Life in the slow lane with laid back alpacas
It is well worth booking an alpaca trekking session just to witness the expression on people’s faces when you tell them your plans. Wendy Short joined Doug Steen for a wander down to the River Greta
ALPACA trekking conjures up images of marching up hill and down dale at a rapid pace, with the humans wearing sturdy boots and all-weather gear and their charges tugging at their halters, stirred by distant memories of their relatives, which are a common sight high up in the mountains of their native Peru.
But first-time alpaca trekkers will be quick to discover that this romantic notion bears little resemblance to reality.
Alpacas very decidedly move at their own pace, which is extremely leisurely. They steadfastly refuse to be rushed under any circumstances; unless, that is, this trait is peculiar to the residents of Jock House Barn, near Boldron, the home of Teesdale Alpacas.
Their “take it or leave it” approach to life was obvious when I joined Doug Steen and fellow trekkers Katie and Will, to catch and halter our chosen animals.
Lured by food, the three alpacas were cornered by Doug and rather grudgingly accepted their halters, with lead ropes attached. My companions, who work on the RAF site at Brize Norton and were celebrating Katie’s birthday, took charge of Tulio and Max, while I was allocated Carlito, a handsome white beast with a haughty and detached expression.
The bad weather that we have come to expect in recent months failed to materialise, but the peace and quiet of the gorgeous summer day, with the wind uncharacteristically absent for once on Bowes Moor, was shattered by the sound of Monty, who even Mr Steen described as “a pain”.
Alpacas make a curious noise, which he describes as “humming”. It is a gentle sound, produced only intermittently by the rest of the herd. Monty, however, is different, keeping up a constant hum and also wandering restlessly, as if looking for something; a signpost to Peru, perhaps?
Doug, who moved to the smallholding in 2000, with his wife, Samantha, had no explanation for this behaviour, passing it off as just another example of the mysterious nature of alpacas.
The Steens have been keeping a herd for nine years, selling breeding stock and producing bolts of cloth from their fleeces, as well as teddy bears, caps and scarves, with the trekking business a more recent venture.
Alpacas, explains Mr Steen before we set off, are intriguing animals. He and his wife gave up trying to predict how they might behave long ago.
Nevertheless, some individuals in the herd of more than 50 are more tractable than others and he always uses the “boys,” or male castrates, for trekking duties. Even within that group, there are some that are deemed too stubborn and a minority who will kick out with their hind legs, if they feel so inclined.
Alpacas have an impressive array of teeth which, thankfully, they very rarely use to bite people, according to Mr Steen.
The males have a set of razor-sharp fighting teeth which can reach an inch long, if they are allowed to grow unchecked. In rare instances, sparring males have inflicted fatal wounds on each other during the breeding season.
They also spit, but again mainly at each other, he assures me, and a seriously upset alpaca can even regurgitate its stomach contents while doing so.
Fortunately, our charges display a much milder disposition. Carlito maintains a position behind my right shoulder without fuss, although there is a constant sense that he about to stop walking at any moment.
“Alpacas generally have three speeds; slow, dead slow and stop,” comments Mr Steen as we meander down the bank towards the river.
The distant hum of traffic from the A66 recedes as we walk (very slowly) through newly-planted trees, with the sound of songbirds interspersed by the mewing of a pair of buzzards catching the wind currents high above.
“We wanted livestock that would eat our grass and we kept being told that a sheep’s only purpose is to find a way to die,” he says.
“We came across a herd of alpacas by chance and we both thought they were cute, which led to the purchase of our first five.
“Once we started breeding from the herd, it became difficult to part with the youngsters and the numbers have grown quite quickly.”
Mr Steen adds: “We do sell individuals occasionally, but only to the right homes; they are not difficult to keep but they do require specialised knowledge.
“The trekking is another way to make the business pay and it has occupied a fair amount of our time over the past couple of years.”
One feature which attracted the couple to the alpaca was its inquisitive and engaging nature, adds Doug, who sits on the British Alpaca Society’s welfare committee. He needs no encouragement to impart information about alpacas and his enthusiasm is infectious.
“When alpacas were first imported into the UK, many didn’t live long because they suffered from rickets,” he says.
“It has since been found that the strong UV light in their native South America provided them with vitamin D and they became deficient when living in Northern Europe, which is why ours are given regular supplementation. As long as they are fed correctly, they are very hardy and have no problem coping in our climate, although they do need field shelters.”
The half-way point on the river bank would be an opportunity to rest, if rest were needed, and is the time when the alpacas are rewarded for their incredible physical efforts with the bags of food Mr Steen has brought along, the animals eating quite politely from our hands.
They also enjoy browsing on grass during their break from work and like to stare into the distance, probably thinking about the rest of the herd they have left behind, or possibly thinking of nothing at all; it’s hard to tell.
Unlike horses and ponies, they show no eagerness to head back when we turn for home, maintaining the same gait and displaying the same rather aloof, albeit fairly willing, attitude.
Back in their paddock and set loose to recover from all the exertion, our charges are occupied by a very brief scrapping session, to re-establish the herd hierarchy. Then they go back to doing... well, very little really.
I take my leave, but Mr Steen, pleased to have a further opportunity to talk all things alpaca, takes Katie and Will to have a look at the females.
Mrs Steen was not taking part in the trek that day. In keeping with the spirit of adventure which prevails at Jock House Barn, she was in South Africa, participating in a volunteer project tracking rhinos through the bush.
No mean feat for someone who is terrified of spiders and snakes and suffers from travel sickness, comments her husband, who mentions that she made the commitment during an enjoyable evening among friends, when more than one bottle of gin was consumed.
Alpacas are strange animals and behave nothing like more common species of livestock. They can’t really be herded, or cajoled into doing anything they don’t want to.
They particularly object to being sheared and have to be restrained by their legs while the task is being carried out. It seems that they have steadfastly refused to fully accept domestication and for that they have to be admired.
But it must be said that alpaca trekking is a relaxing experience; one is forced to walk so slowly that it is impossible not to take in all that nature has to offer in this beautiful part of the world.
As first-time alpaca trekkers, we all enjoyed our afternoon and it certainly satisfied Katie and Will’s quest to do “something different”.
Nevertheless, asked whether she would like to have an alpaca as a pet one day, Katie was vehement in her denial. Will, however, was quite keen, although I can’t imagine that the RAF will let him graze one on the runway.