Over five thousand years ago, pastoral herders began to experiment with the reproduction of their animals (Guanaco and Vicuna), and learned through a gradual process of trial and error, the intricacies of artificial selection.
By 3000 or 4000 B.C. the ancient guanaco hunters had successfully created two new races of animals never before seen in the Andes – the Llama and the Alpaca. These Alpacas were farmed for meat and fibre, the finest fibre being harvested for Incan royalty.
Alpaca mummies from the fifteenth century show alpaca breeders had achieved an enviable excellence of fibre quality and uniformity of fleece with consistent fibre diameters of around 17 to 20 microns (a micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre).
Unfortunately this all changed with the Spanish Conquest of 1532, when Incan civilisation was devastated and the generations of carefully bred herds of alpacas of all colours were dispersed and destroyed, to be replaced by sheep.
“According to both the Aimara and Quechua-speaking people of Bolivia and Peru, long ago the world was made up of two superimposed worlds, the upper and the lower. The lower world was populated with enormous flocks of plump, sleek alpacas that belonged to the Apu, or mountain god, and were tended by his daughter. The alpacas of the upper world, by contrast, were far fewer in number and were inferior in quality, with only a short fleece. One day a young herdsman from the upper world met and married the Apu’s daughter.
On her wedding day she took with her many of her alpacas, travelling via the springs and lakes, to live with her husband in the upper world. Apu’s only condition to his daughter’s marriage was that her husband take good care of the flocks and especially a tiny alpaca that always had to be carried. The daughter’s husband proved to be lazy and one day dropped the tiny alpaca on the ground, leaving it to fend for itself. When his wife saw this she took fright and immediately ran to the nearest spring, where she dived in and began swimming toward the lower world. The alpacas followed her, although a few were prevented from doing so by the herdsman. Ever since then, the alpacas of the upper world have remained near springs and lakes where they continue to yearn after their mistress, who, as yet has never returned.”
*Fowberry alpacas are from the lower world. *
The alpaca is the most colour diverse fibre-producing animal in the world. There are 22 colours including shades of black, brown, grey, fawn and white. Alpacas produce a fleece each year that uniquely shares the characteristics of both hair and wool. The insulating qualities of the fleece are incomparable and protect them against the extremes of temperature found in the Andes. The huacaya fleece has additional insulating qualities to the suri, because of its fine, wool-like structure, which traps air amongst the wavy (crimped) fibres. Bunched together, the fibres support each other, standing out perpendicular to the skin, giving the fleece a bulky appearance. The suri alpaca fibre hangs from a central parting and is more hair-like – straight, long silky locks – like dreadlocks with no crimp, which means they do not have the same insulating qualities of the huacaya leaving them more vulnerable to cold and particularly extreme wet. With the exception of mohair, alpacas produce the strongest animal fibre in the world; coupled with a beautiful softness, it is no wonder that alpaca fibre is as desirable in the fashion industry as cashmere. In Victorian times there was a thriving industry in Yorkshire, manufacturing garments made of alpaca fibre and no Victorian gentleman would plan to travel abroad without his alpaca coat.
Alpacas have a strong herding instinct and they feel vulnerable and become stressed if kept alone. Females need the support structure of other females, for companionship, to be around at birthing and helping to protect cria. This is not a marketing ploy but a sensible precaution to ensure alpacas feel relaxed and safe, and can concentrate on growing healthy, happy babies. Although they are excellent jumpers, they choose not to risk being separated from the rest of their herd. They have a designated pecking order and communicate with each other by body posture and a variety of noises, mostly humming, but also high pitched squeals, Each noise conveys something, from a gentle humming between mother and cria to establish where everyone is, to a loud squeal/cry to move on others at the feed trough.
Alpacas are gentle and non-aggressive to humans, although they can and do spit, this is usually reserved for settling hierarchical disputes within the herd. Some alpacas can be flighty and they all require gentle and considerate handling. They are mostly placid, intelligent and inquisitive animals, but with an ability to protect themselves, as can be seen when a fox enters their territory. The adults use a shrill alarm call to alert the herd and the fox, the dominant ones then advance slowly without fuss, the cria behind them. If the fox doesn’t get the message, they have very good acceleration and impressive speed. A fox is no match for a mother alpaca! Australians have recorded alpacas protecting sheep by killing dingoes and some alpacas are treated as guard animals for sheep in this country. If introduced with care, a household’s cats and dogs will be well tolerated by an alpaca herd.
Alpaca females are induced ovulators (ovulation occurs 24 – 36 hours after breeding). This means they can be bred at any time during the year, with gestation of around 11½ months. Cria born in the spring, thrive much better and put on more weight than autumn births. Winter births are to be avoided at all costs. The female ‘spits-off’ the stud male when she knows she is pregnant and will not allow him near her. Alpacas are usually excellent and attentive mothers and usually give birth with ease during daylight hours – this is a legacy of cria having to be mobile and dry by nightfall, 12,000 feet up in the Andes of their homeland. While the mother takes a rest after birthing, the aunts, sisters and maidens come forward to inspect the new baby – literally clucking encouragement to it.
Twins are very rare indeed. Cria are usually up and nursing within ninety minutes and weaned at about six months. The new mother is often rebred from three weeks after she gives birth.
Alpacas live for between fifteen to twenty years, with adults usually weighing between 55 – 80 kg and stand around 0.85 metres at the withers (shoulder). As with other camelids, alpacas have a soft pad with two toenails, which do minimal damage to grazing. Their droppings are situated in various communal areas throughout their field, which makes clearing up easier. Youngsters are fairly easy to halter train for walking on a lead rein and showing. Learn about alpacas and their precious fleece on a training course.
Revered by the Incas and still a vital source of income and sustenance in Peru, Chile and Bolivia, it seems that there is now a growing following for these elegant, charming and intelligent animals in this country too.