Alpacas and the Environment

In recent years, alpacas have received a great deal of publicity as one of the ‘greenest’ animals on the planet.   This acclaim is given with good reason, as alpacas are environmentally friendly on multiple counts.

Their Fleece

Alpacas are a sustainable source of a versatile natural fibre. Alpacas are not harmed by the shearing process. They don’t suffer from the loss of their fleece, as shearing is typically timed to coincide with the arrival of summer. Without shearing, alpacas would get too hot.

Alpaca fleece is not oily. It contains no lanolin. It naturally stays relatively clean and so can be easily washed and processed, using less chemicals and water than other natural fibres require. Production of alpaca has less impact on the environment than most, if not all, of the alternatives.

Alpaca fibre is super fine, yet very strong and durable. Some Inca clothing still survives after thousands of years. It is also a fantastic insulator, due to the hollow structure it the fibres. Even lightweight garments can keep you cosy on a cold day.

Due to the lack of lanolin, alpaca fibre is known as the naturally hypoallergenic fibre.

Alpacas come in a variety of attractive and fashionable natural colours, more than any other fibre producing animal. For requirements outside of the natural colour range, white fleece accepts dyeing well.

Unlike many fibre producing animals, the bulk of the fleece taken from an alpaca can be used. During shearing, it’s common to separate the finer parts of the fleece (typically the ‘blanket’, from across the back, and the rump and neck, which tend to be shorter), from rougher areas (legs and belly).   Even the poorer quality fleece can be used for felting, pillow and duvet filling, pet bedding and insulation. At Petlake, we even make use of the odds and ends swept up from the shearing barn floor.

Feeding and Digestion

Alpacas have a very efficient digestive system, designed for making the most of the relatively poor quality grazing upon which they have evolved. They are also proficient at extracting much of their water requirement from their food. Alpacas grazed on green pasture will drink very little water.

Due to their efficient digestive system, alpaca dung can be used without lengthy composting. Alpaca manure is a very good fertilizer, for crops and gardens alike.

Grazing land for alpacas will typically not need be treated with fertilizer, as they don’t need lush pasture to thrive. Outside of the growing season, they can be fed primarily on hay or haylage. They will also browse on hedgerows and low branches, with favourites including bramble, native willow and hazel.

Alpacas cause very little damage to the land on which they graze. Their soft padded feet tend to not cut into the ground as much as harder footed livestock. In fact, alpacas will tend to even out and repair ground that has previously been ‘poached’ by other animals.  

Although many now believe that part of the solution to the world’s current environmental crisis will involve reducing the global headcount of cattle, it’s also been stated that we can’t afford to consequently lose the grasslands on which they graze. Agricultural grass stock lands act as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. If we simply reduce the number of cattle in the world, but then allow the grasslands to be lost, or revert to scrubland, then we’ll have lost much of the benefit. Perhaps alpacas could be a key part of the solution.

Here at Petlake we graze our alpacas in rotation across the farm, leaving fields and paddocks to regrow for several months at a time. Even though we have a fairly sizeable herd on a fairly small farm, we still manage to be more than self-sufficient in hay and haylage, typically producing 150 to 200 percent of our own annual requirement, by setting aside a proportion of the land for a grass crop each year. Those areas will then typically become our autumn and early winter grazing areas, allowing our alpacas to deposit some natural fertiliser for the next year’s crop.

Petlake isn’t all made up of grass stock land. We also have a few areas of woodland too. Since being here, we’re happy to be able to say that we’ve not felled a single living tree. We have also planted more than 500 additional trees and hedging plants.  

Alpaca Husbandry

Alpacas are one of the easiest large animals to keep. They are easy to train and handle.   Unlike sheep, alpacas don’t need to he herded using dogs. In fact alpacas have even replaced the role of the sheep dog on some farms. Instead of herding sheep by intimidation, they will often, quite literally, ‘look up to’ an alpaca, and follow it when it goes where the shepherd wants it, and his flock, to go.

Alpacas are not aggressive to humans of other livestock. They will often protect other paddock mates from predators such as foxes. Losses of chickens and lambs have both been dramatically reduced by the addition of alpacas. At Petlake, we’ve lost a number of chickens in fox attacks over the years, but never when the chickens were sharing a paddock with alpacas.

Alpacas are not prone to problems such as foot rot and fly strike. Even when out in very wet conditions, we’ve never needed to treat a foot problem. The few cases of fly strike that we’ve had were easily spotted and rectified.

As they're so easy to handle,  alpacas are not difficult to drench (give oral supplements and medicines) and to inject (for example, for routine vaccinations).

Alpacas are not noisy. They generally communicate using low humming sounds. They do have a high pitched ’alarm call’, which is useful when they’re being used to guard chickens or lambs.

Alpacas aren’t smelly animals. Neither male or female alpacas have a noticeable odour. Even their dung is relatively odourless.

Reproduction

Alpacas are induced ovulators. It is the act of mating (in particular, the noise made by the male) that causes the female to ovulate. Matings can therefore be undertaken at any time of year, allowing births to be arranged to take place, more or less, when desired.

A week after mating, females that have ovulated will ‘spit off’, spitting at any male who makes advances and generally running away and making a fuss. After another week, they’ll still ‘spit off’ if pregnant. This makes it very easy to determine when re-matings are required.

The gestation period of an alpaca is about 11.5 months. A female can conceive again just a few weeks after giving birth. This supports annual reproduction at the same time each year, if desirable

A female alpaca will almost always produce just one offspring (cria) per pregnancy. This facilitates the planning of herd numbers and also avoids the problems often encountered due to multiple births in other livestock.

Births are generally straightforward, without the need for any intervention. They typically take place during the middle part of the day. Alpacas even wait for good weather to give birth and can hang on for weeks if necessary. At Petlake, we’ve even seen a female go into labour late one sunny morning, pause for several hours when it started to rain, then resume labour and give birth within twenty minutes in the early evening when the sun reappeared.

All of the above characteristics make alpaca breeding programmes easy to plan and manage.