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A passion for alpaca

When Richard and Rebecca Moir of Beckarich Alpacas purchased their first alpaca they never planned on getting into the South American native on a large scale, but five soon became 12. Five years on, they now have a herd of almost 30. They’re hooked. They not only enjoy breeding, handling and showing alpaca, but as attitudes change toward using natural fibers, they can see a huge future in their fleece.


Originally hailing from Jersey in the Channel Islands, Rebecca met Kiwi-boy Richard when he was on his big OE. “Richard and my brother worked for Honda UK and formed a friendship when they met at a top performer event in Mauritius. We met on Christmas Day and the rest is history,” laughs Rebecca.


After getting married, the Moirs always intended to return to New Zealand. They made the move Canterbury in July 2012, initially living in the city. Rebecca worked as a dental assistant, enjoying working with children and educating them about oral health. Richard initially transferred into a private banking role before taking up his current position as an investment adviser at Craigs Investment Partners, which has just come onboard as one of Ruralco’s Card Supplier partners.


A horse-mad teen, Rebecca fell in love with alpacas from the moment she first saw them. But it was only after they purchased a 4.5ha lifestyle block just north of Rolleston, that the question of buying their own alpaca came up.


“Richard took me to meet an alpaca breeder on one of my first visits to New Zealand. As soon as I hugged one, I knew I wanted to have one of my own one day. The breeder said she’d set me up with my first alpaca when we returned to New Zealand and had our own lifestyle block. It was just a passing comment, but it all happened like it was meant to be," explains Rebecca.


Having spotted an advertisement on TradeMe, Richard and Rebecca visited a local breeder. Ironically, it was the same breeder they had met years earlier. Initially, Richard agreed Rebecca could purchase two, but the woman was selling a family of five and wanted them to go as a group. Knowing Rebecca’s love for them, Richard relented. “What’s five,” he smiles.


Little did he know, that it was just the beginning. Now he is just as passionate about them as she is.


Alpacas are a member of the camelid family which includes the llama, and huacaya (pronounced wuh-kai-ya) alpaca, the wild vicuna and guanaco, and the camel. They originate from the high Andean Plateau and mountains of South America at an altitude of 3500 to 5000 metres above sea level. It’s believed they have evolved from the wild vicuna.


Domesticated for more than 6000 years, alpacas were highly prized by the Incas for their soft and luxurious fleece, which was known as ‘fibre of the gods’. The Spanish invasion of 1532AD caused widespread chaos and destruction, resulting in disease wiping out a large number of the indigenous Indian population, which together with the slaughter of alpaca to make way for sheep and cattle, led to centuries of careful breeding being lost forever. Pushed high up into the mountains, alpaca and llama were left to interbreed.


Despite attempts to export alpaca out of South America following the Spanish invasion, it wasn’t until English wool merchant Sir Titus Salt started importing alpaca fleece to England in 1836 that interest was reignited. In an attempt to safeguard their own industries, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina put a ban on live export of alpaca and unprocessed alpaca fibre in the 1840s. Chile didn’t support the ban until 1930.


Interestingly, the first alpaca were imported to New Zealand in the 1840s. The herd was part of a large herd of alpaca shipped to Australia in 1858 by Charles Ledger under orders from the Governor of New South Wales. Of the 336 animals, only 276 survived the journey from Chile to Australia. Many of those that landed in New Zealand ended up on the property of George Rhodes of Purau in Lyttelton. Neither country was successful in getting the alpaca industry up and running at that time.


It was more than 140 years before Taupo’s Ian Nelson paved the way for breeders and businesses to import alpaca direct from Chile having finally got the Minister of Agriculture to change the status of alpaca and llama from zoo animal to farm animal. Two alpaca and three llamas arrived in 1986 from Chester Zoo in England, kicking off the fledgling industry. Many large importations followed, but getting alpacas and llama established in New Zealand wasn’t without its complications.


