Alpacas are domesticated members of the camelid family, the others are llamas, camels, guanacos and vicunas. They are native to South America, living in the higher altitudes of The Andes, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Alpacas are mainly kept for their fleece and have been farmed for thousands of years. There are two breeds of alpaca, the Huacaya (pronounced wakaya) and Suri. The Suri is not common in the UK and has a wool fleece which can be compared to dreadlocks which are long and loose.
The Huacaya makes up 95% of the world’s alpaca population and have a denser and shorter fibre coat. Alpacas grow to around 3 feet high (90cm) measured at the shoulder and adults weigh between 50 to 80kg. At birth an alpaca will weigh around 8 kilos. Baby alpaca are called cria and castrated males are usually referred to as wethers. Alpacas are quite long lived animals averaging between 15 to 20 years and females can breed for around 12 years with an 11 to 12 months gestation period. There are 22 fleece colours, from white to fawn and browns to black with some greys and rose greys.
You Need a Herd
Alpacas are herd animals and should never be kept alone. You will need room for 3 or 4 as a minimum and they should be stocked at a rate of 4 to 6 per acre. You will need land for them, but small acreages are sufficient to keep alpacas. They are very hardy animals but its good to provide an open fronted shelter for them, particularly for the summer shade. There is no need for special fencing as alpacas very rarely jump fencing. Sheep fencing of four feet high is recommended as the most suitable and avoid barbed wire or electric fencing as this gets caught in their fleece.
Alpacas are semi-ruminants and eat grass throughout the year. Hay should be provided when grass has become short, particularly in winter. Special alpaca food mixes are available that help the alpacas get vital vitamins and minerals. They only require a small amount each day. You could feed this by hand when keeping alpacas as pets, keeping them tame.
Looking after Alpacas as Pets
Alpacas very rarely get health problems which makes keeping alpacas as pets less expensive than many other animals. They should be wormed and vaccinated twice a year against chlorstridial diseases (soil born bacterial infection such as Black Leg and Tetanus which can prove fatal). Toe nails will need to be trimmed every 2 to 6 months and light coloured alpacas need theirs clipped more often. They need shearing once a year and the fleece can be sold to alpaca wool users. Keeping alpacas as pets can have a financial benefit too. We would love to hear from you if you have alpaca fibre to sell.
With patience alpacas can be trained and reasonably priced courses are available to help you both learn how to train and care for them properly. You can teach them to walk on a halter. They are animals that do not like too much handling and generally do not like their heads or necks to be touched. When you are thinking of keeping alpacas as pets, do keep this in mind particularly if you have children that want animals to stroke and cuddle. Alpacas will offer protection from foxes, so mixing them with sheep and goats can work well. If you have enough land available keeping alpacas as pets can be fun and rewarding but as with all animals make sure you can care for them properly before you take ownership.