Diary of an Alpaca Farmer

Our regular column from Roger Clarke, an alpaca farmer from Tyrone in Northern Ireland, will chart the goings-on on the farm throughout the year. We’ll hear all about the exploits of Roger’s herd of alpacas.

Since the last issue, Elaine and I have fulfilled one of our lifelong dreams; that of attending the International Alpaca Association’s Alpaca Fiesta in Arequipa, Peru. An experience that only comes around every four years, the Alpaca Fiesta is one of the most important and prestigious events in the Alpaca industry, an occasion that gathers together; the entire industry’s ‘value chain’ from breeding to fashion, at one spectacular event.

Having planned and looked forward to this trip for almost two years; I can honestly say that the entire experience was beyond what we could have possibly imagined and began with one of the most poignant and sacred of events; the vicuña Chaccu.

As a protected species in Peru, the Chaccu is a humane and ancient method of obtaining the fibre from the sacred vicuña. The smallest of the South American camelids, the vicuña is one of two species of camelid that is not domesticated. The animals live in the plains of the high Andes, at altitudes of more than 13,100 feet (4, 000 meters) above sea level. Despite being driven to the brink of extinction, protection laws introduced in the 1960s have allowed the species to make a healthy recovery and today; the animals thrive within large natural reserves where the Andean communities take great care to protect this revered creature.

As we embarked on our journey to the chaccu, the ascent into the Peruvian Andes delivered views of a landscape so spectacular, that it truly has to be seen to be believed. A real treat for the senses, with both herds of vicuña and alpaca being visible as we drove. Despite this, however, the views weren’t the only thing that was breathtaking; unfortunately the increase in altitude, also brought the onset of dizziness and laboured breathing, something that we had been given to expect.

Despite the altitudinal impact, however, as we arrived at our destination in the Natural Reserve of Salinas and Aguada Blanca, adrenaline kicked in and as we disembarked the coach and assembled, we weren’t about to let the small matter of being unable to breathe hold us back!

During the Chaccu, we joined the indigenous people in corralling the vicuña and guiding them into a series of enclosures, where they would wait to be sheared. Before the shearing commenced however, we had the further privilege of engaging in the ‘Pagapu’, an ancient ceremony of giving thanks to the ‘Pachamama’ or Mother Earth and the Andean gods for protecting their animals.

The ceremony involved both an offering being made to the gods as well as a symbolic marriage ceremony being exercised over a male and two female vicuña as a means of securing the future virility and fertility of the herd.

Following the ceremonial thanks-giving, the animals were checked over by members of the community and then, one by one, those carrying an adequate amount of fleece (usually two year’s growth), had their precious fibre harvested, before being released back into the wild, where they’ll remain until future Chaccus.

Having spent the day 4,000 meters above sea level, our descent and return to the city of Araquipa allowed for a much welcome rest and period of reflection and recuperation, in preparation for the days ahead.

Moving on from our sacred experience and in keeping with the fibre trail, our trip also involved a guided tour of both the Michell and Pacamarca fibre factories and processing plants, where Elaine and I got a real insight into the processes of sorting, scouring, carding, combing, spinning, dyeing, weaving and finishing of the products and garments. It was truly amazing to see these processes being conducted on such a huge scale and volume; a true testament to the value and demand of this high-end fibre.

The versatility and esteem of alpaca as a fibre, was further showcased at a series of outstanding fashion shows that we had the opportunity to attend. These shows included an exhibition of ‘Young talents’; showcasing creative designs from students attending the most prestigious design and fashion schools in Paris, New York and Beijing, as well as, shows presenting ‘new brands’; featuring innovative collections of Peruvian brands, presented for the first time on the Alpaca Fiesta catwalk and those showcasing ‘consecrated brands’; including the most internationally renowned designers and Peruvian brands, known in the world of fashion. 

Now, for those of you who know me personally, and for those of you following the blog, you’ll know that whilst I enjoy all aspects of the industry, my true passion lies with the animal in itself and in particular the art of showing and judging.

Set against the iconic volcanic backdrop of Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu, the Fiesta showgrounds did not disappoint and whilst it sounds clichéd, there really was something for everyone. Large halls were filled with trade stands representing all aspects of the industry including local representation on behalf of the various Peruvian districts and communities.

Even the halter show area itself was quite spectacular, with two spacious rings, a large digital screen and a huge canopy to shade everyone from the sun. On the first day of judging, the exhibitors gathered and as the first classes were called, I had the absolute honour of being able to shadow one of the judges in the ring. “What class would you like to experience?” asked the compare José. For me, making a choice like that was never going to be easy, but with no time for deliberations, my answer was quick…“the SURIS!” and without further ado, I joined judge Dr Rito Huayata in the ring.

For me, this experience stands out as one of the true highlights of the trip and offered such an invaluable insight into both the standard of the national herd as well as the system of judging in Peru.

As the days went by and with each new experience, our Peruvian trip certainly lived up to expectation! We indulged ourselves in ‘once in a life time’ events, made friends and contacts from all over the globe and came home with feeling enthused and invigorated about the industry we love.