Today, there are almost 30,000 alpaca in New Zealand. About three-quarters are breeding animals, registered with the Alpaca Association New Zealand, but there are thousands more unregistered animals kept as pets. There are two kinds of alpaca – huacaya are the woolly ones that look like a sheep with long necks; whereas the rare, suri, have fibre that hangs in long, separate, distinctive pencil locks. About 90 per cent of the alpaca population in New Zealand are huacaya.


Nationwide, there are few alpaca breeders doing it on a large scale, most have herds of less than 40. Like Rebecca and Richard, many started off with a just a couple, and before long found their numbers have multiplied. “There was really no plan at the beginning,” explains Rebecca. “It just grew.”


Having started with five girls and one pet boy, next minute Rebecca was embarking on her own breeding programme after a retiring breeder offered her shares in an Australian imported stud male (macho). That was quickly followed by the purchase of two more well-bred girls from another breeder.


Rebecca admits they knew little in the beginning, but her previous experience with horses put her in good stead. Compared to other animals, alpaca are relatively easy-care, she says. “They are intelligent, easy to manage and have a light environmental footprint.”


Aside from yearly shearing (which they get contractors in for) in spring to early summer to help keep the animals cool, alpaca require twice-yearly injections of A, D and E, an annual five-in-one, drench two times a year and need their hooves trimmed regularly. Curiously, alpacas don’t absorb vitamin D from sunlight. Unlike sheep, they do not require crutching and aren’t susceptible to flystrike or foot rot. Although they’re quite hardy creatures, they’re also renowned for being stoic animals, which at times can disguise diseases.


On average alpaca live to about 20 years of age. While they are often confused with llama, alpacas are about half the size weighing in at about 70kg versus 150kg for a llama. They are also shorter. Llamas have banana-shaped ears, and have a longer face, almost kangaroo-like, whereas an alpaca’s ears are more spear-shaped and their face is more that of a teddy bear.


Rebecca finds working with alpacas is quite calming. “There is a definite feel-good factor. They have more of a character. Each individual is different. They are kind and gentle. They will come for a cuddle, you can lead them and they will eat out of your hand. They are willing and very trainable. Even the youngest cria come to their names when called.”


As alpacas are one of the most efficient converters of grass into protein, she says you don’t need to supplement their feed if you have adequate access to good grass. However, because of their high numbers on a smallish area, they feed additional lucern chaff during the summer dry mainly for those expectant females.


Alpacas also have a tendency to leave a large poo pile on the grass in one area so they don’t excrete all over the paddock, meaning they don’t usually come into contact with their own worms unless they’re heavily stocked.


Early in the piece, the Moirs joined the Alpaca Association New Zealand. They found the association a great source of information, especially with regards to showing and learning about the alpaca fleece.


While showing is not everyone’s cup of tea, Rebecca says it’s a great way to find out what calibre of animals you have and where improvements are needed. Unlike the horse and cattle sections, where people spend literally hours washing, primping and painting oil on hooves, showing alpaca is quite simple in terms of preparation.


“We are enjoying showing our animals and meeting the other alpaca breeders. It’s quite social. The critique from the judges can be invaluable. You not only learn about what you have but also where you’re breeding programme is heading. It’s not always the same judges, there is a huge pool of people from all over New Zealand.”


From those early critiques, the Moirs narrowed their breeding programme, focusing on enhancing their fleeces, without sacrificing good conformation, strong bone, and mothering abilities. “We really put the money into genetics to improve the fleece. We are trying to breed for fineness and density. We are not 100 per cent there yet, but we’re working on it. There is always room for improvement on the fleece.”


With natural fibres being increasingly recognised as a favourable substitute to plastics, Rebecca sees a huge future for alpaca fleece.


Alpaca is softer and less greasy than wool. With less lanolin than wool it is hypoallergenic (it can be worn next to the skin, even in babies, without irritation). It is finer than most cross-bred wool and on a par with merino for fineness, and the hollow fibre traps the air, giving it superior warmth properties and it is fire retardant. Huacaya fibre is spun, carded, dyed and either woven, knitted into woollen garments or felted, while second-grade fibre can even be made into duvet covers or quilts. Suri fibre is generally woven and made into fine cloth for the fashion industry.


