Alpaca Facts

The history of alpacas begins in the mists of South American prehistory. There is evidence that alpacas were domesticated as much as 6000 years ago. In Andean mythology, alpacas are associated with the goddess “Pachmana”, the Earth Mother. It was believed that alpacas were loaned to humans, to be left on earth for only as long as they were properly cared for and respected. According to this legend, alpacas were given as a gift at the mountain Ausangate in Peru.

Alpaca fleece first captured the attention of the ancient Incan royalty hundreds of years ago. Clothing for the royal family and high government officials was made exclusively from alpaca fibre. In fact, reverence for the buttery soft, luxurious alpaca clothing caused alpaca to become known as “The Fibre of the Gods”.

Regrettably, the alpaca suffered terribly at the hand of European conquerors in the 1500s. As the Conquistadors brought European livestock to South America (especially sheep), most of the native alpacas were either killed or were pushed into the highest, most inhospitable region of the Andes—an area known as the “Altiplano”, which is a high mountain desert that is very windy, dry, barren, and contains sparse vegetation. Peruvian historians estimate that approximately 90% of the entire world’s population of alpacas died during the 1500s as a result of this tragic annihilation.

In the mid 1800s, Sir Titus Salt of London “discovered” the remarkable fibre of the alpaca and began promoting its use in the finest textile mills and fashion houses of Europe. Charles Ledger was the first to import alpacas into Australia in 1858. None of these alpacas is thought to have survived.

Then in the mid 1980s Geoff Halpin, a Victorian sheep farmer, imported a small number of these animals into Australia as the first breeding stock in modern times. Today, almost 100,000 alpacas are registered in Australia and the industry is growing at a rate of 17% per annum. By the year 2020 the industry predicts there will be over one million alpacas in Australia.

Three million alpacas exist worldwide, with over 90 percent still located in South America—Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.

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The alpaca industry is a new farm industry in Australia with imports arriving from South America for the first time in 1987. They have, however, a long and noble history on the latter continent, where they have been domesticated for over 6,000 years and have established themselves as an integral part of the culture, history and economy of South American civilisation.

The history of the Spanish Merino, which was imported into Australia a little over 200 years ago, is well known to all Australians. Those initial imports grew to become the basis for a modern Australian industry, which has established new international standards for wool and meat production.

Australia is now poised to exercise the same nous and know-how in developing this new exotic import, by applying to alpacas the same techniques, technology, breeding practices and veterinary science that have been developed and refined for the sheep industry.

Beginning with just a handful of animals in 1987, barely more numerous than their owners, Australia today is rapidly approaching a national herd of 100,000 alpacas, arguably the biggest national herd outside South America and has over 1,200 registered studs and over 1,500 registered breeders.

Increasingly, the focus is on accelerating genetic improvement, aiming for improved fertility, higher fleece weights, finer fleece and robust animals with higher carcass weights. Whilst the market has focused on stud sales during the establishment phase of the industry, there is increasing emphasis on production traits as the industry moves towards commerciality. Ultimately, as in their native home of Peru, alpacas will be bred for fleece, meat and skins and Australia seeks to position itself as an international market leader in all production traits.

The alpaca is highly suited to the Australian climate and environment, arguably much more so than the sheep. It is a very efficient browser and grazer, estimated to be 30% more efficient than the sheep in feed conversion and does well on native grasses and unimproved pasture. Like its cousin, the camel, it can tolerate drier climates better than most livestock and its soft padded foot produces minimal compression and compaction on Australia’s fragile soils.

For these and many other reasons, alpacas have come to be known as The Designer Green Solution for sustainable farming practices.

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What is so different about alpaca fibre?
It combines softness with strength. Alpaca product feels great next to the skin, yet it will have the durability of a coarser garment. It is warm, yet amazingly light. Alpaca fibre comes in a beautiful range of natural colours—white, silver, all shades of grey and fawn, chocolate brown and true jet black—and if you want to extend that range, alpaca fibre will dye beautifully.

The illusion of fineness in textile fibres is created by our tactile response to the surface of the fibre and this property is perpetuated in the resulting fabric.

Alpaca fibre feels fine and an examination of the surface structure of the fibre will explain this. The outside layer of all follicle produced fibre consists of overlapping cuticle cells. It is these overlapping cells that allow fibres to spin together, as the elasticity of the fibres locks these cells together to form a permanent structure of many fibres.

The impression of fineness is created in alpaca fibre by its silkiness and apparent softness. The silkiness is generated by the low scale height of the cuticle cells, allowing the hand to slide over the surface of the fibre but maintaining sufficient height for effective spinning to occur. This scale height varies with different species and alpaca is distinguished by possessing one of the lowest scale heights. The wool industry has managed to duplicate this effect by the using the process of superwash in which fibre is immersed in resin. This coats the fibre, effectively reduces the scale height and creates the illusion of a finer fibre.

The second part of this illusion is the apparent softness of the fibre. The alpaca fibre is not soft. The resistance to abrasion of the cuticle cells of alpaca is 368 compared to 172 for wool, over twice as much.

Alpaca fibre feels soft because of its springiness and its high resistance to compression. This “softness” is also transferred to the yarn and fabric. Alpaca fibres resist forming a solid mass under compression. This resistance results in other enigmatic features of the alpaca fibre, particularly its light weight compared to other fibres. This same effect occurs with scoured wool after the grease has been removed. Although the mass of alpaca fibres are very similar to other follicle-produced fibres, their springiness prevents them being compressed.

