Breeding Quality Alpacas In Ayrshire
By Gill Sherry
When Angela Mitchell attended an agricultural show with her husband, Ian, she expected him to purchase a tractor. What she didn’t expect was to end up with four alpacas.
“We went to the Westmorland Show in England,” she tells me, recalling that life-changing day. “It was just a wee day out. When I saw the alpacas, I sat there all day.”
Previously a sheep farmer, Angela had decided she no longer wanted to keep animals that would need to be slaughtered. Fast forward eight years and she now has 61 Huacaya alpacas.
Having met the herd at the family farm, I can understand why she was so taken with these charming animals. They look almost comical with their long necks, wide eyes and buck teeth but they’re obviously full of character and I, too, found it hard to walk away.
“They’re just calming,” Angela says, when I ask what she loves about them. “And relaxing. If I’m stressed I go out into the fields with my book and just sit there with them.”
Today, the alpacas are in the barn. Apparently they’re not very fond of the rain and will head indoors when the first spots start to appear.
“They don’t like the rain,” Angela’s daughter (also called Angela) says of their personality, “but they’re nice and friendly.”
After much debate, we decide to call mum Angela and daughter Ange, otherwise this could get very confusing! Thankfully, none of the herd are called Angela, although I did raise my eyebrows at some of the names: Lewis Capaldi, Stevie G, Drumnadrochit and La Di Da.
“La Di Da thinks she’s human,” Ange tells me. “She comes up to you and cuddles in.”
“They’re inquisitive,” continues Angela. “They like to be nosy. And one always stays awake to watch out for the rest of the herd. They also hide illness. We’re told this is because they think the weakest of them would get preyed upon in the wild.”
It sounds like something from a David Attenborough documentary but, as Angela points out, the alpacas don’t know they’re not at risk from predators but, rather, safe and sound on a farm in Ayrshire.
The animals are weighed regularly to ensure they’re not losing weight. This, apparently, is an indication that something could be wrong.
“We have our own microscope as well. We pick up their poo and if there’s any parasites we treat the full herd.”
She’s certainly committed to breeding quality animals, working with genetics to achieve the best possible results. And it’s clear the welfare of the herd is her top priority. Although alpacas can give birth at any time of the year, Angela breeds them so the babies (known as cria) are born in May, June or July. This is to ensure their fleece is thick enough to keep them warm in the colder winter months.
Surprisingly, the fleece is not currently in high demand despite the fact, Angela believes, that it’s just as good as cashmere.
“We just bag it all,” she tells me, “and put their names on it. We keep the ones we want to show because you can show the fleece as well.”
The family is particularly proud of its herd and Ian regularly shows a team of alpacas.
“What the judges are looking for,” Angela explains, “is uniformity and density, fineness of crimp and colour throughout the fleece, brightness and good staple length. It’s usually 60% fleece and 40% conformation which is body shape, head type… they’ll look down their neck, down their legs, at their back… check their teeth, ears and how they walk. And they check to see that males have got all their wee bits and pieces!”
Unlike other animals, alpacas are shown in what’s known as their ‘paddock state’. In other words, their fleece must be natural and not ‘dressed’ for the show.
On the subject of fleece, Ange shares the story of their shearing routine.
“A guy, Nigel, comes over from New Zealand and does thousands of alpacas in the UK. He goes from alpaca farm to alpaca farm, then goes home and starts shearing in New Zealand and Australia too. Then does it all again the next year.”
That’s a long way to come to shear a few alpacas!
“My dad tried to do it,” she says, smiling, “but it wasn’t very successful.”
What is successful, though, is the trekking side of the business which is handled by Ange.
“We do half-hour treks as well as hour-long visits where the kids can take pictures, get cuddles and feed them. We’ve got a new trekking team but they’re not trained yet. Once they’re weaned off their mums, that’s when we start training them. And we’re going to try something different with them… agility training. So we’ll see how that goes!”
Ange also takes the animals to nursing homes, hospices, schools and galas.
“I took them up to Robert Burns Academy during the summer… and we did a gala day for charity.
Drongan Primary School are going to come up and learn all about them. We’ve also got three alpacas at Whiteleys Retreat.”
It’s been proved that animals can improve wellbeing and mental health and this is something Ange is keen to embrace, in addition to the obvious educational benefits involved. I ask if alpacas make good pets.
“We do sell pets,” her mum confirms. “Pets are in quite high demand.”
“We wouldn’t sell one though,” Ange interjects. “We’d need to sell at least three.”
Alpacas are herding animals and a single animal would be lonely, often leading to health issues. They are fairly easy to keep, though, grazing on short pasture supplemented with hay. But the family is very careful who it sells to, as Angela explains:
“We go and check the places out before we actually sell and we ask them to come here to learn all about them. We don’t just sell them and that’s it, we still keep in touch.”
Although it was Angela who first fell in love with alpacas, her husband is also passionate about the animals. So much so, he’s actually training to be a judge. And, by Angela’s own admission, he does most of the hard work on the farm. But it’s obvious their daughter is equally smitten.
“Eventually, I’m going to be taking over completely,” she says. “But Mum will still do the birthing and my dad will always do the shows. I’ll stick to doing the visits and treks and all that kind of stuff.”
That kind of stuff includes birthday parties and weddings where the guests can mix and mingle with the alpacas.
“They get to wear their wee bow ties and their wee veils and get to meet the guests and have their photos taken.”
Well, that’s certainly a novel idea!
If you’d like to invite the alpacas to your own wedding or have any other enquiries, contact Ange via the Hannahston Alpacas Facebook page or via Instagram @alpacas_of_scotland.