Alpacas are members of the camel family and originate from South America. They form part of a group of animals called South American Camelids, the others members being the llama, vicuna and guanaco.
There are two types of alpacas, separated by fleece type – the HUACAYA, whose fleece is similar to that of a merino sheep and the SURI, whose fleece hangs in individual locks, similar to the fleece of an angora goat.
Alpacas are mostly bred for their wool which is soft, light and warm without the prickle factor often associated with wool. It is suitable for a range of uses from home spinning through to high quality garment production. There are more than 20 natural colours, from white, through fawn, brown and grey, to black.
They produce two to five kilograms of greaseless wool per year. Alpacas are normally shorn once a year, ideally in spring, before the onset of summer. To do this they are usually tied on their side with legs outstretched and shorn using normal sheep shearing equipment.
Alpacas are easy to raise and do not require any special handling systems. They do not tend to jump or push at fences. Conventional stock proof fencing is adequate.
They have very strong herd instincts and are best moved in groups. A lone alpaca will fret.
When approached by a dog, alpacas become alert and wary. The herd will band together and drive it from the enclosure. They are capable of killing small dogs and foxes. Because of this they are gaining popularity as guard animals to protect sheep, goats and poultry from foxes, domestic dogs and dingoes.
The alpaca is a relatively slow breeder, having a gestation period of eleven and a half (11.5) months. They produce a single offspring each year, with twins being rare. Alpacas live for around twenty years and can reproduce for all of that time.
Alpaca have a preference for short, green shoots of grass, but tend to vary their diet. Unlike other livestock, they do not eat out the best parts of the pasture first, but eat a variety of what is on offer. They are relatively efficient digesters, and require less per body weight than sheep, cattle or horses.
The feet of alpacas have a unique cloven hoof, with soft pads on the bottom and two dog-like toenails. Because of this they have low impact on fragile landforms. If they are run on soft, lush paddocks, their toenails may require trimming. This is commonly done at shearing time, but additional trimming may be required through the year.