Alpacas increasing, sheep and goats beware

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116361804232462.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘A shorn alpaca does not seem to be the least bit embarrassed.’);

The number of alpaca ranches or farms in the United States seems to be increasing exponentially. At latest count, there were at least 13 such enterprises in Illinois where alpacas are raised, with three of them being in the northeastern part of the state. The first carefully selected alpacas were brought into the United States and Canada in 1984 and represented the cream of the South American gene pool.

Since ancient times, the alpaca has been a prized animal of the Andes Mountains of South America, where their wool was highly prized by the Incans, who referred to it as “The Fiber of the Gods.” Peru, Bolivia, and Chile still possess the largest populations of alpacas in the world and American alpaca ranchers have learned a great deal from their South American neighbors.

In the 1600s, Spanish conquistadores killed a large portion of the alpacan population (as well as the Incan people) forcing the remaining animals to take refuge in the high mountain plains known as the Altiplano. One Spanish nobleman wrote at the time that the meat of the alpaca and its cousin, the llama, “was as good as the finest mutton I have ever tasted.” In this new, harsh environment, natural selection came quickly into play and eliminated the weak and selected the hardiest and best suited to survive. Out of this process, the ancestors of today’s best bloodlines were formed, producing animals that are hardy, agile, and with an abundance of high-quality wool. In the cold of the mountain plains, animals whose wool was longer and thicker had an advantage over those whose coats were not quite so thick, and they were selected by the environment to give rise to the succeeding generations.

Alpacas belong to the camelid family, which includes dromedary and Bactrian camels, llamas, vicuñas, and guanacos. The llama resembles the alpaca more than the others, but the gentle alpaca has none of the llama’s bad habits. Llamas are used as pack animals in the Andes, each being capable of carrying up to 100 pounds. If, however, a pack llama gets tired, it will hunker down on the ground to rest, and no amount of persuasion can get it up and going until it is ready to move. Natives of the region sometimes ride llamas, but if, for some reason, an animal takes a disliking to the rider, it will turn its head and spit right into his face.

The vicuña is a much smaller animal that produces a fine fleece that is used to make expensive coats and stoles. Many older Americans may remember the scandal caused by an infamous vicuña coat that was given to a top aide of a 1950s president by a lobbyist. The president had declared his administration was “as clean as a hound’s tooth.”

Alpacas are modified ruminants and chew their cud as does a cow, but whereas a true ruminant has four stomachs, the alpaca has only three. They feed selectively on pasture grasses and hay, which makes raising them inexpensive. Mineral supplements are frequently added to their diet by knowledgeable breeders.

There are two different varieties or subspecies of alpacas: the suri and the huacaya. The suri produces fiber that grows very long and forms silky-like tresses. The hair of the huacaya has a wooly appearance as it is short, dense and crimpy. Each of these types has a long life span of from 15-20 years, providing about 5-10 pounds of fleece each year. They produce fleece every year they live, making an investment in an alpaca ranch a constant money producer. Alpacas are rather small (about 36 inches) and gentle enough to be moved short distances in a minivan, and they seem to have a definite affection for humans. They have soft padded feet that do little or no damage to pastures.

I remember arriving years ago at the Port of Aerial Embarkation for Alaska at the USAF base at Great Falls, Mont. I was issued a parka that had an alpaca fiber lining, and this garment served me well during my stay in what was then the Alaska Territory. I have always been grateful to some alpaca, somewhere, that supplied the fiber for my light-weight and extremely warm garment.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Nov. 15-21, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!