The craze for goat farming in the mid-1980s was surpassed by the effort that went into the introduction of camelids – alpacas (Lama pacos) and llamas (Lama glama) from Chile. Investors put considerable capital into getting environmental impact reports and negotiating import protocols. Government agencies required the animals to be quarantined both in Chile before export, and again in New Zealand after their arrival, to ensure they did not bring diseases into the country.
It was expensive to transport the animals to New Zealand. Aircraft and ships were chartered, and helicopters were needed to transfer the animals to the quarantine station.
Llamas and alpacas were introduced into New Zealand in the 19th century. W. B. Rhodes acquired alpacas from the Wellington provincial government in 1869 and kept them at his Banks Peninsula farm. At shearing time, they were found to be ‘exceedingly troublesome’, especially their spitting, with which they displayed ‘considerable range and accuracy’. 1
End of imports
In 1986, after only a few shipments, a severe outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Chile suddenly and permanently stopped the importation of alpacas and llamas, as they were the only exporting country. Despite that, in the early 2000s there were more than 6,000 alpacas in New Zealand. The New Zealand Alpaca Association has members throughout the country.
Acclimatisation in New Zealand
Alpacas and llamas have adapted well to New Zealand conditions. Most are found on small hobby or lifestyle farms. They are relatively easy to keep – they are not susceptible to fly strike or footrot, and there is no need for crutching, docking or dipping.
Long in the tooth
While alpacas are much easier to care for than sheep, they do need their toenails trimmed from time to time, depending on how soft the ground is (hard, stony soil will cause more wear) and the amount of protein in their diet. Also, as alpacas age their teeth tend to grow longer, and some may have to have theirs trimmed. This process causes them no pain and it is usually done at shearing time.
Alpacas and llamas need to be monitored for the health problems they are susceptible to. One of these is ryegrass staggers, caused by a toxin in some ryegrass species that affects the nervous system. If the problem is caught early, the animals will recover when removed from the pasture. However, the condition can become permanent with long-term exposure to the toxin.
Facial eczema is a major problem for llamas and alpacas. Caused by the spores of a fungus found in pasture, it leads to liver damage and causes the skin to be sensitive to light.
As they are opportunistic browsers, poisoning from eating toxic plants is a problem. Plants that can be fatal include nightshade, foxglove, hemlock, tutu, ragwort, mallow, buttercup and macrocarpa.
Young alpacas, known as cria, are prone to rickets if they do not get enough sunlight in their early months. This can be remedied with vitamin D injections.
Alpacas and llamas are very susceptible to tuberculosis, which is also a problem in cattle and deer.
Llamas and alpacas should be shorn every one to two years, and they produce 3–5 kilograms of fibre. They are shorn in late spring, either standing or lying down and restrained in a rope harness to keep them as still as possible. They are shorn with electric clippers or a normal sheep-shearing handpiece.
Alpaca and llama fleeces are soft, silky and very warm. Garments made from the fibre keep their shape and won’t pill. Alpaca fleece is softer than Merino wool and has higher tensile strength, resulting in more durable garments.
White fibre can be easily dyed, but natural colours are the most popular. In the high plains of Chile, alpacas produce a very fine fibre; whereas in the lusher pastures of New Zealand their fibre is coarser and less valuable. Llama fibre is generally slightly more coarse than alpaca fibre, and comes in a wide range of types and colours.
The fibre from a young alpaca’s first shearing is the finest and brings the highest price. Virtually all fibre is sold on the domestic craft market.