ALPACAS ARRIVE IN STYLE
Have we seen it all before? The market for angora goats and ostriches crashed in
spectacular style but the future for UK alpaca farming looks brighter. Jeremy Hunt comes
face to face with some new arrivals from distant lands.
ON a cold winters day on a remote hill farm in Lancashire the last sound you would expect to hear coming from the barn is the jerky beat of Chilean pan-pipes. But why not, especially when the barn is full of 300 alpacas recovering from an 11,000-mile journey from the Andes?
Worth between £4500 and £7000 apiece, it doesnt take a mathematician to work out that anything capable of making these high-value animals feel more at home is worth doing. While they certainly seem soothed by the sounds emanating from the tape recorder balanced on a bale of straw, the pan-pipe rhythm is not primarily for them but for their keeper Norman Reynard.
Despite his English-sounding name, this small, dark-haired man is a Chilean alpaca expert. Hes accompanied them to the UK as part of an ambitious project organised by international animal importer James Graham.
Mr Graham is no newcomer to the entrepreneurial skills of international livestock trading. His father was the first major exporter of Charolais cattle from France nearly 40 years ago and more recently Mr Graham was heavily involved in supplying ostriches to the USA and UK from breeders in South Africa.
"Im totally confident that alpacas will not fall foul of the boom-and-bust scenario that led to the demise of commercial ostrich farming. There are less than 4 million alpacas in the world and numbers cannot be increased by embryo transfer," says Mr Graham, who has recently set up his company – Alpacas of Europe – at his farm in Kirk Michael on the Isle of Man.
Unable to find enough alpacas in Europe to meet the demand from existing clients in Ireland, Holland and Belgium, he first visited Chile in September 1998 and toured the high plateau herds run by the Aymara Indians on the Altiplano in northern Chile.
"I looked at over 5000 alpacas, checked-out the infrastructure of the fibre industry, the monitoring of fibre quality and the reliability of breeders. The big question was could we persuade the Chileans to part with a large number of high quality animals?"
He did persuade them and that first trip resulted in 200 alpacas being imported into Belgium in early 1999. But still the orders for stock kept flooding in. By March last year Mr Graham was back on the Altiplano, moving among the herds looking for even more alpacas.
Nine months later, surrounded by almost 300 alpacas in the unlikely setting of a Lancashire hill farm, he explains how he pulled off one of the biggest individual export deals of these unique animals.
"It isnt a free-for-all when you go over there. If you think the Ministry of Agriculture keeps a tight grip on UK farming its nothing compared with things in Chile. The regulations covering all alpacas are extremely strict and ensure total traceability of every individual animal."
The latest shipment, selected following meticulous inspection of 3000 alpacas in 30 herds, had to spend six months in quarantine in Chile before flying to the UK. The fibre of each animal was officially tested in the USA prior to export. Although predominantly females between 18-months and three and a half years old, this importation also includes eight superior stud males.
"Of all the animal species I have been involved with there is undoubtedly something quite special about alpacas. They have a mystical quality," says Mr Graham, whose presence in the barn attracts the attention of hundreds of pairs of enquiring alpaca eyes gazing from long-necks atop a sea of multi-coloured fleeces.
And colour does have some bearing on their value. There are over 22 different colour variations ranging from pure black and snow white to the subtle pale fawn shades of champagne and café and the almost shimmering silver hue of the greys. Perhaps most striking of all are the bi-coloureds with their dramatic flashes of white giving them an almost clown-like appeal.
Farming alpaca for their cashmere-like fleeces is still in its infancy in Europe and the UK and until numbers can be substantially increased the growing demand for breeding stock – and the high prices they command – will continue. Alpacas were cherished by the Inca civilisation and played a central part in the Incan culture of the high Andean plateau. They have been domesticated for 6000 years and continue to provide the main source of income for Aymara Indian families who are direct descendants of the Incas and who still run individual herds of up to 1000 alpacas.
Over 60% of the latest shipment is in-cria – the term given to pregnant alpacas – and even as Mr Graham moves among the pens a black-coated cria born that morning nuzzles its mother and struggles to balance itself on spindly legs.
"Alpacas are very adaptable, resilient and easily managed. During their stay in quarantine in the UK they have thrived on ad-lib hay and a daily feed of 0.5kg of concentrate. They are not susceptible to foot problems and we havent had to treat the feet of any of the animals we have imported."
Mr Graham describes alpacas as being amenable and intelligent. To walk freely among such a large number of exotic animals with no sign of stress or fear is certainly an inspiring experience, especially considering their temporary Lancashire quarters are such a far cry from their natural environment.
Some of the male alpacas have brightly coloured tassels attached to their ears. "Its all to do with identification. The herds graze communally over vast areas of the high plateau. The tassels are made up of coloured alpaca fibre and are attached to the alpacas by the Aymara families as a mark of ownership."
There are two types of alpaca but almost the entire world population comprises the huacaya. The suri, which makes up little more than one per cent of the species, is held in the highest regard by south American Indians.
"Its rarity and the wonderful quality of its fleece sets the suri apart. The fleece really has to be seen to be believed," says Mr Graham pointing out a handful of suri he managed to persuade their Aymara owners to part with.
Compared with the huacaya, the suri is longer-necked and has an air of refinement. Its finer fleece has a natural curl falling in ringlets and is highly prized being even more valuable than huacaya fibre. The 16 suri alpaca in this importation will be heading off to Mr Grahams farm on the Isle of Man to form the nucleus of a new UK breeding herd.
Despite Mr Grahams upbeat attitude, one he shares with the growing number of UK alpaca breeders, is this not just another short-term moneyspinner that could to end up collapsing in grand style just like angora goats and ostriches?
Mr Graham says not. "All stock farming enterprises depend on numbers. Without numbers you have no volume. And you need volume to create a viable UK industry based on alpaca fibre.
"As more people increase their herd numbers breeding stock prices will come down and the full potential in terms of stocking densities (7-8 head per acre) and fibre yield per acre will be realised.
"The infrastructure for alpaca fibre is in place. It was the only natural fibre to increase in price last year and is now valued at around £25/kg."
The breeding cycle of the alpaca – no multiple births, a single offspring born after 11 months gestation and the inability of the camelid species to respond to embryo transfer – is undoubtedly providing a high degree of investment protection for the foreseeable future for those individuals prepared to back such a venture.
"There is no possibility of mass exportation from South America. There arent the numbers available, importation regulations to the UK are very tight and the delicate relations between the UK and Chilean governments means a sudden change in protocol could swiftly close the door on exports," says Mr Graham.
As the pan-pipes continue to echo through the barn it seems unreal to be in the presence of such a large number of these enchanting animals, calmly moving around surroundings so unlike those of the native terrain of the plateau lands of the Andes. One cant help wondering if this is, at last, the big diversification opportunity that British farming has been waiting for for so long. *
Above and below: Some of the 300 alpacas that made the journey from
the high plains of Chile. They are worth up to £7,000 apiece.
James Grahams father was the first major exporter of Charolais cattle from France nearly 40 years ago.