There’s sometimes an inverted snobbery among livestock farmers when they see animals that are a little different to the norm. Pigs, sheep, cattle and poultry are all considered acceptable but anything else tends to raise an eyebrow.
Alpacas were first introduced to the UK in the mid-late 80s and although they are occasionally used for meat their predominant purpose is for their fleece which is ideal for sweaters, blankets, hats and scarves. Interest has grown and the number of registered alpacas now stands at 35,000, and there are 1,400 members of the British Alpaca Society.
Some herds are as large as 700 and an increasing number of alpaca farmers make them their business priority.
The Yorkshire Alpaca Show takes place today at Thirsk Livestock Centre.
Show organiser and alpaca breeder Tina Metcalfe, of Moss Carr Lodge, just outside the village of Moss near Doncaster, owns 15 acres and rents a further four. She started with alpacas following a freak accident that ended her days in the saddle. She spent years riding out with the Badsworth Hunt before it happened.
“When I went into alpacas in November 2007 I bought six females all with top class pedigrees. I now have a herd of between 28-35 and it is my sole business.
“One of my markets is to sell to other breeders. The top price I’ve received so far was when I sold my stud male MCL Majestic for £10,000. I enjoy breeding good stock and it provides me with a lifestyle that myself and Steve my partner wouldn’t want to be without.
“Like other animals the better bred the alpaca the better quality of fleece you will get and the better result when you sell. White alpaca fleeces sell for £8-£12 per kg and coloureds sell between £5-£8 per kg dependent on the quality of the animal.
“The aim of showing them is to promote the breeding of alpacas with correct conformation that will live between 15-20 years and that will continue producing a dense fleece.
“The Yorkshire show is a short fleece show, that’s not because our alpacas don’t produce a dense fleece up here it’s just that alpacas are shorn in May and June so they haven’t the same quantity as when they attend the national show, which will be held at the International Centre in Telford in March when I will hope to have a good team competing.
“We have around 85 entries this Saturday in a number of classes for whites and coloureds amongst the two main breeds of Suri and Huacaya (pronounced Wakaya). Judging is based on 60 per cent fleece and 40 per cent conformation. We also have several new competitors with people coming from as far as Norfolk, Nottingham and Lancashire.”
As Tina is show organiser she won’t be taking her whole team to Thirsk. She’s taking two intermediate boys, one white and one black. She’s not getting her own hopes up too much as she’s more concerned with the day going well. She says the supreme champion at many shows is usually a white alpaca.
“The white fleece is always worth more because you can do more with it. You can dye it to different colours, which is more difficult with those fleeces that are already coloured.”
Alpacas are now finding new markets other than for their fleeces and Tina believes this is another way forward.
“This year I’ve sold three girls to Hertfordshire and another three to Grantham. Both the ladies they went to are involved in equine therapy and are using alpacas in a newer form of alpaca therapy for people, creating bonds between people and animals.
“Alpacas are great for people and horses, my own old grey horse has always been a bit neurotic but with three alpaca boys near her she’s the most relaxed she has ever been.
“They are also great at guarding chickens and sheep. That’s because they hate foxes. It has been proven that by keeping them in small groups of pairs or trios they will keep foxes away from the farm.”
The general public still can’t seemingly understand what they’re looking at sometimes when Tina shows them at events.
“We have children and adults coming up to us asking whether it’s a small giraffe! And even more amazing was when someone said is it a large rabbit!”
Tina was a farmer’s wife for many years and has a son Mark and daughter Victoria. She now has two grandchildren Belle and Bonnie and likes nothing better than walking around her herd with Belle.
Tina’s father Ross was a seed potato merchant and a successful point-to-point jockey. She clearly inherited his love of riding and would have still been doing it today if she hadn’t shattered her pelvis in 1986 and then suffered a leg injury nine years ago but breeding alpacas has filled the gap.
“It took me a year to walk properly again after the accident in 2005. I’d had so much fun end enjoyment from hunting and team chasing over the years but I couldn’t risk riding again now.
“I still go to Wetherby Races to get my fix these days but your priorities change. The alpacas now provide Steve and I with a wonderful way of life here.
“We love where we live and we’re looking forward to a great show on Saturday.”