ALPACAS – OUR ALTERNATIVE ESCAPE PLAN.
“If this is as good as its going to get, are we happy to settle for it?” That was the question my wife Sue and I discussed in 2004 over a glass of wine.
Eventually, probably after another glass of wine, we decided that the answer was an emphatic No.
We had a lovely house in North Dorset and we both had good jobs, me a local village Policeman and Sue a Community Midwife. We had a son, Angus, who was two years old. We both had the added prospect of pensions when we had done our time. Somehow it just wasn’t enough.
so realised that we had to make the decision to change our lives and we were the ones who had to get on with it and act on that decision. No-one else was going to do it for us. It was down to us to make things happen and it was up to us to get it right. Much discussion ensued and gradually over the following months the plan for our future life developed.
We decided that if we were going to do it we had to plan it well and give ourselves enough time to have everything in place in time for the big move. We had to consider what we wanted, how we wanted to spend the rest of our lives and where. We had to decide what we wanted for Angus to give him the best possible start in life. We also had to get the timing right. It couldn’t just be a case of upping sticks and moving out and hoping things would turn out ok.
Eventually we decided that we would have an eight year ‘escape’ plan. We would retire at the age of fifty (2013) and throw ourselves into a business that we could manage together.
The decision was made and the planning phase was upon us!
We sold our house in August 2005 and moved into a delightful farm cottage in Chicksgrove in South West Wiltshire. The cottage is surrounded by fields and is in the middle of a working sheep farm. It is a fantastic place for an inquisitive energetic young boy to grow up in and a great place for adults with a love of rural life too! The dogs settled in nicely and Bob the cat quickly discovered there were plenty of things to keep him occupied. The local mouse population was under siege! The garden was large and the views fabulous. We instantly knew we had made the right decision, we were on our way, phase one was complete.
Initially the plan was to buy a house in the South of France and when the time was right we would move there and immerse ourselves in French life.
In the meantime we had to find a business to build from scratch. That was the time that Sue came home and said she was going on an Alpaca awareness day with a friend. The first thought that went through my head was “What on earth is an Alpaca”. She returned that evening totally smitten with alpacas and set about converting me. To be honest it didn’t take long. The instant appeal was that alpaca farming was in many ways ‘fluffy farming’. The animals themselves are fascinating to watch, easy to look after and produced a truly wonderful marketable fleece. Also there was to be no saying goodbye to animals destined for the slaughterhouse.
Ok so what is an Alpaca? Alpacas are part of the camelid family which includes the Llama. They are native to the high altiplano of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. They are a fibre producing animal and their fleeces have been used for thousands of years in South America to make high quality clothing, notably for the Royal families of the Incas. Alpaca fleece is a luxurious fibre, similar to cashmere but stronger, softer and lighter. On top of that it is lanolin free and doesn’t have the prickle factor that most wool has. Alpacas are also highly addictive!
After talking to several established alpaca breeders we decided that we would become Alpaca farmers. The plan was to start now (2006) by buying the best females we could afford and gradually through selective breeding build up the herd over the next seven years. We could then take a herd of high quality Alpacas to the south of France. How about that for a plan!
By February 2006 we had found our dream home in France, rented a 5 acre field in front of the cottage in Chicksgrove and had bought our first four Alpacas. Bannock, Priscilla, Bobby and Jake were delivered to us by Tim Hey from Inca Alpacas on the Dorset/Wiltshire border. Great excitement ensued, there was no stopping us now, the master plan was underway.
We decided to call our herd Patou Alpacas. Patou is an ancient French word particular to the Pyrenees region. The Pyrenean mountain dogs that live in the high pastures with the sheep are known as ‘Patous’. It sounded good and meant that we could establish a herd with a name that would have some meaning when we eventually arrived in France.
Having the Alpacas in the field was fantastic. We could see them grazing from every window and we just knew that we had made the right decision. We read everything we could about alpacas and Tim at Inca was a great help teaching us how to look after them. We learned a huge amount about Alpacas in our first year and enjoyed every minute of it. We have helped out on other farms and were very confident after a year that we are able to give the alpacas everything they need for a happy life.
In fact alpacas are remarkably easy to look after. They like nothing better than to graze away in the field. They also like a bit of hay and come up to the house every morning for their breakfast which consists of some Alfalfa pellets and a vitamin concentrate. We feed some of them by hand which is lovely. Actually they are pretty greedy and there is always a bit of Alpaca spit flying around the feed troughs. Alpacas are naturally aware of their vulnerability and are always on the alert. Their natural instinct is to run away from danger. However, when amongst other alpacas their method of politely saying ‘please go away this is my food’ is to spit. Some of them spit more than others especially a pregnant female but generally they will not spit at humans. We have rarely been spat at but are now very careful not to stand downwind when they are arguing!
