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.

This time of year is always an emotional one; a time when your heartstrings are tugged and your will to ‘do the right thing’ is taxed to its capacity. Yes, it’s weaning time, an exercise that no one relishes or looks forward to, but an essential part of the ‘circle of life’ here at Amberly.

This year we had 12 cria (baby alpacas) born on the farm. Nine were huacaya and 3 were suri, with a ratio of 6 boys to 6 girls, in a range of colours. Despite the wet summer, they have all grown well, this being confirmed by a set of healthy weights as we moved the babes away from their dams and into their own paddocks, next to our house.

As you can imagine, it’s quite a traumatic experience and so we like to keep the weanlings close to the house where we can look out on them directly and where they are out of sight and sound of their dams. The first 24 hours can be a noisy one, as the cria vocalise to each other and cry for their mums. This is where the will of steel comes in! No matter how hard it is, you must follow through and after a few days, they soon settle down and get into a new routine.

Weaning time is also the perfect opportunity to have a good rummage through the cria fleeces and to make initial assessments in relation to their potential quality and how they’ve grown. This year we did a bit of an experiment and decided to shear some of the cria at 4 weeks of age. Cria shearing is rather a contentious issue and has both its supporters as well as those who thoroughly disapprove of the practice.

For us, the only reason for trialling it was that by shearing the first fleece, you remove the little hooks on the end of the fibre and so, reduce the animals’ potential to gather everything but the kitchen sink in their fleece! In other words, the first fleece should essentially be cleaner and yield a greater volume of useable fibre.

I have to say for the most part, this has been the case. All of the cria shorn weaners (as they are affectionately known) have very clean fleeces, and we look forward to seeing how they come off at shearing time later in the year.

Now out of all of the cria that were born with us last summer, one holds a particularly special place in our hearts (I know, I know, you shouldn’t have favourites). Meet Amberly Reckless Behaviour or RB to you and me. RB was born to one of our best dams; Honeyfield Cassandra in July 2017. As soon as he hit the ground he just exuded arrogance and charm. He had absolutely no fear and just took ownership of the paddock as if to say ‘I’ve arrived’, hence his name.

Following his birth however, we began to realise that his mother was struggling with her weight and so, carried out the necessary health checks and increased her level of supplementation to help her through. Unfortunately, this had no significant impact and following a long battle, involving every conceivable avenue of medical intervention, we had to have Cassandra humanly put to sleep. RB was only two months of age.

A very difficult time ensued however, the results of the post mortem revealed that Cassandra had actually had a huge abscess on her liver and that following its eruption, what healthy liver was left, was unable to sustain her life. This at least gave us some level of comfort, firstly that we had made the right call in having her euthanised and secondly that there was absolutely nothing we could have done to save her life.

As a consequence of this, at two months of age, we became RB’s parents and the regular bottle feeds began!

For the most part, this sounds straightforward and you might be thinking ‘what’s the big deal?’, but bottle feeding cria isn’t quite as simple as it seems and in fact, unless carefully done, there is a huge potential for the animals to present as troublesome and dangerous when they’re fully grown. With bottle-fed alpacas, and in particular males, if heavy imprinting is allowed, this can manifest itself as what is often referred to as berserk male syndrome, where they become extremely overbearing as adults and a potential danger to their owners. With all of this in mind and as hard as it was, we resisted the cuddles and managed to raise little RB so that his future was secure. He is now weaned with the others and shows the typical signs of submission, which is quite a relief.

As well as all of the usual ‘on farm’ shenanigans, Spring is also the time when we look forward to our annual trip to the British Alpaca Society’s (BAS) National Show in England. The BAS National Show is the largest show in Europe and kicks off the showing season with both halter and fleece classes, as well as a judged showcase of all things made from alpaca fibre. This year, we entered some of our fleeces and were delighted to receive a second and third place in the respective classes.

Similarly however, and thanks to Gary and Felicia from Popham Alpacas in Cornwall, we were able to enter two of our white females into the halter class. With over 50 entries in the junior white female class alone, this year, the white entries were at an all-time high and so you can imagine our elation when we won a first place with our junior white female and a first place with our intermediate white female. It really was celebrations all round!

With such a successful start to the showing season, we look forward to what the rest of the season has in store! In Ireland this year, there are three main showing events to look forward to. The first is the Alpaca Association of Ireland’s National Show on 22 April in Mullingar Equestrian Centre, the second is the Northern Ireland Alpaca Group’s Annual Show as part of Armagh Agricultural Show on 9th June and the third is the first ever ‘All Ireland’ Fleece Show, as part of Tullamore Agricultural Show on 12th August.

Unfortunately, we will only be able to show animals at the Northern Ireland Alpaca Group’s Annual Show on 9th June and fleeces at the all Ireland Fleece Show, on 12th August. We will however, be at the Alpaca Association of Ireland’s National Show on 22 April, as I will helping out as ring steward and my wife Elaine will be carrying out fleece skirting demonstrations to help people prepare their fleeces for both processing and for the fleece show.

If you are out and about at any of these events, please come and say hello and in the meantime, it’s back to the wellies, wheelbarrows and dreams of sunshine and the long summer evenings! Oh and of course, the arrival of this year’s cria, including those sired by our new stud male Popham Kane of Amberly! Always wishing our lives away!