Some women love having babies. Jacki Barlow is one of them. She has 15 every year and isn’t showing any sign of fatigue. That’s because seven years ago she started with alpacas.
Jacki’s herd now runs to 53 and today her 20-acre smallholding of Suncliffe Beacon Farm at Husthwaite plays host to her annual open day and sale that attracts fellow breeders and the public.
“I’ve previously run it in summer but I decided it would be better in the spring while they’ve all still got their fleeces on, plus I now show my animals at the Great Yorkshire Show and others in the summer.
“I really enjoy having people come here to find out more about them, learn about fleeces and about our alpaca walks. Alpacas have become quite popular as pets too and once people have been with them they often fall in love with them.”
Jacki grew up in Morley where her parents Harold and Mary were tenants farmers at Tingley House Farm until the M62 ran right through it. She had always wanted to farm in her own right and having tried out secretarial work and working in libraries, she moved to Coxwold where she ran a mobile library covering Thirsk to Selby for three years.
“My sister Liz who lives in Buckinghamshire kept alpacas and that’s how I came to know just how lovely they are to look after and the quality of the fibre they produce. There isn’t much of a meat trade in the UK at the moment and the national herd wouldn’t be enough to sustain it if there was but it is part of the staple diet in Peru, where they come from, and is a healthy food as it is low in cholesterol. The fleeces pay for their husbandry, it is the sales of stock that produces the main income.
“Top quality stud males can go for anything between £3,000-£20,000 and sometimes even more, but there is also a good market for non-breeding males as pets. On Saturday I’ll be aiming to do a reduction of my stock by putting a few packages together for those who are wanting to go into breeding.”
Breeding alpacas is Jacki’s passion. Her stock has won at many shows including the Yorkshire Cup and earlier this month she won at the North West Alpaca Show and Sale at Carlisle and at the Heart of England Alpaca Fiesta.
“White alpacas are the most difficult to win with as they have the finest fleece. You’ll usually find that whites take the supreme championships. I won with a white at Thirsk two years ago. Uniformity of colour is what you’re looking for and that means if it is for instance a brown one it mustn’t contain lighter fibres or if it’s a fawn or white one it mustn’t contain dark fibres.”
Jacki tries to manage all births of her baby alpacas – crias – so that they occur during June and July.
“That’s when the grass is good, the days are long and the weather is hopefully warm, but things never go fully to plan. This year I have 15 girls that are pregnant. I use stud males from other herds as well as my own. Alpaca girls are made for breeding, that’s just what they do. They are pregnant for between 11-and-a-half to 12 months and their most fertile time is 18 days after they have given birth. They are often sat by the mating pens waiting to go again just days after. All they want to do is have babies.”
Alpaca walks are increasingly popular and add extra income to Jacki’s enterprise.
“It’s just like taking a dog for a walk except they’re bigger and have long necks. I halter train all of them when they are weaned at six months and select the extroverts, the ones that like going for walks. It’s generally the boys that walk, if you took boy and girl alpacas out it could be mayhem so they never go out together.
“People like it because they walk slowly, can relax and talk with them. Groups of four or five alpacas will go out at a time and we have recently had a few hen parties, but largely it is couples who come. It’s great fun for people who love animals and we are busy all year round.”
Jacki is currently featuring in the Channel 5 TV series The Yorkshire Vet that focuses on the work of Skeldale Veterinary Centre in Thirsk.
“Fortunately I don’t have the vet very often but I quickly learned after my first appearance that I should in future get my make-up and hair done if I know they’re coming.”
FIBRES LIKE CASHMERE
The national herd of alpacas registered with the British Alpaca Society now numbers 60,000.
Jacki is one of several breeders who run the Yorkshire Alpaca Group and this year’s Yorkshire Alpaca Show will take place at the Great Yorkshire Showground during Countryside Live in the autumn.
There are two main breeds of alpaca – Huacaya and Suri. Jacki’s herd is the Huacaya breed which is known for its fuzzy fleece.
Alpaca fibre is hollow and makes for good insulation. Jacki’s herd produces fine fibre of 15-25 microns. The fibre is like cashmere and blends very well with sheep wool.