Alpaca couple reap rewards of thinking with their feet

Socking it to those who attend next weekend's Countryside Live will be alpaca breeders Janet and Gary Brown who are making their debut at the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate. That's because the business they are developing alongside the breeding potential of their Clifton Alpacas, based at the 15-acre Fields View Farm in Clifton near Rotherham, is into selling socks.

Janet Brown will be showing her alpacas, and the socks made from their wool, at this months Countryside Live. Pictures: Scott Merrylees

“This is our third year of selling them,” says Janet. “When we went into alpacas we looked into whether there was a market for the fleeces. We asked other breeders what they did and found that there are a number that don’t do anything.

“We decided to try and make something that everyone can afford and we now sell over 300 pairs a year. They are wonderful walking socks with a cushioned heel. Our fleeces go off to The Natural Fibre Company in Devon and the yarn is then dyed and sent to our sock maker in Lincolnshire. The socks now form around 25 per cent of our farm income.”

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The couple will have a myriad of different colour socks with them at Countryside Live including some from their small sheep flock of Shetland X Texel, but it is the show itself that they are looking forward to with great excitement.

“The Yorkshire Alpaca Group annual autumn show and sale has been held at Thirsk Livestock Market up until now as a separate event, but bringing it in to Countryside Live will bring us even more reach to the public and will attract even more breeders.

“Saturday will be the serious show business when all prizes will be won, but we’re looking forward to the Sunday activities too when we will involve everyone with the alpacas through walking with them, fancy dress and getting to know them. They really do have such a gentle nature and contrary to popular belief they don’t spit at people.”

Janet’s love of alpacas came while Gary was looking for a tractor online. What followed was a sequence of events that now sees them with a herd of 47 Suri and Huacaya alpacas.

“I’m practice manager for two doctors’ surgeries and Gary had been working in the steelworks before being made redundant earlier this year. Neither of us have any type of agricultural background, but I have always liked horses, have ridden a lot of endurance rides and had become involved with Riding for the Disabled in 1982 when my niece was very young and we found horse riding was very good for people with learning disabilities.

“I bought my own horse in 2000 and that’s when we started looking for land. We only wanted a couple of acres but even that was difficult to find and then this came up in 2007. We bought the 15 acres and had to sell our house in Bramley near the M18 to pay for it. So we had land, no house and one horse. We rented in Maltby for a while before eventually buying a lovely cottage in Micklebring two years later.

“Gary was looking for a tractor so he could cut the grass. As he scrolled down I saw the alpacas. There was a herd for sale in Cambridge. I had no idea what they were, but I had fallen in love with them and asked Gary whether we could go down and take a look.

“We bought the herd of eight, with some of them pregnant, even though I didn’t know a thing about the animals at all. Looking back now I know they were in poor health but I just felt there was something about them. They were all Suris. At that point I didn’t even know there were two main breeds.”

Looking for help back home Janet turned to the Yorkshire Alpaca Group.

“Fortunately we made contact with Tina Metcalfe who has a herd not too far from us at Moss near Doncaster. She gave us loads of information, got us involved in the group and that led to us starting our showing career three years ago.

“I didn’t want to show our alpacas straight away in 2009 and I resisted until I felt we had something good enough. I didn’t want to be sent away with a flea in my ear with people saying your stock was not good enough to be here, but at the first show we also won our first rosette.”

Janet had stuck with Suri alpacas until the sock business started. She now has Huacaya alpacas too and shows both breeds. She’s had success with both already this year.

“When we sent our first batch of fleeces off to Devon we found that the Suri fleece wouldn’t process properly. It was too silky and wouldn’t card. That brought about our first purchase of Huacayas and we’ve now discovered that a blend of the two breeds works best for the socks with the bulk of the Huacaya and the silkiness of the Suri.”

While Suris are what Janet is best known for she is finding her Huacayas are now just as sought after.

“We bought 11 girls in this year to bring our breeding herd of females up to 31. We had kept hold of some of the boys because we needed their fleeces for the sock business but we now have enough girls so that we can sell the boys.

“We’ve had an exceptional year with many firsts and a championship. At Countryside Live we will be showing: Hannah, a black and white Suri who will be in the Fancy class; Ebony a black Huacaya; and Imani a fawn Huacaya. We hope they do well, but what is really great about alpacas is the camaraderie between all the breeders. We all get on and it will be a pleasure to be part of Countryside Live.”