpaca feed and hay is not cheap due to delivery costs. Hay is 5 per square bale and I have to pay 90 for each pallet of food delivered. For the first couple of years we played it by ear, looking after holiday cottages in the high season, and taking on some part time admin work in the local school, a school with just three pupils. It was a chance remark from a tourist who wandered up our drive one day having spied the alpacas which set me thinking about setting up an alpaca shop. She told me that she came to Skye every year and next year she would be back to buy an alpaca shawl from me. My husband will tell you that my brain does not stop ticking. I started to look at the run down extension on the side of the barn in a different way. Behind all of the rubbish we had dumped in it when we moved, I discovered a window which had been boarded up. I started to clear it out and reinstated the window, then we insulated and boarded the inside and fixed up the door. Before I knew it, I was laying carpet, building shelves and ordering in stock. In the summer of 2013 we stuck a sign at the bottom of the drive, and lo and behold people started to come and buy from us. We had by then had some of our fleeces spun in to 50g balls of yarn. The rest of the stock came in from South America, all fairly traded, all well received by the tourists who were struck by the softness, the quality and the colours. All went well until we hit winter and the storms sucked out my new window and wrecked the roof. Luckily there was not any stock stored in there at this time. We found our window in the next door croft and set about putting it all back together. When the same thing happened again the following winter, enough was enough and I started to view commercial properties in the area. These are few and far between, but after bidding on a property on the same road as our local Castle, we were eventually awarded the lease last summer. We decided we would open on 1st July. This was promptly followed by closing on 3rd of July when the shearer turned up, and then having cria born during the following week. It is fair to say that July last year was pretty busy. In just one month we had matched our takings for the whole year from our little shop on the croft. It is great to see customers taking an interest in alpacas. Many have never felt alpaca before, and we hear the same word over and over again ? soft. It is great to be educating people about how great alpaca is to wear, and we now have lots of repeat visitors, both tourists and locals.

We are one year on from opening the new shop now, and have lived here for five years. We have sold out of our own yarns, and have a waiting list for when it is spun again. We have great suppliers both at home and abroad and are slowing building up a reputation as ?the alpaca people? nobody on Skye seems to be known by their real name. We have such gems as Donnie Post - postman, Archie Carpet- carpet-fitter and Donnie Dangerous - has an air-gun on the back of his quad bike. I?ve got used to being introduced as ?that alpaca woman I told you about?.

I wouldn?t say life on Skye is easy. The nearest supermarket is a 70 mile round trip. Deliveries are expensive as despite access to the island via a bridge, everyone still classes us as an island. Broadband and mobile coverage range from appalling to non-existent. There are no clothes shops, and nobody stocks mint magnums. Getting back to family in an emergency is not great. Inverness, our nearest airport is over three hours away. Richard lost his father within six months of moving here and I lost my dad on Valentine?s day this year. Those are the times we feel guilty about moving away, but you do have to live your own life. There are times in the winter when I am soaked through, despite wearing waterproofs, when I think what am earth am I doing? I used to have nice nails, nice clothes, proper shoes. Equally, there are times in the summer when I am stuck behind a dozen camper vans filming the view at 10 mph when I could happily scream, and often do. The petrol station frequently runs out of fuel, the baker often has no bread, and the postman doesn?t work during lambing season. On the plus side, we don?t have to lock the house or car, and of course there are days when the sun is warm and a little cria bounces up to you and rubs your nose that make it all worthwhile. Could we go back to our old life? I doubt it.