I’m on the phone with Xandria Williams of Alpacas of Ireland, and I’m delighted about it.
“Tell me everything, really! I’ve never met an alpaca. Are they as much fun as they look?”
“More! Double the fun, at least.”
Well, that’s me sold, but we have plenty of time so I guess I’ll find out more. She tells me she never planned to farm, but inherited the land, a 20 acre smallholding in Kildare from a dear old aunt, along with cats, dogs, sheep and donkeys, and decided to put it to good use.
“I was taking care of my aunt and staying with her weekends. When both my aunt and uncle passed away, I started smallholding the 20 acres. I saw the alpacas in a smallholder magazine and thought they looked cute! I decided on two, and then the foot and mouth was on at the time so I had to import them from Canada, rather than the UK. And for the same reason, when an alpaca farm in France was going out of business they couldn’t sell to the UK. So I took them, forty of them!
"They persuaded me there would be no hard work. And there isn’t! They are a joy. In half an hour, I’ve fed them all. There’s nothing to do! Standing in my doorway looking out at the paddocks, there are about fifteen stud males just milling about in front of the house, grazing, giving themselves a scratch...”
“What a lovely way of farming life,” I say. It seems so dreamy. There must be a catch. “Since they’re a niche animal, there must be some specialist care or husbandry practice?”
“Nothing! Alpacas you don’t have to dip like sheep, they don’t get worms, they’re very clean. The most you have to do with alpacas is shearing, once a year – the fleece is hair so it’s very fine and silky. There’s a possibility the teeth might grow out too far, the shearer just files them back. There’s no hoof trouble, they have pads on their feet like paws.”
I can’t help it, I start laughing. Pads like paws! At the ends of their little poodle legs, below the little goat body under the 90’s crimp coat, giraffe neck, foofball fringe, gorgeous little weird Falkor head!
“It’s just hard to believe nobody made this animal up,” I say.
“They are a bit unbelievable,” Xandria agrees. “I can put half a dozen stud males in one pen, and another male with a female right next door, for mating. And they all remain perfectly calm and relaxed. Now! Bulls or rams, it would be impossible. And I can walk in, put an arm around the neck of one, and just lead them wherever I want them to go. Alpacas use their necks when they run, for balance. So if you just put your arm around one’s neck, they can’t really move very fast.
"They’re extremely easy to manage. Alpacas have no urge to break out. I’ve had a farmer say to me, that fence wouldn’t keep sheep in. But they would rather be in the centre of the field so they can run in any direction. Also they winter out, the fleece is three inches deep so they are perfectly happy. In Peru, the winter temperatures can drop as low as 30 degrees below, so even an Irish snowfall is nothing.”
Alpacas, because they are the perfect animal, are only aggressive when protecting something smaller than them, from something treacherous. Xandria tells me about a local sheep farmer who’d been losing around 2,000 euro per year in lambs. He bought two alpacas to run with the flock (“You need a pair for company”) and hasn’t lost a single lamb in ten years. Isn’t that some turnaround?
There’s a farm shop on site, I remember, and some of the adult animals themselves are for sale. Alpacas are two products, Xandria says.
“In Peru they use the brown ones for meat and only the white ones for wool. But here of course there is no need, and they’re too valuable! You can sell the offspring and you can sell the fleece. We are primarily breeders, we breed and sell them, it puts the land to good use. Also yes, we do have a farm shop where you can buy wool and some rather shapeless waistcoats I made.”
“You made them yourself?!”
“Yes, of course.”
Xandria Williams is Dr. Xandria Williams, author, therapist, lecturer, and naturopath with a rake of letters after her name. Her Kildare farm is also run as a retreat for cancer patients, and I’ve just learned she hand-makes the knitwear. Given what I know about this lady’s industrious nature, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Of course she does, in front of the telly, she tells me, winter weekend evenings. The rest of the week she runs a London clinic. I think I see the appeal of an alpaca farm – for balance.
Right, ready for the answer to that hay bale riddle? I guessed maybe fifty. As it turned out, I was not ready for the answer.
“Per 100 alpacas, I would buy 240 bales. And that’s thinking of spillage, wastage, accounting for loss of some hay. And it was always enough. In the Andes, they live at 14,000 feet. For three months of the year, they have some grazing. But for nine months, almost nothing. The problems we have here from slurry, nitrates from urine – none of that with Alpacas. They harvest a lot of that extra nitrogen, their saliva works on it and bacteria in the gut make it into a protein.”
Unreal, right? The efficiency of that! The elusive catch then, might, just might, be the price tag, predictably enough. But there it is again – balance. On balance, alpaca farming works – say you bought a shiny new car for a lot of money, but it can make its own fuel, I would say that works out quite well for you in the long term.
According to Xandria, the market is increasing, and there has been a big upsurge of interest in the past year.
“A top quality Peruvian alpaca I would have bought in new for 15,000 pounds, that’s Irish pounds in 2001, is now selling for 2,000 euro, with cria [offspring]. People use them to add interest to a B&B, add a curiosity to a pet farm… all kinds of things. They’re not classed as livestock, there’s no herd number or anything like that, there are no regulations, they’re considered pets. From my point of view, it makes it easy.”
The living sure is easy in alpaca farming, but falling in love with an alpaca, and I’m literally in love with Lulu here – is a bit like that painful teenage crush on the frontman of some band, distant and dreamy forever. At least they’re out there somewhere, in some gorgeous twilight place between the everyday, and unicorns… just outside Kinnegad.