In July 2006 Priscilla gave birth to Henry, our first cria. Somehow we missed Henry’s birth. We knew he was due to be born any day and were checking the animals about very half hour. We looked out to see how they were getting on and were amazed to see a little wobbly head on the end of a little wobbly neck sticking up out of the grass. He was followed a month later when Bannock gave birth to a beautiful black female, Lily. Lily’s arrival was well documented, Angus and I were waiting for it and although Sue was at work the whole event was captured in glorious techni-colour on our video camera.
The young cria grow incredibly fast and are great fun to watch as they skip around playing. Henry and Lily to this day remain virtually inseparable and will stay with us together with Bannock, Priscilla, Bobby and Jake as ‘foundation herd members’. Bobby sadly miscarried in early summer. We subsequently discovered that she had been carrying twins. Live twin births are very rare in Alpacas.
Within a month of the cria being born we had once again called on Tim and he duly arrived with his superb black stud male Centurion. The three girls were mated and subsequent scans revealed them all to be pregnant. We are eagerly awaiting the new arrivals in the summer of 2007.
Shortly afterwards a friend of ours who dabbled in website design created our website www.patoualpacas.co.uk and we were officially launched! Primarily the website was designed as a way of other potential newcomers to the industry seeing how easy it is to get involved. It is possible to farm Alpacas at the same time as holding down full time jobs. We are well into our second year now and are testimony to that fact.
In March 2007 we entered our first Alpaca show, The British Alpaca Society Spring show at The Bath and West showground. Lily and Henry represented us and I paraded them in the show ring with immense pride. We had entered for the experience and to meet other alpaca breeders. What happened exceeded our wildest expectations. Lily, our young black female came second in her class and we now had our first rosette, what a buzz! The following year we acquired our first herdsire, Cambridge Columbus, a super looking brown male.
In 2009 we were fortunate in that we were able to take the holiday of a lifetime and spend some time in Australia. Naturally for part of the holiday we stayed on an alpaca farm. Van Diemen Alpacas in Tasmania is the home of Bob and Diane Hey and they were kind enough to look after us for a few days. It was there that we found an extraordinary brown male called Qjori (pronounced Cory). He was a beautiful rich brown and we simply had not seen a brown male of his quality in the UK. After a bit of negotiating a deal was struck and Qjori arrived in Chicksgrove in August the following year. Qjori has had a huge influence on our herd and has produced several herdsires and top quality females for us. He is still one of the best proven brown males in Europe and continues to produce quality colored progeny. Buying a herdsire was a bold (and expensive) move for us but through outside services and stud service savings for us he more than paid for himself within the first year. He is a special male and will always will be dear to us, even if he moves on.
We have been frequent attendees at numerous shows across the country each year. Results don’t always go our way but we have more than punched ‘well above our weight’ on most occasions. Showing alpacas is a wonderful experience and not only do you get to show off the results of your breeding, you gain experience, make friends and generally have a great time. It is also addictive!
Slowly over the next few years the ‘Mighty Patou’ herd has grown steadily and as we have enjoyed success in the ring, success in the business has followed.
In 2011, in search of more grazing for the growing herd, we moved a couple of miles up the road to Ridge, a beautiful hamlet in the middle of the glorious Fonthill Estate. Since moving the alpaca business has gone from strength to strength.
As planned I retired from the police in November 2013 and am now a full time alpaca breeder. It is great being able to attend more shows and become more and more involved with a vibrant growing young industry.
I am now chairman of the South West Alpaca Group and having taken early retirement am throwing myself into the alpaca buiness. 2014 has been our most successful year to date and we have now exported alpacas to Ireland, Germany, Norway, Holland, France and Belgium as well as selling to many breeders and pet owners in the UK.
And France? Well, Gus has just started his secondary education here in the Uk so we have put all plans of moving abroad on hold, maybe for good, who knows.
In summary Alpaca farming is great fun. It is also something that, on a small scale can be done very easily without impinging on the rest of your life. We still work and manage to give our herd the care and attention they require. All the animals are fabulously healthy and are thriving here in Ridge. We have a solid breeding plan and can see the quality of the herd increasing every year.
The herd will grow year on year and we will continue to enjoy all things alpaca. We wholeheartedly believe in the future of these remarkable animals.
We don’t regret making the life changing decisions one iota and look forward with great excitement to the next few years. If you are considering something similar, just do it. No-one else will do it for you! If you need some friendly advice or guidance, please give us a call.