It was Susie’s idea. For a belated birthday celebration. As a change from watching all the depressing news on the television, we would go walking with alpacas. No trip to the altiplano of Latin America was needed. Instead we went with our friends Mike and Wendy to Bobcat Alpacas at Bonaly, just south of Edinburgh, a few minutes walk from the terminal of the number 10 bus.
Bob, who runs the business with his wife, worked for many years for the prison service. But he fell in love with alpacas a few years ago down in the Borders. The business has now been running for a decade or so, and they have about 50 alpacas. With another dozen crias [baby alpacas] expected later this year. Their mothers are called hembras and fathers are called machos. Bob and his wife Cat take groups out walking several days a week. A walk is about an hour and a half, on the edge of the Pentlands and across the bottom of Torduff Reservoir, the oldest of the several reservoirs in the Pentlands. The alpacas that we walked with were all male, mostly six or seven years old. Bob, who knows all the herd by name, started with an introduction to the animals in our group; which animals liked to be together, which walked at the front, which dawdled at the back etc.
The alpaca is a member of the camel family. They are natives of the Andes mountains and live at an elevation of several thousand feet above sea level. The great majority of animals are Huacaya alpacas. If I understood correctly, they were in origin the result of cross-breeding between llamas and vicuna, tens of thousands of years ago.
One white alpaca looks very like another to me. Susie and I started by sharing Milo, a biggish animal of some 85 kilos. All the animals are very calm and gentle, and seem to enjoy having their photos taken. They are sociable animals, and like to walk as a group. But they like to decide exactly when and where they want to walk. It was said that alpacas can run at a top speed of about 20 mph. But this is only when they are impatient for lunch and there is a following wind. Milo’s best friend was Ignatius, better known as Iggy. But I couldn’t really tell the two of them apart. It seems that the easiest way to tell them apart is by the variations in their distinctly punk hair-cuts.
Most of our walking group were white. But two of the animals were brown with different coats and long, silky ringlets. These were Suri alpacas, and they were known as ‘the Rastas’.
Like camels the alpacas do spit occasionally. More at each other than at their handlers. Mainly gobbets of semi-digested grass. Guttural warning noises come first.
As we walked we gleaned odd facts from Bob. Alpacas are prized for their wool. We could sink our fingers deep into their soft fleeces, and they are sheared annually. Only one mill in Scotland is currently equipped to spin the alpaca fleeces, and this is at Duns in Berwickshire. Skeins of alpaca wool were on sale back at base at £15.00 per 100 grammes. Alpaca meat is said to be good for eating, but they are never bred for slaughter.
Curiously alpacas only give birth between [about] 9.30am and 4.30pm. This sounds as if it might be in accordance with NHS guidelines, imposed at the demand of the health-workers’ unions. In reality it is because pregnant alpacas can determine when to initiate the delivery of their babies. And they know that in their native environment it is too cold, and therefore dangerous, to give birth at night.
In addition to the organised walks, Bob said that his alpacas can be rented out as guard animals to protect sheep and chickens against foxes. And also as novelty guests at wedding parties. He also said that they had a valued role as thera-pets, being very gentle and non-judgemental. It would be good if more humans were like that too ! In times of stress I can greatly recommend walking with alpacas.