„What are these?“, „Do they thrive here?“, „How much do you get paid for the wool?“, „Can you eat them?“; some of the FAQs by people stopping to observe the for them strange creatures on our pasture. The rather hesitant answer to the second last and not very affirmative one to the last question very often puts an end to their curiosity and interest.
But, where do we, the alpaca community, really stand in Italy?
The following reflects the author’s personal experience, views and assessment and may or may not reflect those of the majority of his fellow keepers and breeders of alpacas.
The first southamerican camelids in Italy were probably kept in zoos. The first serious efforts of importing and breeding alpacas, and first attempts of creating a market for these animals, occurred as recently as the late 1990s. In 2001 two Italian associations were founded independently of each other. One, with an already operational registry, and with membership predominantly in northern Italy, for both llamas and alpacas, one with members throughout the country, with a current concentration in central Italy, with emphasis on alpacas. The latter, Italpaca (www.italpaca.com), at present has a membership of 31 breeders/keepers and four associates (vets, researchers, etc.). It is estimated that there are about 40 keepers/breeders of alpacas distributed throughout the country, with a total of around 350-400 alpacas, predominantly huacayas, the vast majority coloured.
From the foundation date of Italpaca it was clear that amongst the first tasks to complete was the setting up of a national registry. Due mainly to changes affecting the presidency of the association, this took much longer than anticipated. It is now hoped that a registry, as accepted by the agm of March 6, 2004 will allow the registration of animals as from this summer.
In 2002 the Department of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Camerino, experienced in SA camelids through their involvement since 1997 in a camelid orientated, European Commission sponsored, research project in the Andean countries (SUPREME), undertook a survey of the main physical characteristics of a large percentage of the then „national“ alpaca herd. The results, not unexpectedly, as the founder animals had been imported from Chile and a variety of European countries, did not reveal any particular characteristics distinguishing an Italian alpaca from any other. According to the authors of the survey the results also indicated the average quality of the animals not to be exceptional.
This led to lengthy, at times heated discussions amongst the council members, regarding the best way forward in terms of a registry that might assist the improvement of the national herd. Options discussed ranged from a simple registry of all animals regardless of quality, to a registry from which all animals not regarded as „improvers“ of the national herd would be eliminated.
In the end a compromise was agreed. In principle the registry is a two tier one, divided into a) males and females of Italian or foreign provenance, free of defects considered to be major ones (extreme brachygnathism, uni-/bilateral cryptorchidism, and blue eyes), and b) males and females born in Italy, with parents registered in a), and fullfilling certain criteria at around one year of age, i.e. at the time of the first shearing. These criteria comprise aspects of conformity and quality and quantity of wool, which are combined into a single factor. For each year a committee will decide the minimum number of points required for an animal to be considered an „improver“ and to be registered in b). The remainder of the animals will be registered in a). The system has an inbuilt flexibility. At present the bias favours e.g. white over coloured, wool quality/quantity over conformity, etc. Animals registered will be identified by microchip, those registered in b) additionally by DNA, with the intention to also DNA test the parents of the so registered animal. The registry will be owned by Italpaca and administered by the Dept. of Veterinary Science at the University of Camerino. The latter will also take on an advisory role. It is hoped that this type of registry will assist in improving the overall quality of the national herd. In view of the small size of this herd much will depend on the willingness of the keepers/breeders of alpacas to participate in the scheme. After some time we hopefully will also be in a position to put more weight on genotype rather than solely on phenotype as planned for the initial stages.
Why do I use the term keeper/breeder rather than simply talking about breeders? This is based on my own experience over the past four years. At the beginning one is more than happy to own a small group of these wonderful animals, and even happier to see the first crias being born and survive. Without any doubt ones own animals are the most beautiful in the world. There is nothing wrong with this. With time, having read many books and magazines, visited numerous webpages, and possibly a few shows and other farms, one nevertheless begins to look at animals in a more critical fashion. From a keeper one slowly turns into a breeder. It is probably true to say that here in Italy many keepers are now approaching, or have reached, the beginning of this transition. It may also be that this process takes a bit longer here than in other countries because of a language problem, people finding it more difficult to access the relevant, predominantly english literature than in many other countries.
What else is happening? Italpaca has a number of committees. One of the sofar really successful ones is the wool committee, which has succeeded in organising a wool collection and industrial type processing system which now offers members to have their wool processed, and to obtain cones of 100% italian alpaca wool in a number of colours; without any doubt a major step forward in the right direction. Through another channel (Consorzio Arianne) members have a second possibility, and can obtain a product of alpaca mixed with sheep wool, of a single colour mix. Amongst italian keepers/breeders the desire to do something with the wool of their animals is strong. This is particularly true for people running what is called an „agriturismo“, comparable to what in other countries may be referred to as a B&B in the countryside, or farmhouse holiday. These places have the clear opportunity to sell the products to their guests, who also have the opportunity to admire the for them unusual and often new animals. The future could show these establishments to also be an important lower tier market for companion animals.
