Librarian aiming to leave shelf life behind

Farmer’s daughter Jacki Barlow is waiting to hear if her plan to return to the countryside with alpacas has succeeded. Chris Berry reports.

Jacki Barlow is on tenterhooks. This week she reached the end of her initial three-year tenure living at Suncliffe Beacon Farm in Husthwaite where her alpaca stud has become a success both financially and as an additional tourist atttraction.

“I purchased 20 acres in 2007 but I didn’t start with the alpacas until I knew I could live here. You can keep male alpacas if you’re not around all the time as they are fairly easy to look after, but breeding females need a great deal of attention. You need to be on hand with them.”

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Hambleton District Council turned down Jacki’s initial application to live on the land five years ago, which led to her renting a property in Coxwold for a short time, but they relented on appeal. Jacki was then granted permission to put a timber portable home at Suncliffe Beacon with the stipulation that she had to make an agricultural living in the three years from 24 October 2009.

“That’s what I have done,’ says Jacki, who previously drove and ran the mobile library from Easingwold to Selby and throughout the Hambleton district every week until its disbandment three years ago.

“It’s all a bit daunting. No-one has been out to see me and I’m just hoping it’s going to be the right result. I’d be devastated if it wasn’t.

“I’m a farmer’s daughter. I grew up on a rented mixed arable and beef cattle farm in Gildersome. My father was also one of the Yorkshire rhubarb growers in the Rhubarb Triangle. Buying this land and coming back to farming has been like going home. I really feel part of this farming community.

“I worked on the farm at home for a long time, but I was around 24 years old when my father fell ill with cancer. My three sisters and I lost the farming home that my parents Harold and Mary had run for 35 years and then we lost both of them to cancer shortly afterwards. I felt lost for a long time.”

Having devoted herself to a career as a librarian in West Yorkshire Jacki found her way back to farming through the purchase of land at Husthwaite and taking on her role with the mobile library.

“I mortgaged my house in Leeds to buy the land, and one of my sisters invested in it too. Landing the mobile library role was my ideal job and I absolutely loved it. I would drive around 70-80 miles a day visiting 10 villages and making around 20 stops. “

She added: “The last three weeks of the job were one of my saddest times. Some of the people I visited had used the service for 39 years. I made some lovely friends during my time covering the area and now many of them come to see my alpacas when I’m at a local show such as Tockwith.”

Going back to farming has been Jacki’s salvation. Her sister Liz, who lives in Buckinghamshire, provided the inspiration.

“Liz started breeding them and I became hooked. I spent my holidays visiting her and helping with them. They are so lovely to look after.”

It was the start of what has already grown to a herd of 31 and with the addition of more from her sister’s herd, plus what Jacki believes will be around 24 crias (baby alpacas) next year, she looks as though she will have her hands full.

“I’ll hopefully sell quite a few next year. Last week we had a first place and took Reserve Champion in the white alpaca class with Lysender at the Yorkshire Alpaca Group Show at Thirsk Livestock Centre. He will definitely get some stud work next year. Last year we also received Reserve Champion with Lloyd, a dark fawn alpaca.

“Since last week’s show I’ve received a lot of enquiries for pet males and breeding females. People like to keep male alpacas as field guards. They are a useful deterrent to foxes getting in to your field or farm. They are also very good for keeping your grass down really well and provide an alternative to sheep. There are a number of people who like to have them as pets to take for a walk.’

“If you have around half an acre of land you can run three male alpacas. You can usually buy three pet males for the same price as a pedigree dog at around £1,500.”

Alpaca fleeces have earned a solid reputation in the textile world for fine silky garments that are soft against the skin.

“Their fleeces are beautiful. I can’t knit and I have enough of a job just looking after them, but I do shear them once a year and you can feel just how soft the fleeces are.”

Alpaca walks have become a useful additional enterprise.

“I started them last year. They have proved really popular and we even had a hen party of 10 girls from York come to take five alpacas for a walk this summer. They didn’t come in stilettos thankfully and we all had a glass of bubbly together afterwards.”

Jacki has an interesting collection of names for each of her herd, including Hendrix, Jackson Browne, Jay-Z and Keira Knightley. But confesses there is no Beyonce just yet.

Jacki’s Beacon Alpacas is contributing to her local area by bringing in visitors and providing another farm business to the local economy.

It’s not always been an easy road for Jacki in her first three years in Husthwaite. She counts herself fortunate to have friends such as local farmer Alan Duffield who helped her out in her first winter.

After all that effort she says: “I hope I’ve done enough to show everyone that I’ve made an agricultural living here and want to keep it that way.”

Frequently asked questions:

Do they spit?

They spit at each other at feeding time. It’s a hierarchical thing.

The girls also spit at the boys when pregnant to warn them off.

They won’t spit at you unless you do something to them or act as though you might.

Can you eat Alpaca?

They are eaten in Peru, where they come from originally, but are not eaten in the UK.

Can you ride an Alpaca?