They give an impression of those Ewok creatures Luke Skywalker found in Star Wars just before the end of that movie series. They are cute, they are woolly, easygoing, make funny humming noises – and look a lot smaller once they are shorn of their fibre.
Meet the alpaca. They come from the High Andes Mountains of the South American countries of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and they make themselves right at home in our Canadian climate. Alpacas are small, endearing animals of the camelid family. They were domesticated over 5,000 years ago.
They come in 22 recognizable colours – the most of any animal whose hair is used for making clothing – and that hair, known in the trade as fibre, is so fine and soft it was once solely reserved for Inca royalty. It is known to have up to eight times the insulating quality of wool. And only mohair is a stronger fibre.
Kristi and Rob Mercier, of Harmony Meadows Alpaca, on the 6th Line of West Garafraxa, held an open house on June 12 to introduce people to their alpaca operation, and they attracted people from as far away as Toronto.
“It’s been wet, but people have been coming out,” Rob Mercier said in an interview as one of his animals was brought reluctantly to the shearing table. That alpaca reacted to getting its hair cut like a teenager did in the 1960s. It heard the shears and decided to sit down in the stable. It had to be picked up and carried gently to the shearing table as the crowd chuckled.
The Merciers are part of a small cooperative that sells the fibre from the animals. They bought their 10 acre farm about two years ago, and Mercier said he and his wife firmly believe if farmers have land, they should use it. They started with eight alpacas, and have had as many as 11.
Mercier noted some people get puzzled about the alpacas, mistaking them for their cousins, the lama, or even emus. While emus are birds, that mistake is understandable, because both have long necks and the movements they make with their heads are very similar.
But Mercier said alpacas are not aggressive. He and Kristi brought all the neighbours’ dogs to meet the alpacas when they first arrived, so the dogs could get to know them. Alpacas, he said, will stand their ground but they are not guard animals and would likely lose to a pack of coyotes. That is distinct from emus, which have been known to kick predators to the point they realized an attack was a bad idea. Mercier said he is considering obtaining a donkey, lama or dog to help guard his herd from coyotes.
Mercier said he and Kristi, who has a biological science degree from the University of Guelph, wanted to have something to do with agriculture, and alpacas seemed just right.
The fibre they get from the annual shearing is considered as fine as cashmere, and it is used to make a wide variety of goods, starting with wool for knitters, and it is turned into soft socks, mittens, scarves, sweaters and even purses.
Mercier said the alpaca is hypoallergenic, which means they do not affect people with allergies, and their fibre is very soft, which makes it highly desirable.
The Merciers have one cria (baby alpaca) on the farm, only a few weeks old, and another is due. Females are bred at 18 months, and the gestation period is usually 11.5 months. They are usually born in June.
Alpaca adults weigh an average of 125 to 175 pounds, and they live 20 to 25 years.
The land the couple owns will hold a large number of alpacas. Each acre will feed five to eight animals. A four-foot field fence makes a sufficient enclosure, and the alpaca is suited to pasture on marginal land.
In the winter, all they eat is about two pounds of hay per day, plus a small amount of supplement. As an added bonus, they tend to drop their manure in just one or two places in the pen, making it easy cleaning. As well, there is very little odour and, on top of that, the manure is excellent fertilizer.
The co-op the Merciers use helps them find markets, as well as processors for the fibre.
They have a small store at the front of their barn, where people can buy the yarn and ready-to-wear products.
They hired alpaca shearer Karen Childs to do the fibre cutting for the open house. She comes from Sarnia and every spring from April to June she travels across Ontario shearing alpacas, which are shorn only “once a year.”
Anyone wanting to see the alpaca products can visit the Elora and Guelph Farmers Markets.