This is the situation today. What about the future? Within Italpaca we have identified a number of problem areas and intend to work towards the alleviation of some of these problems. The most important areas are:
- Expansion of the presently very limited market through various means, incl. TV programs, appearances at agricultural and craft shows, magazine articles, etc.
A very important aspect will be the establishment of a vigorous show circuit, with italian breeders participating/competing both in local shows and those organised in other european countries.
- Continued efforts to improve the services offered to members regarding maximising the value of wool produced.
- Continued organisation of courses to improve the general standard of husbandry, shearing, wool handling, training of animals, etc.
- Working towards improved camelid orientated veterinary services through the establishment of a contact network. Owners of camelids in Italy face the same initial problems with regard to lack of relevant knowhow amongst veterinaries as those in other countries following the introduction of these animals. It is intended to form a working group amongst vets to assist the faster dissemination of the accumulating knowhow. In this context attempts will be made to better understand what are believed to be above average numbers of deaths of both crias and adult animals. At present most deaths go both unrecorded and unexplained.
- Partly within the context of the above, it is intended to initiate studies into the nutritional aspects in different regions of the country, and to raise the awareness of keepers/breeders as to the importance of a properly balanced nutrition.
As one can see, a lot lies ahead to be achieved.
To round off this account of the italian situation, following are a few experiences and observations of a personal nature.
Esther, a former textile craft teacher, and I moved in early 2000 from Switzerland to our small farm in southern Tuscany. At Poggio Piero we started immediately with a herd of eight females, both huacaya and suri, purchased from breeders/importers in Italy and Switzerland. Today our herd comprises 32 animals, ten Suri and the remainder Huacaya. As this was the first time we owned any animals larger and more exotic than a cat or medium sized dog, the first few weeks were nerve-racking. Knowing that out there in the dark, the rain, the burning sun we had something comparable in value to a decent secondhand Ferrari also was a new feeling. But then there were the moments of absolute delight watching them exploring their new pasture, seemingly content with what they saw and found to eat. And not too long afterwards the ultimate glory of the first cria being born on our farm. We were lucky to find a local vet experienced with sheep in the area, who, perhaps more importantly than anything else, immediately took to these animals the moment he saw one for the first time on our pasture. From our experience it is of utmost importance that the vet is not only called in moments of utter, in most cases final, crisis, but that he and his experience develop and grow in unison with the herd. Together with him we went, and continue to go, through a learning curve that is probably not much different from that experienced by many fledgling breeders throughout the world. This learning curve unfortunately does not always point upwards. Moments of utter glory and satisfaction, successful births and treatments of minor injuries and ailments, the relief when a bottlefed male shows not the slightest sign of male berserk syndrom, are followed by sad incidents, for both breeder and vet, like stillbirths and the, often unsatisfactorily explained deaths of crias.
Time allowing inbetween those spent on general chores around the herd, weaving and knitting, handprocessing the wool of particular animals, tending the vineyard and olive grove, etc., we also attempt to haltertrain our animals. This quite often turns us into a mixture of Marty McGee and Buffalo Bill, in particular with animals that have spent their formative years on the altiplano. There is hope after all, that Buffalo Bill will be a person of the past.
What are our breeding goals? Both from the viepoints of hand-weaver/knitter and lovers of alpacas, there is no choice other than to go for colour, naturally not forgetting about fineness, crimp, density, etc. There appears to be no reason other than economics to turn an animal that can proudly boast to produce the greatest variety of colours into a dull, drab, white to offwhite anonimous mass of sheeplike creatures. And then there are the practicalities. Our present „herdsire“ is what we call a pinto, others a piebald. Of nine offspring born last fall one was like the father, one black and white, the other seven uniformly coloured white, black, and various shades of brown. Where does one go from here? In any case, personally we do not enjoy some of the fotos we see in this magazine, men in white judging white animals. But then I did warn everybody at the beginning that this was a personal view.
In brief: here in Italy we stand at the beginning of what we all hope will be an exciting future, no matter where exactly we will end up. Let’s not forget that our national herd is only the size of many an individual herd in other countries. We certainly hope that alpacas will be appreciated for their beauty, their character, their individuality, and that fewer and fewer people will loose interest when the answer to a certain question is not very affermative.