Alpacas were domesticated from the wild Vicuna by the Incas over 5000 years ago (before even the pyramids were built!). They are among the most ancient of the world’s domesticated animals. Originally they are from South America where they graze at altitudes of 3000-4000 metres on the Andes Mountains Altiplano, which runs through Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. At the height of the Incan Empire both Suri and Huacaya Alpacas were been selectively bred in large numbers to provide luxurious fibre, which in turn was processed into fine garments to be worn exclusively by Incan nobility. In a society without money, textiles were used as currency.
There are two types or breeds of Alpaca: the Huacaya, whose fibre has a crimp or wavy quality that enhances its use in spinning and the rarer Suri, which has a lustrous fine fibre with no crimp. The world population of Alpacas is approximately 90% Huacaya and 10% Suri.
They are amongst the most gentle of animals and are curious and friendly, although a little shy with strangers. They are not aggressive animals, rarely kicking and never biting, although as a herd they will team up to chase away foxes and other predators, making them handy to graze with sheep and poultry to keep them safe. Alpacas do spit at each other sometimes, in order to keep others out of their space, or for food, but they rarely spit at people, only if startled. Females will also spit at males if they do not like his advances!
Alpacas communicate through humming and by ear and tail position, and posture, they make a shrill alarm call when they see predators, and also make other noises including clicks and snorts. Males “orgle” when breeding, which is a strange humming/singing noise.
The alpaca originates from the South America, where it has been bred for its fleece for over 6,000 years. It was originally domesticated, as was the llama, from the wild species of the Vicuna and the Guanaco.
At the height of the Inca Empire both Suri and Huacaya alpacas were being selectively bred in large numbers to provide a very luxurious fibre, which in turn was processed into fine garments to be worn exclusively by Inca nobility. In a society without money, textiles were used as currency and alpaca were the “money” for the ruling nobility. These breeding programs were totally destroyed at the time of the Spanish Conquest of South America. When the Spanish arrived they not only killed and displaced the native people, but also the animals, and in bringing in horses and other livestock they required the grazing for them, and ate the alpacas.The result of this was that the alpaca was displaced to the high alti-plano above 4,000 metres and the sophisticated husbandry and breeding programs were lost along with most of the Inca culture.
Over the last 50 years a thriving and sophisticated alpaca industry has emerged in Peru, to service the increasing world demand for Alpaca fibre and product. The large processors are very active in encouraging the development of one of South America's important natural resources and great strides have been made in fibre processing and manufacturing for a demanding world market.
Today the Alpaca is rapidly spreading throughout the world as more and more people in numerous countries recognise the potential of this fascinating animal. Along with the UK, Australia has established a thriving alpaca industry, along with the USA. The alpaca is spreading throughout Europe at a rapid rate and is truly becoming an international livestock.
The breeding programs applied in these new Alpaca countries that have a long history of controlled agricultural development is far more sophisticated than most practices in their native homeland. Record keeping is more accurate, and registries exist for tracking the genetics of all the animals, veterinarian practices are involved in the health and welfare of the animals and much science has been applied to the development of the alpaca. The improvement has been dramatic, but many archaeologists and geneticists believe that even the most advanced alpaca is still fulfilling only 50% of its potential, so there's a long way to go.
Alpaca fibre is being included in all sorts of wool products to add an additional level of softness. It is softer than sheep wool, and warmer, and as it doesn’t contain as many coarse hair it is not “itchy”. The coarse alpaca fibre which previously had no use is now used by carpet manufacturers to enhance the softness of their products and used by various manufacturers for stuffing pillows and duvets.
Unlike Llamas, who were bred to be beasts of burden, Alpacas were only bred for their fibre. They have one of the most luxurious and valuable fibres that exist today. It is the combination of softness, tensile strength and variety of colour that sets the Alpaca apart from other luxury fibres. There is no need to dye the fibre to have a wide spectrum of colours as the Alpaca is naturally found in all colours ranging from white ranging through cream, beige, fawn, red, brown to black, with greys and other colours as well. There are 22 recognised colours at the moment, although commercially white is the most common. There are also fancy (multi-coloured) and appaloosa (spotted) Alpacas now been bred.
Commonly known as “the fibre of the gods” Alpaca fibre is very fine, soft, dense, lightweight, warm and insulating. Alpaca fibre is almost free of guard hair, which makes it non itchy. Spun into yarn it is especially resilient and strong. Garments make from it compare to cashmere, but are much more durable and easier to care for. It can also be blended with other wool to give them a softer feel. Fibre from Alpacas contains only tiny amounts of lanolin so it is not greasy and can be spun prior to washing. An Alpaca is shorn once a year (once every two years for Suri) and will yield around 1.5-3 kg of fibre.
Female Alpacas are generally bred from around 13 months old, but males don’t reach maturity until around three years, although they do try before then, so need to be kept separate from the girls from weaning, around 6 months old. Females are induced ovulators and so can breed at any time of year, she ovulates in response to mating and will spit off an advancing male if pregnant. She remains pregnant for around 335 days.
Alpacas almost always give birth during the morning, needing no intervention. This is because in their original homeland it is very cold at night, so a cria born in the morning has all day to dry off, feed and gain its feet before the cold night. After birth the mom hums to her baby, and the rest of the herd will come and say hello!
The average lifespan of the Alpaca is 15 – 20 years, a male is called a “macho”, the female is a “hembra” and baby a “cria”,
Alpacas have no upper incisors, they have lower teeth and an upper dental pad, like cattle and sheep, and they do not bite. They have soft padded feet with toenails on each foot. They are ruminants, which means they chew cud, and have three compartments to their stomach, eating a diet of grasses, hay, and ours like the fruit trees!
They deposit their manure – which is pellet like – in a communal poo pile, and it is a perfect low nitrogen fertilizer for the garden, as unlike most manure it will not “burn” plants and can be applied fresh.
With a little training Alpacas make wonderful pets. Their calm and happy dispositions make them a favourite of children who can handle them with ease. They are herd animals and their social structure requires that they live in the company of other Alpacas. An Alpaca will be lonely, and may even sicken and die if taken away to live by itself. Alpacas can be halter trained and will walk on a lead. They enjoy being paraded about and will allow you to take them to schools, shows, and even hospitals and nursing homes, where they are always a big hit!