Alpacas and conservation grazing

Logo: Spring Farm Alpacas

By Vicki and Chris Agar, Spring Farm Alpacas

Two people facing the camera feeding a small black Alpaca
Alpaca rewarding with carrots (Spring Farm Alpacas)

We bought Spring Farm in 1997. It had been run as a horse livery business prior to our tenure. Our goal from day 1 was to manage the farm with wildlife as the prime consideration. Spring Farm sits in the High Weald National Landscape but the main substrate is heavy Wealden clay – not conducive to horses to say the least!

The original property was 47 acres but we fortuitously were able to purchase an additional block of land next to the River Ouse. This was floodplain but had been managed as an arable plot. By adding this 38 acre section to the original land holding, we were able to successfully join Countryside Stewardship (CS) in 2000. We have been in CS ever since.

On joining CS, we accessed a number of like-minded ecologists which was a huge boost to our natural enthusiasm. The overriding prescription within CS for us is the maintenance of wildflower meadows. This is where alpacas come in. We need to graze our meadows but without compacting the soil and with a light stocking density. The only two viable options were sheep and alpacas. We decided alpacas were the better option as our conservation grazers and we bought 3 pregnant females in 2000.

Closeup of wildflowers in a sunny meadow
Wildflower meadows at Spring Farm (Spring Farm Alpacas)

Alpacas are not difficult animals to look after – but they are not petting zoo type animals. Having said that, provided with a calm, kind, knowledgeable environment and with sensitive handling, they have enormous potential for welfare applications. This can be in animal assisted therapy – examples of which might be special education needs, mindfulness or guided meditation.

We have no farming background and went into land ownership with a blank sheet of paper but a love of the natural world and conservation. The seeding of our wildflower meadows in 2000/1 using local provenance wildflower seed provided a diverse and varied sward. This was in conjunction with the several hedges we have planted/reinstated and these now benefit our alpacas which are both grazers and browsers. We now own both llamas and alpacas, members of the camelid family and these animals are extremely light on the land. They are not, however, suitable for “wilding” type situations – any more than sheep are – because as fibre bearing animals, scrub and brambles would entangle them.

Woman sitting on the grass laughing as Alpacas surround and sniff her
Interacting with the Mum & Babies (cria) group (Spring Farm Alpacas)

Over the last 23 years, we have looked at how alpacas could be a benefit both to us as a business but also to our conservation goals. In the early years, we learned respectful handling techniques which has been key to providing an environment in which alpacas thrive. These skills allowed us to halter train all of our adult alpacas. This has saved us a fortune in vet call outs as we take them to the vet in our purpose converted van. We started our alpaca walking business in 2015 which was transformational from a business perspective. It has enhanced the revenue on the farm in excess of our breeding, selling and stud services of our pedigree alpaca herd.

Alpaca walks have provided us with the opportunity to educate interested members of the public in a casual and relaxed environment. We talk about how “easy” it is to do what we have done with nothing more than a keen interest in the natural world as a starting point. We are able to point out any wildlife on our walks. This can be - for example - kestrels, buzzards, fallow deer or wild orchids within our wildflower meadows. Being at the edge of the Ashdown Forest there is a large local deer population which moves around the locality and in/out of our fields. We use trail cameras to monitor badgers/foxes/deer etc. which become part of the visitor experience. The feedback from our walking guests (from Google and Trip Advisor) shows just what the experience means to people who can see what we are trying to achieve here. The smiles on everyone’s faces from the photos we take and send out (from each walk we do) tell us everything we need to know about the positive experience we provide.

Group of people walking Alpacas on leads through a meadow
Alpaca walking (Spring Farm Alpacas)

In addition, we have been part of a number of local and national habitat enhancement schemes. In conjunction with Wakehurst Place, we have planted 70 or so black poplar trees. Black poplars are Britain’s rarest native timber trees. We have also added swift/swallow/bird/dormouse/owl boxes. At our wet meadow, we have dug 2 manmade otter holts and carried out a major river meander restoration project on the River Ouse. The site of this is right by the Sheffield Park/Bluebell Steam Railway in East Sussex. This habitat enhancement together with riverine woodland planting aims to prevent downstream flooding of “at risk” towns and villages.

Alpacas were first bred as a fibre producing animal in the High Andes and as such wild alpacas and llamas do not exist. They are both descended from their extant wild ancestor – Vicuna in the case of the alpaca, Guanaco in the case of the llama. Every part of alpaca fibre has a value but the finest is spun into luxury yarns and sold in our Farm Shop.

By approaching farming with a completely open mind-set, we have created a thriving farm with multi-faceted revenue sources. We employ 3 full time and one part time members of staff. In addition, we are fortunate to have vet students training here throughout the year and we take on volunteers as well. All of this would not have been possible with our land holding (now 110 acres) if we had gone down the traditional dairy or arable routes. By allying conservation with the many alpaca revenue sources (and a very popular holiday let), we have been able to achieve all of our goals. We believe that alpacas/llamas could be an additional revenue source in many of the settings relevant the readership of CJS. We are regularly contacted and run tailored courses for anyone interested in alpacas or what they can offer.

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Posted On: 01/01/2024

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