Words by Ed King / Pics by Katie Foulkes
“They’re addictive,” explains Tania Smith, owner of Caton Alpacas – a small breeding farm in South Devon, “they’re economical, easy to keep; and they don’t barge you out of the way like sheep can.”
It’s the first day of the British Alpaca Futurity (BAF) annual show at the NEC and I’m surrounded by over 400 Alpacas, nonchalantly chewing hay across half of Hall 3a.
It’s an unusual site, pen after pen of the inquisitive looking creatures; dangerously cute. Half of me wants to laugh, the other half wants to stuff a small Alpaca under my shirt and run.
Tania Smith now rears 17 Alpacas, starting out with three females about seven years ago. And like many of the people I’m talking to today, she started on a whim.
“I had a small plot of land,” says Tania, “not enough for cattle but too much for chickens. Then I saw the Alpacas and looked into rearing them.” One Alpaca pricks its ears up, straightens its soft head and poses for the camera, “I now breed them commercially, and sell the fibre on.”
Originally brought to the UK in 1995, by an Australian commercial farmer called Alan Hamilton, the Alpaca’s original habitat are the South American Andes.
With now over 30,000 Alpacas in the UK, kept in both professional and personal capacities, the British marketplace is growing – with Alpaca wool being comparable to Cashmere in both quality and price.
“The wool is hypo allergenic, so there’s no itch factor,” tells Liz Giblin, owner of The Alpaca Shop – an Essex based farm and retailer selling ’a wide range of alpaca fleece & fibre products’, and one of the 35 trade stands at the BAF. “It stays drier than sheep wool, and it doesn’t absorb as much odour.”
I look at the £10 socks and £18 gloves on display, then think about my week in the Lake district and the grey skies outside. Then I think about my wallet, and pause. “Alpaca wool is one step up from Cashmere,” offers Liz, as if sensing my fiscal dilemma, “and just feel how soft it is.”
I know my way around Pashmina silk and reserve a response; reaching down I rub the head of a plush Alpaca soft toy, priced at £27. My hand feels as if it’s melting into the fur.
Susana van Oordt de Portaro is President of Gama Arte, a Peruvian based ‘non-profit museum service organisation’, and is also hosting a stand selling Alpaca products. Gama Arte ‘promote(s) Art and Culture and the preservation of Peruvian cultural patrimony’, and uses the UK market to raise money for artisans in Peru, selling their hand made products direct to British consumers.
“Alpaca wool is better than Cashmere,” explains Susanna, with what appears to be the Alpaca wool mantra, “and we sell garments and products made from the artisan in Peru.”
I scan at the ‘HAND MADE IN PERU’ signs that adorn the modest Gama Arte stand; “Alpaca wool is important for the artisan in Peru,” continues Susana,” they make some of the finest and most luxurious products.”
Again I feel the soft, soft fur – this time on a selection of hats that Susana says makes our photographer “look like Julie Christie, from Dr Zhivago.”
Although there is a serious undercurrent, with the Andean Alpaca farmer having suffered in the middle of a vicious guerrilla war between the Communist Party of Peru (Partido Comunista del Perú or ‘Shining Path’) and the state military in the 1980’s.
Significant numbers were killed, destabilised or imprisoned in work camps; with organisations like Gama Arte now working to build a market for the trade in foreign territories. After the BAF, Susana will exhibit Gama Arte’s Alpaca products at the Country Living and Spirit of Summer Fairs in London.
But the central focus of the day is the ‘Alpaca Parade’, where highly groomed Alpacas are showcased, both for prizes and for auction.
BAF organisers, Chas Brooke and Rachel Hebditch, are showing Agnes – a proud looking CME Champion Brown Female, decorated in rosettes and sashes, whom they intend to auction.
I wish the three of them luck, Agnes looking at me like I’ve stepped on her even toed hoof, and move over to the bleacher seats to watch. A low monotone description comes out of the tannoy, and I am soon lost in terminology that only an Alpaca enthusiast would know.
The Alpacas, being classified into gender and species (or colour, to the layperson), behave very differently as they get paraded and examined.
Some walk with a pageant professionalism, others are seemingly dragged across the green felt. It feels messy, confused and like a Christopher Guest film.
But there’s a lot of love for the animals, from a varied audience made up of breeders, pet owners and people who have come out of pure curiosity.
“They are fascinating creatures,” tells Lindsay Welch from Kidderminster – who rears a handful of Alpacas privately, “and it’s great to see them at the NEC. Usually you only find them at agricultural shows or county fairs.”
Fiona and Joy Bratherton are at the NEC for a neighbouring education show, and met an Alpaca breeder on the train down from Crewe. “It’s like a zoo,” explains Fiona, “but with the best animal shown again and again.”
“And they’ve got such cute faces,” confirms Joy, “I know they’re wild animals, but I just want one as a pet.”
And I would too, if they’d let me; but every Alpaca I try and stroke just sniffs and backs away.
Although I am apparently alone with this, the over 400 Alpacas at the BAF being surprisingly friendly and tactile to everyone but me.
“Perhaps it’s just your smell,” suggests one breeder, “or the colour of your clothes;” but I’m out, there’s only so many times you can get rejected by a 4ft cuddly toy.
And despite not becoming the Dr Doolittle on the Andean Alpaca (a notion I only half jokingly entertained) I do leave the NEC with at least one mission accomplished.
Nestled beneath my Alpaca repelling Salmon pink shirt is the softest plush toy I’ve ever held.
And if my niece doesn’t give it a good home, it can happily come and live on my bookshelf.
For more information on the British Alpaca Futurity, visit http://www.britishalpacafuturity.com
For information on the NEC Group, including event listings across all venues (‘What’s On’ tab to the right of the screen), visit http://www.necgroup.co.uk