Getting to grips with shearing alpacas
AS every sheep farmer will know, shearing is an exhausting job. Approaching his “middle years”, sheep shearer Jonathan Waters decided to make life a little easier by diversifying into alpaca shearing, using a clever device which operates at waist height and makes relatively light work of the task.
Three decades of professional sheep shearing were enough to convince Mr Waters that he needed to find an alternative income.
He was asked to shear his first alpaca while working on a client’s sheep flock and the business has grown by word of mouth.
In the past year, he has picked up more than 50 new alpaca clients and is very much enjoying the new branch of his business, while contract lambing, sheep dipping and agricultural building work provide a source of income out of season.
Alpacas are unusual creatures and as well as being considerably larger than sheep, their temperament can only be described as tricky. They do not take kindly to restraint and Mr Waters’ first customer of the day was not at all keen to be manhandled on to upright board, which can be moved into a horizontal position at the turn of a metal handle adapted from the leg of a disused garden trampoline.
The second male alpaca to be gently flipped over on the board was even more reluctant to be manoeuvred into position and made his feelings very clear by keeping up an intermittent high-pitched wail throughout his ordeal.
Mr Waters has always manufactured his own trailers in the quiet periods during the winter and this customised contraption for alpacas was a trailer tent in a former life.
“The key to the successful shearing of an alpaca lies in having a firm and comfortable restraint system that has been designed with the safety of both the animal and the shearer in mind,” he says.
“Alpacas will often struggle against any confinement, but in my opinion they seem to be annoyed, rather than traumatised, by the experience.”
The alpaca shearing season begins in May and finishes at the end of August.
“Alpacas need to have their coat removed for welfare reasons, as otherwise they will overheat in high temperatures,” explains Mr Waters.
“However, if they are sheared in late summer, I will leave 8-10mm of fleece to keep them warm when the weather turns.”
Alpacas produce two distinct types of fleece, he explains.
“The first quality wool is taken from the saddle, shoulders and rump, while what is known as ‘seconds’ comes from the belly, neck and head and is mainly used for felting and to fill pillows and quilts.
“Unlike sheep, alpacas have no lanolin content in their wool and it is said to be suitable for making clothes for people who have allergies to sheep’s wool.”
He adds: “Some of my clients will harvest the wool for spinning and making into garments and blankets, although many alpacas are kept as pets and to keep the grass down.
“If the client also keeps llamas I will shear those as well; they are much bigger and stronger than alpacas and I will try to manage the task while they are upright, if possible.
“Entire male alpacas will fight for domination when they are kept in a group, but if a llama is added, it will be accepted as the boss and the alpacas will settle down.”
Once the alpaca has been coaxed into position, he will take full advantage of its immobility by undertaking other aspects of its care. The species is classified as a camelid and its teeth will grow throughout its life.
While the rate of growth depends on the individual, many will need to have their teeth filed on a regular basis. He will also trim their feet, if necessary.
While the keeping of alpacas has increased in popularity, they are not commonly found and therefore Mr Waters’ clients are spread across a three-hour travelling circle from his base in Chilton, with herds in Cheshire, Edinburgh and Goole.
Some alpaca specialists also work abroad, but he has never been on a plane and says he has plenty of work to keep him busy during the shearing season.
Numbers in the herds that he attends range from one animal up to 50, with most containing three or four animals; they can be kept at a stocking rate of three to the acre, he notes.
Sheep shearing is still a part of Mr Waters’ year, but in time he is hoping that he will have enough alpaca-owner clients to allow him to stand down.
“Since Continental breeds have become more widespread the average sheep has grown in size and shearing large numbers can place immense strain on the body,” he says.
“I reckon that I have only about five years of shearing left, before my back causes me too much pain to carry on working, but I believe that I will be able to continue shearing alpacas up to the point when I am ready to retire.
“I enjoy my work with alpacas and many of their owners are great characters.
“I travel far and wide nowadays and I visit parts of the region which I have never seen before.
“This winter, I plan to use the prototype of my specialised alpaca-shearing trailer and incorporate the design into a pick-up truck, which should make the job even easier.”