Andrew SpillaneBeauvautrait Alpacas
We took up residence in France about seven years ago. Like many others we were opting out of the stress and demands of international business life to enjoy ourselves at a slower pace. Not ready or able to retire we bought a rural gite complex constructed in a series of old farm buildings in the northwest Dordogne. After five successful years we decided the time was right to sell the gites and our own house too. My thoughts tended towards a small slightly isolated cottage a little further south. It was around this time in December 2002, having sold our gite complex but not our home, that Nicky uttered the fateful words” We need a small project to keep us active.”
Initially, in terms of ideas, Nicky’s small project appeared similar to my thoughts of a small cottage with the addition of a paddock for the dogs to run in. Finding such a property at a sensible price proved impossible in our local area and we started looking further south in the forest of the Double. Here, although prices were more reasonable at that time, the cottage was inevitably a small farm with a significant amount of land.
At this stage I started to get nervous and Nicky more enthusiastic. We had owned a croft in Scotland in our youth as a hobby and I recalled the hard physical work involved. We visited and rejected 20 or more small farms in various states of decay and disrepair. One Tuesday afternoon, when Nicky was out, I agreed to accompany our patient estate agent to yet one more farm. This was my undoing. As we drove down the lane across the causeway over the large lake I knew this was my small project. When I entered the house little did realise that this was going to be a huge project. I told the agent there and then we would buy it and two days later signed the initial agreement.
At this stage Nicky had only seen the property from the road at a distance, I managed to prevent her entering the house until after the seven day cooling off period in French house purchase had expired. With some trepidation I then showed her round, downstairs consisted of four large rooms, one with an earth floor! The owner cooked his food over the fire in one of the two huge stone fireplaces in a black hanging kettle. This fireplace was therefore completely covered in black soot and grease, the other he had painted bright blue. He had been born in the house 75 years earlier and changed virtually nothing in the intervening years, the walls were black with damp to a metre high. Upstairs was still an unwindowed hayloft accessed by a ladder. As we ascended Nicky commented on the strong odour of cow. Easily explained, we walked to the end attached to the barn to watch the cows eat, there was no wall between loft and barn.
Luckily, planning permission in France is simple, straightforward and quick. Within ten days of completion of purchase we were able to start work. By late autumn with the help of many French friends the house was totally transformed, if not completely finished. The fireplaces cleaned back to the beautiful old stone, beams exposed along with the traditional interior wall surfaces typical of the Double farmhouse. Equally important for Nicky the new bathrooms and five bedrooms were now free of “Parfum de Vache” and the earthen floored room below boasted a fully fitted farmhouse kitchen.
As you may imagine the above had proved a somewhat larger project than that which I had first contemplated. It had proved very time consuming and had blown my budget projections to shreds. On the 80 mile round trip each day, our old home proving slow to sell, I contemplated what to do with the land. I could not escape the conclusion that this would also prove to be more than a “ small project”. With the farm we had acquired twenty five acres, one of woods, two of lake, and, as the estate agent had euphemistically described it, 22 of permanent pasture. The condition of the fields and fencing matched the condition of the house. My initial idea was to run a small beef suckler herd, the previous owner having used the farm to fatten store cattle. I soon realised this was not going to be a practical option.. The land is mostly heavy clay and poorly drained, the soil had suffered heavily from poaching under the heavy French store cattle and much was a quagmire. The fencing was in poor condition and several acres were buried beneath head high bramble jungles.
In September 2003 I recalled having been interested in acquiring some alpacas prior to moving to France. Miraculously I found my old notes on the subject and we decided that these animals were the answer to our needs. Smaller than cattle, gentle and hardy whilst easy to herd and handle we decided they would be well suited to our small farm. Our initial search in France showed that the alpaca industry was at the same level as the UK in about 1998, with some 500 animals widespread throughout France. Interestingly, the Llama is very popular with a population of several thousand, being originally introduced in the southeast to clear the maquis. We visited a breeder with one of the larger herds of alpaca but were not impressed with the quality of the huacaya or the prices asked. In fairness the breeder’s main interest centered on llama and suri . The one major consequence of this visit was Nicky’s instant falling in love with alpacas. Our real “small project” was about to begin.
