Alpacas are part of the camelid family.  They are hardy animals that require a relatively little amount of care.  Alpacas eat hay or grass, can live in hot and very cold climates, and just need basic shelter, vaccinations, and to have their fleeces sheared and their toenails trimmed.  They even establish communal piles to lay their waste.  They live from fifteen to twenty years and weigh between 100 and 200 pounds.  They are much smaller than a Llama, which can weigh 400 pounds.  In fact, some alpaca farmers, including Johan and Sandra Harder, own a Llama to protect their herd.  The more-aggressive Llama will deal with and spit at unwanted visitors, like rabbits, coyotes, and people to protect the herd.
(Left) Shaftsbury Alpaca's llama protecting the herd


While fossils of alpaca-related animals have been found in parts of North America, the alpaca lives indigenously in the Andean regions of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia.  In the 1500’s the Conquistadores killed many native alpacas and replaced them with sheep throughout South America.  The alpacas that survived were pushed into the high grounds of the Andes.  The vast majority of the alpaca population died around this time, and the remaining alpacas were forced to adapt to the barren and desert-like conditions of the “Altiplano.”  In the beginning of the 1800’s with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Sir Titus Salt, an English mill owner, began using alpaca fleece to set his business apart from the many other textile mills.  From the 1800’s until today the demand for alpaca fleece has grown, and so has the number of places that are now home to alpacas.  Beginning in 1984, alpacas were imported in great numbers to the United States.  Even though the importation of alpacas was closed in 1998, the United States has had a great enough alpaca population to keep the amount of alpacas in the nation growing.  The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) was established in 1989 and now has over 4,000 members and 60,000 registered alpacas in the United States. 


Alpacas are prized for their fleece.  Unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fleece contains no lanolin, so it is a cleaner, less greasy fiber.  Alpaca fleece is stronger, warmer, softer, and silkier than any sheep’s wool.  It shines, it is light, and highly sought after for its cashmere-like qualities.  Alpaca fleece comes in 32 natural colors and can be used for everything from scarves and tuxedoes to teddy bears and socks.  Alpacas are bred for the quality of their fleeces.  Breeders show their alpacas at any of the hundreds of Alpaca shows across the United States.  Alpacas that have earned titles based on their conformation, fleece staple, and crimp become of greater value to breeders.  That alpaca will then be able to fetch a higher price for not only in its own fleece, but as a stud fee to another breeder.  If the alpaca is female, it has a better chance of giving birth to more valuable offspring.  Alpacas like this that are of good pedigree can be worth thousands of dollars. 

(Right) Alpaca fleece hours before it will be sheared

Farrar, Charles and Lucy. "Visit an Alpaca Farm or Ranch Today." Copyright Charles and Lucy Farrar.

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