Related to the vicuña, llama and guanaco the alpaca is a rare and precious animal thought to be a cross between llamas and vicuñas some 6000 years ago. Alpacas have had a turbulent history. Treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation, their fine fleeces were reserved for Incan royalty. Together with their close relatives, the llamas, alpacas provided clothing, food, fuel and, no doubt, companionship as domesticated animals high in the altiplano of Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
A thousand years before the Roman Empire, a thriving economy existed, based on selective breeding and the production of alpacas that are thought to have had even better fleeces than the finest and most uniform alpacas today. Alpacas were close to annihilation after the Spanish conquest of the Incas. The alpaca, prized for almost 5000 years as a source of high quality fibre, was seen by the Spaniards as a competitor for grazing lands available to their sheep. The alpaca therefore became a source of meat and was slaughtered almost to the point of extinction.
The surviving Incans were driven into the highest parts of the inhospitable Andes mountains, taking their most prized alpacas with them into exile. The alpaca population survived due to their great importance to the Indian people, and their ability to tolerate extraordinarily harsh climatic conditions.
It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that the beauty and resilience of alpaca fleece was ‘rediscovered’ and re-awoke the world’s interest. Sir Titus Salt of London “discovered” the remarkable fibre of the alpaca and began promoting its use in the finest textile mills and fashion houses of Europe. In the Southern Hemisphere Charles Ledger was the first to import alpacas into Australia in 1858. None of the descendents of these alpacas are thought to have survived to the present day.
Today, alpaca farming is still concentrated in the Altiplano. Alpacas not only battle a harsh climate – burning sun by day, freezing conditions at night – but also receive few of the benefits of modern animal husbandry. In their homeland of South America, Peru has approximately 2.5 million, Bolivia around 500,000 and there are only some 50,000 in Chile and Argentina combined.
In 1984, the United States and Canada imported their first alpacas, followed by Australia and New Zealand in 1989. These countries, with their more temperate climates and more sophisticated animal husbandry and breeding techniques, have proven beneficial for the species.
Today, over 35,000 alpacas are registered in the UK. In Australia where the industry is nine years ahead of Britain there are 250,000 alpacas registered and the industry is growing at a rate of 17% per annum. While the long-term outlook for fibre sales is excellent, the emphasis for this young British industry will be that of breeding and improving the fibre quality and yield of the alpaca for the foreseeable future.
The challenge is to increase alpaca numbers here in the UK so that we as an industry can meet the ever growing demand for the fibre by the European fashion houses, Taiwan and developing markets in the far East. This increase will not be met by importing from South America but concentrated breeding programmes based here. Limited imports of high quality seed stock may arrive from Peru, Australia and the United States; however some quarantine restrictions and export limits control the number of animals leaving South America.
We are fortunate that our own interest in alpacas is being emulated in most European countries. There is already significant trade, research and information sharing between Britain, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and France.
Britain finds itself in the forefront of a new rural industry development in Europe. Alpacas, for a whole host of reasons, are one of the most exciting and sophisticated farming options available today. Alpacas are also the latest fibred animal to offer a commercial opportunity.
To find out more about the commercial opportnities alpacas offer please click here