Origins

The alpaca is a member of the South American Camelid family, and grazes at an altitude of 3-4000 metres on the Andes Mountains Altiplano, which runs through Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Other members of the family include the domesticated Llama, the feral Guanaco and the protected Vicuna. In their native land alpacas have been a source of meat, fibre and leather production for thousands of years. An inquisitive, almost mystical animal, they were closely integrated with the Inca culture.

The alpaca was first imported into Australia in the 1850s from Argentina and were farmed in the Goulburn district; however these alpaca were dispersed and eventually died out. The next importation arrived in 1988, the foundation stock coming from Chile and North America. They are now kept in all states of Australia except the Northern Territory. In 1997 the first direct import shipment of alpacas from Peru arrived. Passing a total of 100,000 animals in 2007, Australia now has the largest national alpaca herd outside South America.

Types

There are two types of alpaca. The Huacaya, (pronounced "wahcaya") with its dense fibre that grows perpendicular to the body and has a Merino-type appearance far outnumbers the Suri, which has a more lustrous fibre that falls in a dreadlocks fashion down the body and accounts for only 5% of the alpaca population.

Fibre of the Gods

The fleece of the smaller vicuna wild ancestor of the domesticated alpaca was referred to as the 'Fibre of the Gods' by the Incas, and only royalty were permitted to wear it. Archaeological evidence shows that the fibre of the alpaca was once around 14 microns diameter-as fine as our best merino fleece-before the extensive slaughter of alpaca herds during the Spanish invasion, apparently to facilitate introduction of their merino sheep.

The alpaca fibre is described as 'hard', meaning that it has a fibre structure that protects it from abrasion and gives it high durability, tensile strength and resistance to pilling and shrinking. The fibre has a silky-soft handle, is light-weight and warm, and is very suitable for allergy sufferers to wear next to the skin.

One of the many fabulous characteristics of alpaca fleece is its array of natural colours, ranging from white through shades of fawn and brown to a variety of greys and black - the only commercial natural fibre that is truly black.

The alpaca is shorn once a year, usually around mid to late Spring. The animal is placed on its side and restrained by the legs fore and aft for ease of handling. The first fleece, known as the 'cria fleece', is the most sought after and the finest; however subsequent fleeces are usually denser and yield more fibre - up to about 5-7 kg.

Australian growers have a number of market options. The major recognised buyer of alpaca fibre in Australia is Australian Alpaca Fleece Ltd, formed from the earlier Cooperative in 2004. AAFL has made great progress into the market place, developing and marketing a wide range of alpaca fashion and homeware products, including knitting wool, jumpers, socks, doonas, throw rugs and other items for sale in Australia and overseas. An interesting innovation since 2002 is an alliance with a broadloom carpet manufacturer to market luxury alpaca carpet and from early 2008 a close relationship with Grupo Inca of Peru has enabled a major expansion in the range of products to be offered by AAFL. The Australian Alpaca Association Ltd, which provides a national focus for the alpaca industry throughout Australia, maintains a close working relationship with the AAFL. Another fleece marketing option is to the cottage craft industry to be hand-spun and knitted or woven into garments.

Reproduction

The female alpaca will begin her breeding life at around 12-15 months of age, and will release her ovum only due to the act of mating. Males are ready to mate from around 2 years of age, and will 'dribble' the semen into the uterus throughout the entire mating, which lasts 15 to 30 minutes. The gestation period of the alpaca is 11-11.5 months, and the offspring are known as 'Cria' until weaning time at around 6 months when they become 'Tuis'. The female is normally re-mated 14-21 days after giving birth, and can reproduce successfully for at least 16 years. The alpaca's maximum lifespan is known to be over 20 years.

Husbandry

The alpaca is a browser and nibbles a range of grasses and hay in the paddock. Some food supplementation is often given to breeding females, although they do very well on a breeding sheep diet. Alpacas are 30% more effective in converting food than sheep, therefore as they are only a little larger than sheep their total feed requirement is roughly equivalent. Alpaca are clean through the belly and anus area and therefore do not require crutching, mulesing or tail docking. And as their fibre does not contain lanolin they do not suffer from flystrike.

Alpacas require vaccinating every 6 months. And because they place their dung in piles and do not eat around these, worm infestation is minimal. They do require toenail trimming on feet with soft pads that are gentle on Australian fragile soils, and they never get foot-rot. Their easy management makes these enchanting and beautiful creatures a dream to farm. It is so easy to fall in love with these long-lived, quiet and gentle animals!

Investment

As alpacas have relatively small feed requirements, they are highly suited to farming ventures on small as well as larger acreages. Their slow rate of natural increase and mating habits that make artificial insemination and embryo transfer difficult at present will ensure a gradual transition from a breeding-based industry to a commercial fleece-based one. These animals are a delight to farm, and the industry affords a lifestyle for the whole family to enjoy.