Wool processing aims to produce a tightly spun yarn, whereas alpaca fibre is ideal for producing a loosely spun yarn which can produce a very light garment with high insulating properties. The hardness of alpaca cuticle cells endows the fibre with high durability which produces a strong fibre that is capable of withstanding the rigours of high speed spinning and weaving.

So where does that leave us? We now have a fibre that appears fine but is not; that appears soft but is actually hard and strong; that has excellent thermal insulation, combined with apparent light weight, but one that is actually similar in weight compared with other fibres, and that has high durability and a silky texture. As a bonus, in many cases, we also have lustre.
This is the enigma that is alpaca fibre.
This is the fascination.
This is “the fibre of the gods”.

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Do alpacas need a lot of looking after?
Other than annual shearing and twice-yearly vaccinations, alpacas require very little else. An occasional trim of toenails and teeth may be required. Because of their dry fleece and naturally clean breech, fly strike is not an issue with alpacas. They do not require mulesing or crutching.

How do you shear an alpaca?
Electric sheep-shearing equipment is normally used, but because alpaca fibre is non-greasy, care needs to be taken that shears do not over-heat. (Blade shearing is also possible).

Alpacas spit, don’t they?
Yes, but not generally at people. Sometimes a female will spit at a male if she does not welcome his amorous attentions!

Do alpacas need expensive “extras”?
Trees and bushes provide the best protection against extremes of heat and cold. Most alpacas will not voluntarily seek shelter in sheds. There is no need for special fencing as alpacas are generally content to stay in their own “backyards”. Although an alpaca will generally take on a dog, a large dog or a pack can cause harm so it is advisable to have dog proof fencing.

How big is the average alpaca herd?
In Australia, 80% of alpacas are in herds of less than ten animals. Many owners are small breeders who want to be part of a young, new industry.

What kind of pasture do alpacas need?
Alpacas are pseudo-ruminants, and chew cud like a cow. They do well on low protein hay or pasture, provided it has a balanced mineral content. Supplementary feeding should be given in winter and to females in the later stages of pregnancy.

How do alpacas affect the land?
Alpacas do less damage than most other farm animals as they have pads, not hooves, so that degradation of the land is minimised. Alpacas tend to graze gently, allowing faster pasture regrowth. Their dung makes excellent fertilizer and it is conveniently dropped in areas where the animals avoid grazing.

Are alpacas difficult to manage?
No. They are quite at ease with people and quick to learn. They can be moved easily around a farm without the aid of a dog. They can be easily transported from place to place in anything from a horse-float to a small van.

Are alpacas related to llamas?
Alpacas are very closely related to llamas. They are both from a group of four species known as South American Camelids. The llama is approximately twice the size of an alpaca with banana shaped ears and is principally used as a pack animal. Alpacas are exclusively bred as fleece animals in Australia.

How many alpacas can I run on my property?
A standard unit of carrying capacity is the Dry Sheep Equivalent per hectare (DSE). As a general rule, one alpaca wether is equivalent to one DSE. A pregnant alpaca is approximately 1.5 DSE and a lactating pregnant alpaca is about 2 DSE.

What do you do with the fleece?
It is processed into high quality fashion garments such as suits, jackets, skirts and coats. Jumpers knitted from alpaca fleece are soft, light and warm. Because of its natural warmth, it is also used as a continental quilt filling. Coarser fibre is used to make luxury carpet and car seat covers. The international market for alpaca product is enormous with demand always exceeding supply. Locally, commercial options for raw alpaca fleece in Australia exist with the Australian Alpaca Fleece Ltd (AAFL) and with local spinners. Commercial prices depend on quality with a premium paid for finer micron fibre—up to $60 per kilogram.

Do they make good pets?
Most alpacas make very good pets if they are treated well and the owners are realistic in their expectations. Like any livestock, the more handling they receive as youngsters, the quieter they are as adults. Given time, most alpacas will eat out of your hand and training them to lead by a halter is a straightforward process. Although alpacas look cuddly they generally don’t like being held, and are particularly sensitive to being touched on the head. Alpacas are naturally curious and intelligent and if you let them approach you, rather than rush at them and expect an affectionate response, the interactions can be very rewarding. The best thing to remember is that they are alpacas, and not dogs or cats, and should be allowed to be alpacas.

Can I just have one or do I need to have lots?
Alpacas are herd animals and are instinctively gregarious, as are other domestic livestock. They obtain security and contentment from having at least one other alpaca for company. For this reason, it is usually recommended that two alpacas are the desirable minimum.

At what age do alpacas start breeding?
Females become sexually mature at around 12 to 18 months of age and once they reach 45 to 50kg in weight. Males can display sexual interest from a few weeks of age but are not sexually active or fertile until 18 months to 3 years of age. The average gestation period is 11½ months, but pregnancies that go for over a year are not uncommon. Twinning in alpacas is extremely rare (approximately 0.0001% of births).

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Pronounced wua′ki′ya, this is the most common alpaca type in both South America and Australia. It has a soft bonnet of fibre on the forehead and its cheeks boast “mutton chops” whilst the dense body fibre grows straight out from the body, not unlike Merino fleece. Ideally, fleece coverage is even and extends down the legs. Its fleece should show a uniform crimp along the length of the staple.

As a type, the suri (soo′ree) is very much less common than the huacaya, and in Australia only a small percentage of alpacas are suris. This alpaca has fleece with a strongly defined lock. The suri is covered in long, pencil fine locks, not unlike dreadlocks, that hang straight down from the body. The fleece has lustre and its feel is more slippery and silky than that of the huacaya. The predominant suri colours are white or light fawn. Suri numbers continue to grow in Australia, and like the huacaya, the suri responds well to our gentler climate and husbandry practices.

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