It’s sorted by its width in microns. Generally the darker the colour of the animal, the higher the micron. Traditionally, white animals have the finest fleeces. The colour range is extensive with 24 different natural colours, from white through fawn, to brown, black and grey, explains Rebecca.


As the New Zealand herd is quite small, breeders have the option of selling their fleeces locally or pooling their fibre and selling it through Pacific Alpacas, where the fibre is sorted, soured and sold to domestic and international buyers. While it can take up to a year to receive a cheque through Pacific Alpacas, Rebecca says the higher prices make it worthwhile. “We can get between three and four times the return to what we would get in New Zealand. In my mind, it makes it worthwhile. We can get anywhere from $24 to $34 per kilo. On average each alpaca is producing about 10kg.” It’s a far cry from 10 years ago when it was costing alpaca farmers more to shear their animals than the fleece was worth.


But while the Moirs have certainly made some headway in their breeding programme, making those big genetic gains is difficult with small numbers, given an alpacas gestation is 11 and a half months.

The most cria the Moirs have bred in a single season is six. And even then, it’s not an exact science. Like other camelids, alpaca are induced ovulators. They do not have a regular oestrous cycle, like sheep for example, but ovulate after mating with a male. Paddock mating is more convenient, but the Moirs prefer the control of a penned mating, so they know the exact dates they are looking at.


Mating an alpaca can be quite entertaining, explains Rebecca. It often starts with a non-pregnant female sitting down in readiness when a macho is nearby. The male starts ogling (singing) to the female which induces ovulation. The whole mating can last between 30-40 minutes.


Two weeks after mating the female is reintroduced to the macho, known as “spitting them off”. If the female has fallen pregnant when the male in reintroduced to her she will spit at him. This process is repeated again at four and six weeks. A scan is performed within 90 days to confirm.


Usually, two times is enough, says Rebecca. If for some reason the female alpaca hasn’t fallen pregnant, she might seek help from the vet to see if there’s something else going on or mate her with a different male.


Like other prey animals, baby cria are sitting on their haunches and attempting to stand within an hour of being born. They usually give birth (called unpacking) between the hours of 6 am and 3 pm and weigh between 5-8 kg. Rebecca is usually on hand to lend a hand if needed. She handles the cria from birth. When they’re about six months old she starts halter-training them. All of their progeny are halter-trained even if they aren’t going to be shown.


The Moirs currently have two stud un-related stud males (macho) – Newpark Pedro and Belise Aramis. They purchased Belise Aramis, who hails from New Zealand’s only dedicated black alpaca stud, Belise Alpacas in North Canterbury, with the specific purpose of breeding dark brown and grey alpaca. By the Australian-bred Warramunga Downs Kalarni out of Jolimont Macee, Belise Aramis brings great handle and density of fleece packed on a typically robust frame.


But more importantly, he carries dominant colour. “My passion is coloured animals,” explains Rebecca. “Grey is recessive in alpaca and that poses some challenges. To get dark browns and greys, you need black animals. You can plan for the colour that you prefer but it doesn’t always go your way.”


Long-term Rebecca’s goal is to breed quality coloured alpaca with a superior fleece, but admittedly, they still have some way to go. With the arrival of baby Willow six months ago, their alpaca breeding programme has slowed while Rebecca focuses on being a new mum herself. This season they only have three cria due and have mated just three for the coming season.


Until now, the Moirs have not sold any progeny in favour of building up their herd, but that’s the next logical step. “We have invested quite a bit of money into our alpaca. We are just in the process of looking to sell our pet boys and will certainly look at selling some of our girls in the future. It’s quite an exciting time for us.”


The couple has also recently taken on organising the alpaca section of this year’s Ellesmere A&P Show.

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