The Unbearable Cuteness of Being

20th July 2018

Lisa Botwright meets alpacas – and discovers they have the power to make time stand still …

With their huge Disney eyes, their funny gummy smiles and their good-natured temperaments, it’s an undeniable fact that alpacas are simply adorable.

These south American camelids are smaller and cuter than their llama cousins; their low impact lifestyle means they’re relatively easy to take care of and their luxurious fleeces are so coveted that commercial demand is currently outstripping supply. No wonder they’re becoming an increasingly common sight in the English countryside.

Alpaca breeder and co-founder of stud farm ‘Alpaca Evolution’, near Buckingham, Shirley Isseyegh would go so far as to call them ‘addictive’. “I was warned about this when I bought my first alpacas – three females back in 2010 – but I thought, ‘how addictive can they be?’” …Some 900 alpacas later, it’s fair to say she’s hooked.

There are two kinds of Alpacas, Shirley explains: the Huacayas (pronounced wa-ky-yas), with their fluffy teddy bear look and ‘woollen’ fleeces, and the Suri with their cute ‘dreadlocks’ that are longer, more lustrous and silkier than Huacaya fibre. Alpaca fleece is softer than cashmere, five times warmer than wool, hypoallergenic and naturally weather-proof, which makes it useful for the alpacas and highly valuable to their human owners.

Historically, alpacas and humans lived in close contact for thousands of years in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the High Andes. Since it was their warm, insulating fleece that was sought-after, rather than their meat, alpacas were traditionally well-cared for and rarely used as beasts of burden. In Incan times, Suri fleece was known as ‘the fibre of the gods’ – more valuable than gold, it was reserved exclusively for royalty.

It’s only relatively recently that alpacas have taken off outside Latin America, but they’re on record as having been a curiosity for the rich and powerful throughout history. Queen Victoria apparently owned two (one white and one black) and over the Channel, Empress Joséphine Bonaparte is said to have ordered a flock for display in her palace near Paris – although sadly the convoy of 36 animals travelling from Buenos Aires to Spain got caught up in Franco-Spanish hostilities and never arrived. (There are conflicting contemporary reports about what happened to them, but I like the version that saw them kept as pets by their Spanish captors.)

Now there are approximately 40,000 registered alpacas in the UK, a number that’s steadily increasing according to the British Alpaca Society. And a significant proportion of them live here in Shirley’s Buckinghamshire alpaca-utopia… “They haven’t got a mean bone body in their body,” enthuses Shirley, who has names for and can recognise every one of her 900 alpacas. “They each have their own distinct personalities and funny little ways.”

I can vouch that their charisma cannot be underestimated. I have no idea how long I’ve been in this field of alpacas, chatting with their owner and being eyed up inquisitively, but I know that I don’t want to leave. Their soulful gaze is mesmerising. Some saunter up confidently, while the more nervous types keep their distance. All the while the babies, known as crias, skip about happily. It’s as if linear time has ceased to exist, and I’m cosseted in a zen alpaca-bubble. Mentally, I’m working out how to tell my Editor that I’m running away to be an alpaca farmer.

“I know exactly what you mean,” affirms Shirley. “I call it paca-time!”

Although they’re very good-natured, there’s a distinct pecking order to alpaca relations, I learn. They’re pack animals, which means they need the company of their own to thrive, and would become highly traumatised on their own. They’re lovingly supportive of each other – mothers will mind each other’s young, and mature females will act as birthing partners to bewildered first-timers, but they’re not averse to a good fight too. It’s recommended that owners start off with at least three animals. Not only so that there would still be a pair if one died, as I originally thought, but also to pander to the whimsical vagaries of alpaca interaction: “Oh, one is always going off on a sulk,” laughs Shirley. And right on cue, she points out a small commotion. There’s some hissing and one female strides away purposefully, while another stares after her with a quivering bottom lip. Alpacas are known to have incredibly expressive body language and communicate readily with humming, grumbling and snorting noises. The quivering lip isn’t my attempt to anthropomorphise impending tears, but a genuine alpaca reaction to conflict.

They’re not only commercially viable, but their undeniable cuteness paired with their undemanding nature makes them ideal pets. A spare acre to house a few alpacas isn’t something that many of us can offer, sadly, but in rural locations, where land is more plentiful, alpacas are springing up all over the place alongside more traditional English pets and livestock. Providing their integration is actively and responsibly managed, they can co-exist happily alongside chickens, pigs, sheep, dogs and cats.

Their hardiness makes them happily attuned to the British weather, although they need some kind of shelter to protect them against extreme elements. “They don’t like very high winds or torrential, driving rain,” says Shirley. Protection can come from natural features, such as overhanging trees, but there are times when they need a proper purpose-built shelter, such as a barn, for giving birth or for veterinary attention or routine husbandry: alpacas need their teeth and nails trimmed regularly, for example.

They’ll also need to be kept securely in a properly fenced-in piece of land, both to ensure they don’t wander off and also to protect them from predators. Be aware too, that some British wild plants, such as ragwort or ivy, are poisonous.
“Education is everything,” says Shirley. “I’d definitely recommend going on a course to learn more before you even think of bringing an alpaca home.”

There’s a huge amount of relevant short courses and workshops run by breeders. “A responsible breeder is also a great source of information and will want to keep in touch as a mentor to first time alpaca owners.” This mentor/mentee relationship is how Shirley got to know her business partner, Nick (who appeared on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch last weekend, and was amusingly upstaged by his alpaca co-stars), when he offered calm and reassuring telephone support back at the time of Shirley’s first foray into alpaca-keeping. They now own Alpaca Evolution together, and not only breed and sell alpacas and their fleeces, but also transport their animals to various special events, such as weddings, to dispense even more of that alpaca-magic to an ever appreciative audience.

“They like interacting with humans. If their owner makes the effort to build a rapport, then they’ll be accepted by their alpacas as part of the herd. You have to build up trust first, and they have to feel safe with you.” Once they’ve been halter-trained, they can easily be taken for a walk, and are so nosy and inquisitive, they enjoy the stimulation.

They’re very playful too, and love nothing more than splashing about in a paddling pool. “I call it spa treatment for my girls,” laughs Shirley. She tells me how when she gets the hose out to fill up their drinking troughs, the alpacas crowd around eagerly. Suris, apparently, are more intelligent than their Huacayan relatives, and reverse into the water, since they don’t like being splashed in the face. Huacayas, on the other hand, charge enthusiastically into the flow, and then stomp off in
affronted indignation when the water goes into their eyes.

Shirley recognises that she’s lucky to have turned her passion for the cutest of camelids into a thriving business, and says: “I never stop learning new things; every year I learn something new.” Asked what her advice would be to a first-time buyer, she smiles. “Be warned, they’re addictive…”

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