We concluded that we would have to buy our initial stock in the UK and I promptly enlisted our daughter Leah’s help in finding suitable breeders to visit. Like her mother, it was instant love for Leah and she entered into the task of finding suitable animals with enthusiasm. After her initial research I visited UK just to take a quick look at what she had found. I returned to France three days later in a panic to prepare the paddocks for the starter herd I had bought. Leah meanwhile being left to liaise with the breeders, arrange transport and deal with DEFRA and the export/import and quarantine formalities.
Removing the old fencing, clearing the fields and re-fencing, proved a major task taking six weeks for the first phase. Eventually we used over 1400 posts and over two and a half kilometres of one metre twenty sheep netting. This fenced half our holding, the remaining land being left for hay. We completed this work just in time for the arrival of our first huacayas. They descended from the lorry after their twenty-four hour journey, ambled into the paddocks and immediately settled down to graze. It was as though they had always lived here.
We quickly settled into an easy routine with our small herd. At this stage our herd consisted of six females, four cria at foot, two stud males and two potential geldings. Fortunately Sam, a young Frenchman in his early thirties, who had undertaken much of the heavy building and fencing work on the farm, was also instantly captivated by the charm and gentleness of the alpaca. His general knowledge of livestock and, very importantly, dangerous plants has proved invaluable. The alpacas readily adapted to their new environment and found the rough permanent pasture much to their liking. They have lived up to their reputation as hardy and healthy animals that are easy to manage.
Finding a shearer prepared to take on alpaca was to prove difficult, fortunately by midsummer a neighbour found one prepared to have a go. Unfortunately, he arrived with his team after too good a lunch. Whilst the end result was less than aesthetic the animals were shorn without stress and much relieved to be out of their heavy fleece. With temperatures frequently above thirty in summer the provision of adequate shade and shelter is essential if heat stress and its associated problems are to be avoided.
With such small numbers here in France commercial spinning has not been practical in the past. We have been lucky in finding someone local to spin our small initial quantity by hand. Last month I attended the foundation of our new cooperative. The founder, an Australian resident in France has located a small commercial mill prepared and equipped to accept lots of 10 kilos by colour, and a small group spent a tiring and dusty day grading and sorting fleece in readiness for our first run.
I contacted our local vet at an early stage to advise him of our plans. Because alpacas are a rarity here his initial question was hardly surprising. “ What is an alpaca?” He has been a great help and our only real problem so far has been one retention of afterbirth. The vet came immediately and after the appropriate injection the animal rapidly recovered. The local French reaction has been very positive to these newcomers to their forest even if their first question is always, “ Do you eat them?” Most weekend afternoons see half a dozen cars parked along the road at the end of our lane with families happily alpaca watching. My dream of an isolated cottage was somewhat shattered when the local tourist office rang to enquire about the possibility of their weekly sightseeing tour passing by on the public road past the farm.
Has our small project been worth it? Well, we have made many new friends through these animals both locally, and throughout France amongst other alpaca breeders. Our herd now numbers fifty making it the largest commercial huacaya herd in France and we plan further expansion. Oh, and we have a couple more small projects in hand. Last year I attended, without animals, the seventh French International Camelid Show. A small affair compared to English shows with just 84 alpacas and llamas, but enjoyable and enthusiastically supported. I was disappointed to discover last month that no show was planned for 2005 as nobody had come forward to organise and host it. Inevitably we have agreed to host next year’s French alpaca show in May. Our second small project, Leah has just bought a 40 acre farm nearby with house and land to renovate with our help and become a partner in the expansion of our alpaca herd.