We are all familiar with dog walkers, and horses on the road or bridleway are to be expected, but how many people have seen alpacas being taken for a walk? On a lead?
If you live near Ashampstead, this is a regular occurrence.
Wyld Court Alpacas makes it possible for anyone to go alpaca trekking through open fields and woodland.
Wyld Court Alpaca trekking is the brainchild of Sharon Matthews, who owns 12 Huacaya alpacas. Her five males are regularly taken on treks with the public.
“Males are better for walking because females are generally too hormonal,” says Sharon.
“But we still need to ensure the males are suitable with the right temperament. They have to be happy being touched and handled, but we had one who found life a bit too stressful, he really didn’t enjoy it, so we decided to rehome him.
“They all start off a bit jumpy, but after a couple of goes they relax into it. Alpacas have no natural defence, so their instinct is to run off if they get nervous and they are quite strong.”
We met Sharon and her assistant Debbie Carter at the Casey Fields Farm Shop, off Dog Lane, along with two little bundles of fluff - Excaliber (Scally) and Daf - our alpaca companions for the next 90 minutes.
Sharon told us that there should have been three, but the third, Enzo, refused to let himself be caught today, so she let him have his way and he stayed at home.
She said: “They are quite stubborn. If they don’t want to do something they lie down – an action that is known as cushing.
“Enzo wasn’t having any of it this morning. He would not let himself be caught.”
However, in general the alpacas enjoy the adventure of being outside in new environments, meeting new people, eating new and exciting things and posing for photographs.
Before starting, I was given the option of leading an alpaca and I jumped at the chance and took Scally’s lead. I was told he liked to walk behind Daf and that they didn’t like to be far apart from each other. I introduced myself to him and he seemed totally at home with the fuss.
Just 18 months old, Scally is the younger and smaller of the two alpacas. Daf is two and a half years and they are half-brothers, with the same father.
On any given trek experience there are a maximum of five people per alpaca, so if all the alpacas are in the mood for a walk there can be as many as 25 people on a trek.
When asked who generally books these walks, Sharon says: “It’s mostly adults actually, or adults dragging their kids along.
“One dad came with his kids and was more enthusiastic than his children. He refused to give up Enzo, as he felt he had bonded with the little fella.”
Sharon hasn’t been in the alpaca business for long; “Only about a year,” she explains. “I swapped a vintage Vespa for five females, like you do. Haven’t we all done it?
“I got those last January and two of those were pregnant, so then we had seven. We had been reading about these alpaca walking experiences around the country, so we got some boys.
“These are pets who wouldn’t have any other use – they are not breeding quality.
“Once we decided to do the walks, we bought five males.”
In addition to the walks, Enzo and Scally visit care homes where they are used as a form of therapy. Their gentle nature makes them ideal and their fluffiness simply adds to their appeal.
Debbie recalls: “One elderly lady at one of the care homes reached out to touch the side of the alpaca and was surprised that her hand kept going. She wasn’t expecting quite as much fluff.”
Alpacas are also able to walk upstairs and travel in lifts quite happily and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t generally get caught short inside.
If they need to go to the ‘little alpaca room’, they get a bit shuffley and the carer will then take them outside.
Sharon is also thinking of expanding her alpaca business: “Weddings are the new things with alpacas.
“We are talking with a couple of wedding planners at the moment so we will be offering this service soon.
“People have them as ring bearers or they will have a couple walking about and the guests can feed them while they are preparing for the photographs.
“We plan to do little monogrammed bags of feed as well.
“People want their wedding to be special and are constantly looking for something different.”
Sharon has only been running the trekking since November 2017, so it is still in the very early days. “I’m amazed how busy it is, to be honest,” she says.
”We run them every weekend, a couple of days in the week and in the school holidays we run them more often.”
The trek through the fields and woods is a perfect opportunity to see the alpacas doing their day-to-day thing.
Scally had been labelled as “an absolute pig because as soon as he sees the food bag he is right in your face”.
He lived up to this reputation.
At the halfway point the bags of feed were produced and suddenly Scally became my best friend, eating from my hand and trying against the odds to get his head in the bag.
Sharon explains: “If they eat out of your hand it is a good indicator that they will be happy to be handled.”
Scally was just happy to eat and, once in the woods, he was eating everything in sight, from leaves and twigs, to sweetcorn (from a nearby maize field). Sharon assured me she fed him, despite appearances.
The biggest quirk – which is apparently specific to winter – is the alpacas rolling on the floor like dogs.
When they reached the tarmacked road both Scally and Daf got onto the floor and rolled, showing their stomachs, with their legs in the air.
Sharon laughs: “I think they do it because it is dry, and the fields are muddy and wet.
“The road isn’t bumpy or gravelly and it is a good place to scratch on. They only do it in the winter. In the summer they have a dirt patch that they like to roll in.”
Alpacas are becoming more common on the British landscape, but the national herd is still only about 40,000.
Compare this to the sheep herd, which in 2012 was 22.9 million, and it seems alpacas are still relatively rare.
Sharon recalls one lady on a walk who had never seen an alpaca other than in pictures.
Well, now there’s a chance to see them for real in the Berkshire countryside.
Sharon is asked this question all the time and said: “It’s like asking the difference between a Shetland and a horse. They are different species.”
These are the five main differences:
1 Ears – alpaca ears are leaf-shaped and llama’s ears are longer and more banana-shaped
2 Size - Llamas are generally bigger than alpacas
3 Faces - Llamas have longer faces whereas an alpaca’s face is more squared off
4 Fleece – Alpaca fleece is finer than llama fleece and there is more of it. They are fluffier, with more hair on their head than a llama
5 Personalities - Alpacas like company and to be part of a herd whereas llamas are more independent animals. Llamas are more aggressive and are even used as guard animals for other livestock – including guarding alpacas
Alpacas are bred in the UK primarily for their fleece, which is incredibly soft and warm and is a favourite with knitters.
There are two types of alpaca which have very different fleece.
The Huacaya has short, curly fibre and the Suri has a form of dreadlock. It is possible to spin both types of fleece, but Suri alpacas are rarer in the UK than Huacaya.
There is no lanolin in alpaca fleece, unlike sheep’s wool, and it can be spun directly from the fleece without being scoured first.
An alpaca is sheared once a year, normally in May. If they are not sheared the fleece continues growing. An average alpaca fleece weighs approximately 2.5kg.
Alpaca fibre was introduced to the UK by Sir Titus Salt in 1836, and alpaca coats and clothes were very fashionable during the reign of Queen Victoria.
The Wyld Court Alpaca Trek is a perfect opportunity to get close to these beautiful and gentle creatures.
The walks last between 90 minutes to two hours, depending on the speed of the alpacas and can cover up to three miles.
The route is not suitable for buggies or wheelchairs and small children would need to walk or be carried. In the winter be prepared for mud.
Children must be aged six or older to lead an alpaca and if under nine years old an adult must hold an additional lead.
The costs vary, with one person leading one alpaca costing £30, or a family ticket (two adults and two children) costing £55. Short walks are offered for people with disabilities or mobility problems (normally the last Sunday of the month) and costs £20.