Alpacas: Where do they come from, where do they go?
Countries of origin
Alpacas are used to spectacular scenery; they originate from Peru, Chile and Bolivia. At Sweet Home Alpaca, we have some of the most gorgeous natural views in south Wales – we might not have massive mountains, but we have beautiful rolling hillsides and swathes of luscious green pastures and woodland. We’re pretty sure our herd loves southwest Wales as much as we do. Alpacas are used to beautiful British countryside by now, as they were first imported to Britain in the mid-1800s (although none of those poor guys survived!). More recently, and with much better knowledge on how to care for them, Britons began to import alpacas to the UK again in larger, commercial numbers in the early 1990s.
There are two different breeds of alpacas: the Huacaya (which is pronounced wa-ky-ya) and the Suri. They’re actually almost completely the same – there are no differences in size, shape, strength or habits. Huacayas make up 95 per cent of the world’s population of alpacas. Of the two types, Suri fleece is the silkier, smoother and shinier. Huacayas grow a fleece with fibres at right angles to the skin; they’re the ones with staples (a cluster of fibres) that looked crimped*, where the Suri fibre hangs in locks, giving it almost a dreadlocked appearance.
*a look that Angela, at least, paid a lot for back in the 00s!
There are no wild alpacas in the world. It’s a rough science, as there are numerous domesticated herds hiding away in mountains of Latin America (which makes counting them a bit tricky!). However, there are thought to be only three million alpacas around the world; almost all of these (about 94 per cent) live in South America. The worldwide alpaca population is made up of 93 per cent Huacaya and 7 per cent Suri. There are about 45,000 registered in the UK, about 350,000 in the USA and about 350,000 in Australia (where we’re sure they enjoy family holidays with their 1.2 million Australian wild camel cousins).
Who are alpacas, when you get right down to it?
Chileans, Bolivians and Peruvians (locals to the South American countries alpacas originate from) speak a mix of Quechua (a native South American language), Latin Spanish (as a result of Spanish colonialism) and a vast number of regional native languages and dialects. In Cuzco Quechua, the word for ‘alpaca’ is ‘Paku’ – and we really love that they have a slightly different word that means both ‘alpaca’ and ‘healer’: ‘Paqu’. There is something very healing about hanging out with a herd of these bright and calm creatures. In Spanish, male alpacas are called ‘machos’, females are ‘hembras’ (you don’t pronounce the ‘h’ at the beginning), yearlings (teenagers) are ‘tuis’ and babies are ‘cria’. In English, we use ‘cria’ for the babies, ‘stud’ for a breeding male and ‘dam’ for females – although it’s also fine to just use ‘female’ and ‘male’ if you’re not being specific about their breeding status.
How big do alpacas get?
Fortunately, alpacas are the smallest members of the camelid family – we readily admit we’d not be quite so enthusiastic about taking care of a herd of massive camels! Unlike their towering desert-living cousins, the average shoulder height of an alpaca is about three feet (just under a metre). They can be four to seven feet (about 1.2 to 2.2 metres) long and can weigh between about eight-and-a-half and fourteen stone (around 55 to 90 kilograms). Cria normally weigh about a stone at birth (around 6 to 8 kilograms).
An alpaca’s average lifespan is about 15 to 20, although some wethers (castrated male) have been known to live up to 26. Female alpacas will spend most of their lives pregnant or looking after their newborns and can produce cria throughout their entire adult life. Most females will produce ten to twelve cria (baby alpacas) in a lifetime; that’s a hefty return on investment for alpaca farmers right there.
Alpacas: A family affair
Reproductive lifespan: females (dams)
Dams really can breed most of their lives; the average breeding lifespan of a female alpaca is from 1.5 to 19 years.
Reproductive lifespan: males (herd sires)
Able to produce offspring from the age of 2 or 3 for around 12 to 18 years, sires are of breeding age for almost as long as their female counterparts.
Cria are weaned from mum’s milk to hay or haylage and fresh grass when they’re between about 5 and 6 months old.
11 to 12 months – yes, really! That’s why dams tend to spend most of their adult lives pregnant – alpacas are such a work of art that it takes a long time to make one. They’ll generally have single births, although twins do happen sometimes (about once in every 10,000 births). Healthy dams produce one cria each year (they’re mated 12 to 14 days after giving birth and can be mated at any time of year). However, we mate our alpacas around June time to ensure the crias are born during good weather. Crias will usually be born during daylight, between about 6 am to 2 pm; and that’s another advantage they have over traditional livestock – no waiting up all night for happy moments! If you’re thinking about increasing your herd headcount, it’s worth noting that it’s not currently possible to find artificial insemination for alpacas in the UK, so you’ll need to do it the old-fashioned way and supervise breeding females with herd sires. We’re sure the alpacas don’t mind that!
Alpaca fleece: The whole fleece and nothing but the fleece
Alpacas come in a fantastic range of colours, although, as with the breeds, there’s no difference between alpacas of different colours besides the fleece shade. In the UK and internationally, 22 official natural alpaca colours are recognised, from white to black and dark brown and hitting most shades of silver/grey, chocolatey brown and sandy beige along the way.
Weight of fleece
A yearling alpaca (one who’s about a year old – a ‘teenager’, in human terms) will generally have a fleece of about 4 and a half pounds (or 2 kilograms), while adult females can produce an annual fleece weighing in at around 4 and a half pounds (roughly 3.5 kilograms). As they’re much larger, though, some fully-grown males have been known to produce a yearly fleece of nearly 18 pounds (around 8.5 kilograms)!
Annual growth rate of fleece
An adult alpaca’s fleece will usually grow between 3 and 6 inches (about 80 to 150mm) per year.