ALPACAS IN THE KAROO

Breeding alpacas in the Karoo? Yes, far from their home in the lofty Andes of South America, they have adapted well. In Peru, many millions are bred way above the snowline for their fabulous fleece, which, dyed and exported is major foreign exchange earner. In South Africa there are a few thousand in small flocks kept mostly for their beautiful fibre which is spun or felted in many cottage-industries. Their beauty and calm temperaments with people make them popular as pets; whilst many live as guards with herds of sheep and goats, as they viciously attack jackal and rooikat.
I bought my first pregnant females in 2004, after a visit to Peru with breeders from the USA, UK and Australia. We saw huge herds roaming the Altiplano, where they ‘run wild’. The herds are mostly unmanaged, and generally the animals are only gathered annually for shearing; but some estancias are now breeding them carefully to improve the quality and quantity of their already luxuriant fleece. The best animals compete in prestigious shows, competitions hotly contested by their fiery tempered owners.
There are two types of alpacas: Huacaya and Suri. The latter have dreadlocks, and are rare in RSA, where most are the rather ‘poodle-like’ Huacaya. I keep about twenty of these in varying colours: white, black, and shades of fawn. There are officially over twenty different colour categories of alp
Alpaca fibre is free of lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic, and it has a different structure to sheeps’ wool, or goat hair. Alpaca has much better thermal qualities than either sheeps’ wool, or mohair; it is also famously durable. It spins beautifully into ultra soft, prickle-free yarn and it is non–itchy when worn against the skin. It also felts easily, and the different natural colours lend it a versatility not found in other natural, un-dyed fibres. It has been successfully blended with a wide range of other fibres such as silk, cotton, lambs’ wool and mohair to produce exciting and versatile yarn and felt. I have no personal experience of dying the fibre, but most Peruvian alpacas are white, and the fibre, after grading, is dyed according to International fashion-house requirements, and then exported.
I shear between two and three kg of fibre per adult animal annually, of which about half, the ‘blanket’, (taken from the saddle area), has the smallest micron and lowest hair contamination, and good crimp. This is best for spinning or felting into clothing. The belly and leg wool has a higher percentage of coarser fibres and guard hairs; it spins well into carpet-grade yarn, felts, and also can be made into batts for duvet fillers.
Microns vary from about 16 – 20 in young animals, up to 30-32 in older ones. The staple is longer in youngsters, 150mm; but progressively shortens to about 60mm as the animals age. Alpacas breed annually, a noisy and
prolonged affair, and single babies, cria, are born after eleven and a half months gestation. I sell my excess stock to sheep farmers all over the republic; and many to small-holders, B&B owners and ‘petting farms’.
Alpacas remain expensive to buy; weanlings start from about six thousand rand, bred females from twenty five thousand - and stud males are even more costly. I have three males who yield twice the quantity of fibre compared to unimproved females; even so it will be many years before I recoup my investment! Currently my main income is from the sale of animals, and stud fees from my boys; gradually I want to extend my earnings into the sale of fibre; both raw and processed. Alpaca fibre is expensive compared to most others – perhaps with the exception of Angora rabbit fibre, but the luxuriant, high quality products are in a class of their own!
My farm is called Baviaanskranz, and is close to Montagu on the Ouberg Pass road. We run it organically, and rely solely on wind and solar power. The flock is registered as Harmonie Alpacas, and my web site is www.harmoniealpacas.co.za. Spinners and weavers are welcome to visit; phone me first on 072 684 5855.