In previous articles in this series, Paul Rose reviewed some of the practical attributes of the Alpaca’s larger cousin! But notwithstanding these, Paul believes that possibly the best reason for keeping llamas is because...
... Llamas are fun!
Keeping camelids need not – perhaps should not - be all about micron count, crimp and conformation. And it does no injustice to the bottom line of commercial camelid owning to proclaim the fact that above all, camelids are animals to be enjoyed! This is particularly true of the llama because of the sheer diversity of roles in which he will happily slot – from flock guard to fibre producer to transporter to field pet... And it is within the category of field pet that the llama excels and within which we are still discovering – or rediscovering -the extent of the llama’s talents.
I use the term rediscovering because my thirst for llamalore has re-enforced my belief in the old adage that there ain’t nothing new, only new takes on old ideas... So whilst the start of the practice of keeping and breeding llamas in the UK is generally ascribed to the 1980/90’s, this photo taken in the 1920’s at Ampthill House in Bedfordshire amply illustrates the point. It may be difficult to make out in the reproduction of this photo, but not only are these gentlemen riding their llamas, they are playing croquet too. Some time ago I wrote an article for the British Camelids Association magazine, the Camelids Chronicle (November 2004), entitled the Llamas of Ampthill and this was one of a number of photos with which I illustrated the amazing story of the eccentric Sir Anthony Wingfield. I concluded the article by pointing out that if anyone wondered whether the photos were posed uniquely for the camera, I also had a copy of some old cine footage, showing Sir Anthony and guests trotting on their llamas through the grounds of his estate... photo 1
However one really should not ride before one can walk... So to go back a step or two, in my last article, Walking with Llamas, I discussed the use of llamas for trekking from the point of view of a commercial venture. Taken from the leisure aspect, this theme can be developed in many directions limited only by one’s imagination.
Once you have trained your llama to carry a standard pack then this can be substituted or adapted for carrying, for example, bales of hay to your fields or bags for collecting your llamas and alpacas ‘beans’. A well-chosen llama can be taught quite easily to kush (sit) on command and thus might accompany you whilst gardening, carrying your tools as you go and sitting patiently whilst you work...
And for those of you who were perhaps a little sceptical about the mention of llamas as golf caddies or fisherman’s ghillie in that article... here is the evidence. Photo 2
Not only do some llama-owning golf enthusiasts take their llamas to be their caddies, but entire matches are played out in the USA with llama caddies! If you wish to try it, it is important of course to get the Golf Club’s permission, and also to check whether the grass has been sprayed recently with weedkiller as your caddy may wish to have a nibble along the way. Also ensure water is available for his thirsty work as, if it is a posh club, he may not be allowed to join you in the bar for a drink after. Photo 3
Regrettably we have long since lost touch with an old friend who was one of the earliest exponents of llama keeping in the UK and who regularly went salmon fishing in Scotland with his pet llama. A photograph similar to the one shown here was spread across half of the back page of The Times some years ago. He would explain, perhaps borrowing a little from an ad for a well known lager, that the llama’s sure footedness and willingness to carry tackle and catch, meant that he could truly reach places that others could not. Photo 4
Llama carting is another fun activity that llamas can be trained to. The photo shown here is of llama owner and trainer, Terry Crowfoot, going great guns in their cart pulled by a lovely white llama. Suitable carts are unfortunately not easily obtained in the UK; they can be imported at great expense from the U.S, or be made by those gifted with such talents, using bicycle or pony cartwheels. Pony carts themselves can be adapted but may be a little on the heavy side. Photo 5 I mentioned earlier in this article that we are still discovering the extent of the llama’s talents and Terry has been pioneering some fascinating work, training llamas to fetch and carry objects thrown for them.
Once a llama is used to accepting inanimate loads on their backs then, if the llama has an outstanding temperament and is strong and healthy, riding is the next challenge that you may wish to put on the agenda. Whilst riding llamas may never quite qualify for Pony Club events, llama rides certainly qualify for the fun category. I first witnessed a llama being ridden in the UK by Gerald Scarfe some twenty or so years ago and whilst namedropping, seem to remember an advertisement for Tesco with a llama being ridden by Dudley Moore. Suitably inspired, my own children became guinea pigs for my training techniques as this photo shows. Photo 6
Right llama for the right job
To train llamas for trekking, riding, and carting, it is essential to select one’s llama carefully. He (or possibly she, but I advise stick to he) should be calm by nature and easily and willingly handled. By all means start training with a yearling, progressing from walking and carrying empty packs, to lightly -filled packs and pulling very light loads, but it is important to ensure the llama is sufficiently developed before giving him any serious weight to pull or carry. And it is especially important to wait until the immaturity and unpredictability of youth and adolescence have passed if the weight is to be human in form. Whilst a llama might be considered an adult at two years of age (and may be fertile well before three), he or she is not truly mature until around four or five, and I would not recommend putting people into a cart or on to the animal’s back until at least this age.
In the early days of our llama-keeping, a number of events were organised for owners under titles such as “LlamaRama” and “LlamaKhana”. These involved obstacle courses taking llamas over hurdles – yes the owners or handlers had to run the course and jump the hurdles too - up and down steps, through water courses, running around obstacles and under tarpaulin tunnels... They were great fun but unfortunately faded out in the wake of Public Liability insurance issues and, to some extent perhaps, to the premature introduction of llamas insufficiently suited or trained to the course. Today, with training knowledge so much more advanced and llamas so much more selectively bred, it is perhaps overdue to reinstate these fun events. At one or two European Shows I have been to recently, they have included some pretty difficult courses and the llamas have performed superbly on them.
Where, perhaps, all these aspects of llama fun come together is in their application to charity work; llamas make wonderful attractions for raising funds. We mentioned charity treks in our last article, but when we are feeling lazy then a ‘simple’ guess the age competition will bring a horde of people, young and not-so-young, crowding around one of our kushed and ever-so-patient stud males, prising his lips apart to follow our mischievous suggestion that they can tell by the teeth in the upper jaw, and paying 50p each for the privilege. Giving cart or mounted rides are another option but it is vital at this point to add the proviso that all such activities require the appropriate Public Liability insurance to be in place, and to emphasise that as with any species, not all llamas will make good candidates, so do choose yours carefully. Photo 7
Choosing your llamas
Your requirements will vary according to your intentions. Here we are not looking at the requirements, for example, for guard llamas or breeding stock, but for llamas with which you wish to interact and have fun.
Conformation is important to the degree that you cannot ask a llama to take a heavy load when he has a saggy back, dropped pasterns, poor leg conformation or is very light of bone. That said, for the purposes we are discussing, temperament is all. But to begin with a negative, one quality you absolutely do not want in a young llama is “friendliness” in the sense of it running up to you, pushing, nibbling clothes or being “in your face”. These signs in any breed of camelid are indications of a hand-reared or over-handled youngster which are sure to lead to serious problems when an adult.
Whilst you do not want a llama that is “over-friendly”, it is of course equally importantly that he should not be nervous or uncooperative by nature. If you are offered a llama as “halter and lead- trained” check that he will come into his catching area willingly rather than reluctantly. Check too that he will accept the halter being put on easily and that it is not a struggle or matter of who is the faster and stronger. And whilst he may lead around a stable or small enclosure where there is no escape, ensure that he is equally relaxed walking across an open field. Will he let you lift his feet without going into struggle mode? This last point is raised here not for reasons of toenail management but as a significant indication of true temperament and adaptability. When such a youngster leads willingly into your trailer then you know you are going home with a llama that offers the potential of a lot of enjoyment and fun: one who will be a great addition to your existing flock of his camelid cousins.