Paddock teddy bears - what's not to love about alpacas?

PERSONALITY PLUS: Soft and gentle, alpacas are intelligent and full of character.
PERSONALITY PLUS: Soft and gentle, alpacas are intelligent and full of character.

Known for their gentle natures and astonishing fleece, alpacas have been a favourite in Australia for decades.

Members of the camelid family which also contains the guanaco ('hwan-ark-oh'), llama ('ya-mah' or 'lar-mah') and vicuna ('vy-koon-yah') they offer an attractive alternative to farmers and hobby farmers when compared to other animals like sheep.

Their softer feet, pads rather than hooves, mean they have less impact on the landscape.

They are usually free from fly strike and foot rot and, because they adhere to a latrine system ie defecating in one place, tend to have relatively low parasite burdens.

However, depending on where you live you should check with your vet regarding localised diseases you need to be aware of or vaccinate for.

They will need regular vaccinations and vet health checks, and unless you are going to breed them males should be castrated, but overall, alpacas are a good choice from both a domestic and a commercial perspective if you have the room.

The reason for owning alpacas either as companions, guardians or for breeding/farming, will determine the type, number and sometimes the sex of your alpacas as well as the cost.

Do you homework and buy from reputable alpaca owners, and in the case of breeding only purchase Australian Alpaca Association-registered animals.

There are two types of alpacas, the popular Huacaya (wua'ki'ya) and the Suri (soo'ree) primarily distinguished by differences in their fleece, which comes in 12 different colours ranging from black and brown through to fawn, grey and white.

They should be shorn at least once a year.

In addition to providing wonderful fleece, alpacas are also used as guard animals, successfully protecting flocks of sheep and goats.

They often bond with what is known as their 'foster' herd and have a natural aggression towards foxes.

However, they are still as vulnerable as any other animal to wild dogs.

With a lifespan between 15 and 20-plus years, intelligence and gentle temperament, it is tempting to treat them like a cat or dog, but according to the association, they do not like to be held and are sensitive to being touched on the head.

They also may see humans as competition and try to throw their weight around, so the association's advice is they "should be allowed to be alpacas".

Also being part of the camel family they will spit to express their annoyance within the herd, often over food.

They also do sometimes spit at people, so bottom line, learn how your alpacas communicate and stay out the way if they are cranky.

If you do decide to keep alpacas, as paddock companions or commercially, you will need more than one. They are herd animals and as such need the company and social interaction of others of their kind.

According to The Alpaca Place, the stocking density should be around four or five animals an acre, but this can be higher depending on the feed quality, soil, rainfall and whether you are going to supplement their diet.

Paddocks should fenced in a way similar to that for sheep, preferably without barbed wire or electrification, and contain sufficient shade and shelter in the form of a shed or similar which allows them to escape the elements if need be.

You should also have a yard of some sort which allows for close handling like vet checks and shearing.

When it comes to diet alpacas are of course herbivores and are quite happy grazing on grass and foliage, which can be supplemented with good quality hay like meadow and lucerne and commercially available alpaca 'nuts' in limited amounts.

You should avoid grains as this can cause ulcers and they can also be affected by plants like oleander as well as perennial and annual ryegrass toxicity and phalaris toxicity.

These lovable paddock teddy bears have much to recommend them, but as always, do your research and speak to alpaca owners and your vet to determine if they are the right choice for you.