Extraordinary woodland walks with llamas in Nidderdale

Suzanne Benson in the pen with some of her llamas, perfect walking companions. Pictures: Gary Longbottom
Suzanne Benson in the pen with some of her llamas, perfect walking companions. Pictures: Gary Longbottom
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SPEED DATING may be a relatively new concept but at Kiln Farm in Wilsill near Pateley Bridge they’ve taken it to a whole new level. Here they do it with llamas.

Suzanne Benson runs Nidderdale Llamas from the family farm where sheep and cattle provide the primary income, but where her 21-strong herd is now a full-time trekking tourism business.

Walking alongside llamas in the countryside may seem bizarre but the public have lapped it up. The business has been No.1 on Trip Advisor for Harrogate for each of the past three years.

“The speed dating is how those who come here in parties get matched to the right llama and is often hilarious as it’s the llamas that effectively choose who they’re going to walk with rather than the other way round,” says Suzanne.

“They all have their own individual personalities and their expressions are how they interact. The more time spent with them the more bonded our visitors become. It’s proving very popular with animal-loving brides-to-be for hen parties, for 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays and holidaymakers. Our main market is now adults.”

Suzanne explains why she has set limits on the ages of children trekking.

“We originally welcomed young families but found that wasn’t the way to go. These days every visit is pre-booked too.

“Llamas are not petting animals. They’re sensitive creatures that don’t like fast movements as it can cause them to worry and back off. So we now focus on older children, teenagers and more predominantly adults who will get more value for money from their experience. It seems to be working.”

It’s been a mental trek for Suzanne over the past 13 years since she and husband James bought the then 30-acre Kiln Farm in 2002, bringing their sheep flock with them that they’d previously run on rented land. They set about getting the farm in order while bringing up three sons – William, 24, Ben, 17, and Callum, 12, while Suzanne worked in Leeds until six years ago and as James was going through some tricky moments health-wise. Their first llama arrived at Kiln Farm in 2003. It hadn’t been planned.

“James and I had gone to a horse sale as I was desperate to get back into them having ridden since I was a child. While we were there James said ‘why don’t we have a llama?’ as there were two in the sale. I asked what we were going to do with one, but we bought one anyway.”

The purchase set Suzanne’s brain ticking. She visited what was then Yorkshire’s only llama trekking centre, in Staintondale, run by Ruth and Bruce Wright, and learned that she needed a second llama as they are herd animals. She could only find a pair, a breeding pair from Sheffield. They came to Kiln Farm with a cria - a baby llama - at foot.

“We had four llamas quite quickly and in the end we were soon breeding, all for no apparent reason, but having visited Bruce, having become a member of the British Llama Society and having talked with other owners I had a gut instinct that llama trekking would work up here.”

Suzanne had just decided to set up the trekking part-time when she was made redundant from her managerial job at a Leeds housing trust.

“I was half-pleased as it made me go into this whole heartedly and half-worried because of the fear of the unknown, but I’d researched routes using bridleways and footpaths, I’d contacted local caterers as I wanted to offer food on the trekking days and I’d had a lot of good feedback from the local community, as well as a little grant from Nidderdale AONB.”

One thing Suzanne had also found out was that the llamas she had were not trekking llamas.

“We’d found out through our visits to other trekking centres that the ones we had couldn’t be trained to trek, so we invested in trekking llamas. We also found that male llamas are better to trek with than females, which are a bit more hormonal and independent. As luck would have it after having had all female llamas born up until 2008 we then had our first male cria llama.”

Today Suzanne has 11 trekking llamas out of her herd of 21. There are six breeding females and one stud male.

Animals for all occasions

Nidderdale Llamas are also used at weddings where they walk down the aisle behind the bride and groom bearing the ring; and on Christmas Eve at Ripley Church they follow the wise men as part of the nativity.

Treks often see the llamas carrying flasks of tea and coffee as well as picnics, and champagne for hen parties and special occasions. The llamas themselves feed off grass and hay with a mineral supplement in the autumn and winter.

Kiln Farm’s livestock headage runs to 150 breeding ewes and a suckler herd of 40 cows. James grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Darley. Suzanne grew up in the same village.