Top dividends arrive from the golden fleece of North Yorkshire

Lief and Jenny MacHarg
Lief and Jenny MacHarg
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A couple who were so enchanted by alpacas they turned them into a business have been judged best in the country. Chris Berry reports.

It seems a question hardly worth asking: what are you more likely to see in a Yorkshire field – a pedigree Wensleydale ewe or an alpaca? The answer is not what you might expect. Current trends would suggest the latter, with fewer than 1,500 registered breeding Wensleydale ewes throughout the UK but more than 30,000 alpacas.

This fact may surprise traditionalist farmers but not Graham and Jenny MacHarg who only arrived in North Yorkshire three years ago. They are amongst an increasing band of Alpaca breeders in the county and their Fowberry Alpaca Stud Farm recently carried off the breed’s top award in the UK.

“We started with them in 2002 when we lived in Northumberland,” says Jenny. “It didn’t start out as a business. It was an interest. They are very enchanting animals and the young ones are very cute, but it’s not all about how nice they look or their easy-going nature.

“Alpacas are a growing industry in the UK and the main reason is their fleece, which is soft and luxurious. We came to Yorkshire because we didn’t have enough grass where we were and our location meant that we had a high water table. That led to problems with midges and made the herd miserable.”

The alpacas have settled in well to life in the Howardian Hills at the farm at Crambe Grange, Barton-le-Willows, although Graham isn’t too keen on this time of year when the females are about to give birth.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that May in Yorkshire is horrid,” he says. “This year April has been worse, but because you can plan for young being born within a three to four-week period most of the new stock will be born in June this year. We’ve only had the one birth so far.” Jenny believes that a shortage of cashmere could be the catalyst for greater demand in this country.

“Alpacas thrive in the UK climate and they provide a huge amount of quality fleece per animal. The fibre is very comfortable to wear and much finer than sheep’s wool. The fashion industry has recognised its quality and if cashmere is not going to be in such great supply – as appears likely due to climate problems in Mongolia – I see alpaca fleece as being able to fill the gap.”

The MacHargs’ success at the British Alpaca Futurity 2012 held at the NEC in Birmingham last month took Jenny’s breath away.

“For once in her life she was speechless,” says Graham. “We took 10 of our herd and came away with three champions and a reserve champion. There were 442 alpacas there and many breeders had much bigger farms than ours.”

Their proudest moment came when EPC Top Account of Fowberry was announced as Herd Sire Champion 2012.

“He’s been the making of our herd. We purchased him from Australia in 2006 and it was his progeny that were on show at the event. He wasn’t there at all. It is all about progeny and they gain points for him. It is the most stringent progeny test that you can possibly apply to your male’s offspring. They have been born from him, are on the ground and are judged alongside the best.

“His competitors had up to nine progeny towards their overall sire points total and he only had seven. If we’d had nine who knows what the margin would have been between him and second place.

‘We don’t over-work him. We don’t want to run him out of ammunition because we still want him to be working in five years time. We have another seven working males and potentially there is a large earning capacity.” The MacHargs also took Supreme Champion at Birmingham with Fowberry Paloma and Champion Fawn Male with Fowberry Nobility.

Graham still doesn’t see more dyed-in-the-wool sheep farmers taking much interest. “Other farmers who have been used to sheep or cattle seem to have a fairly closed mind to it. You have to look to lock in the younger generation and we have a young farmers club coming to take a look around in June.”

Fleece from their alpacas is processed into yarn for marketing their own hand-knitted and hand-woven garments available from their on-line shop. This ensures they make around £250 per fleece per animal.

They are also earning from the sale of both males and females. Gelded males usually market from around £500, with a well-bred young female pregnant to an excellent stud male commanding around £8,000. And they have all bio-security measures covered for females to be sent to their stud.

“One of the main reasons we have been successful is that we look for specific genetics that will improve what we have here. That’s why we imported EPC Top Account from Australia. The Australian Alpaca Association, of which we are now members, has a history of producing fine fibres.”

Most of the world’s three million alpacas are in Peru. Large mills will swallow up the annual UK clip in just under a month, leaving them generally more committed to Peruvian contracts when purchasing raw yarn.

You won’t see Fowberry Alpacas at agricultural shows as they are clipped in May. “They look more like Great Danes for a while,” says Jenny.

So you’re possibly more likely to see a Wensleydale ewe at that time.

Alpacas: Past and present

There are two main styles of alpaca – Huacaya (pronounced wakaya) and Suri. The MacHargs have the Huacaya.

Sir Titus Salt built his fortune and Salts Mill at Saltaire on the back of alpacas.

He was the first European to spin the wool of the animal.

The MacHargs run one-day training courses.