How do you tell the difference between an Alpaca and a Llama? By Laura Rowan
Sorry, no punchline. That sounds like it could be a joke, but the answer is something I learned this week during an Alpaca Trek experience. There are approximately fifty-thousand alpacas in the UK (another fact I learned) and there are quite a few herds in Derbyshire. Several of these offer alpaca experiences of varying prices and descriptions. To enjoy the first day of the six weeks holiday with tweenie, I booked a nearby trek at Brackenfield Alpacas, located in the gently rolling hills of the Amber Valley between Higham and Wessington.
The trek experience began in the barn with an introduction to a small group of alpacas and a talk about their history and care - which brings me back to the joke that wasn’t a joke. How do you tell the difference between an alpaca and a llama? Well, alpacas are smaller, have shorter snouts and a cute fluffy fringe. Llamas have more elongated snouts, and much less hair on their heads. But the easiest identifier is their ears; alpacas have short, straight, fluffy ears, llama ears are long and curved like bananas. There are two types of alpaca, Huacaya (pronounced wah-ki-ya) which have short dense wool coats, and Suri (pronounced surrey) which have long, curly-wool coats. The interesting and light-hearted introduction was given by two knowledgable guides and was around twenty minutes long. A few of the things we learned; The herd are scared of cows, but like the farm dog; they hate buttercups but love clover; they take a long time to pee and poop; they like eye contact and nose rubs and their primary sense is sight hence those big, beautiful, doleful eyes and flutterly lashes. They are quite dramatic and can be easily spooked but get over themselves very quickly (aptly demonstrated when they reacted to a plastic bag rustling and then seemingly forgot about it a matter of seconds later) After they have been sheared they don’t always recognise each other! This may have been my favourite little thing I have learned this week.
Following a safety and handling talk we were paired up with our alpacas. All in the same herd were aged one to two, so not yet full size. Tweenie and I were introduced to Huacayas Cappuccino, a handsome white-wool fella and Duke, an impossibly cute chestnut-wool chap. Alpacas are herd animals so they are always walked in groups. Our group was around ten people and ten alpacas which lent itself to an enjoyable leisurely walk around the fields. We weren’t rushed, but more importantly the alpacas weren’t rushed and were able to pause and eat clover (lots), interact with us and each other and greet other herds of alpacas. We saw that they did indeed take a long time to pee and poop and like to do this in the same spot and together as a herd. The guides were very happy to answer any questions, help with handling, share alpaca anecdotes as we went along and explained behaviours we saw such as displaying dominance or submission to other alpacas. Like llamas and camels they have a reputation for spitting, but they have to be very unhappy to spit and don’t do it as often as social media clips would suggest. I am happy to report that nobody was spat at! The alpacas were very easy to walk with and though they can be skittish, they appeared to be very at ease and relaxed throughout. Tweenie and I swapped alpacas half way through the walk, as hers (Cappuccino) stopped at every patch of clover and needed some encouragement to catch up with the rest of the herd. But he also liked to pause and gaze at us with what I swore to be curiosity, and both he and Duke won our hearts!
At the end of the walk we were shown how to easily remove the harness from our alpacas and then how to feed them. They are enthusiastic eaters, so we were instructed to rest the feed bucket on our shoulders and hand-feed them. Though quick eaters, they were very gentle and a bit ticklish. After feeding them we said goodbye to Cappuccinio and Duke, and the herd and were taken to meet another herd - the mothers and babies. A smaller herd, there were three babies (or, crias) not much over a week old. We were able to feed the mothers and hear them hum to each other to communicate. Although sight is an alpaca’s primary sense, smell plays a significant role in the mother identifying her baby so we were respectfully asked not to touch the babies which could interfere with that smell recognition.
This didn’t detract from the experience though, they were a pure delight to meet, with their skipping energy and inquisitiveness.
There is extensive evidence about the health and wellbeing benefits of being outdoors and time with animals, and the morning was incredibly relaxing after a stressful couple of days. We don’t have any pets yet, and Tweenie adores animals, so time with alpacas was a joy for her. Her verdict? “5/5 fun, enjoyable and gave us lots of time to do things, didn’t rush us”. I think her biggest smiles were when we fed the alpacas.
Costs and further information: £25 per person for 90 minutes including the talk and trek with an alpaca. £15 per person for the talk and to walk but without an alpaca. I think the latter option is good for younger children who might need their grown up to hold the alpaca for them. All children will need to supervised. There is an optional extra of booking a picnic table in the field with the mothers and babies for £10 per hour. I had booked this option but our walk ran over time so we only had half an hour before our lift home arrived as I was without the car (like I said, a stressful couple of days) so we didn’t really benefit from this. However the picnic tables sit four people so for a group booking or special celebration this could be worthwhile. The alpaca experience is an outdoor activity so be prepared for whatever the glorious British weather has in store for you (hands up who has been grumbling about it being too hot, and will also grumble when it starts raining again!).
Accessibility and facilities: The walk is through fields with varying grass height and uneven ground, the access to the barn and initial meeting place is a level dirt track which may be OK for pushchairs and some wheelchairs. For anyone who has mobility difficulties I would advise contacting the farm before booking. There is a customer toilet which is a reasonable size though I didn’t spot any baby-change table. The only sink was in the toilet, I think more handwashing stations would have been useful given the animal handling, though during pandemic times most people have a supply of hand sanitiser with them. Bookings can be re-arranged if you have to isolate.
Would we go again? Yes.
If I owned a bigger house, a field and had more money, would I get some alpacas? Yes, probably. We are now besotted with them!
We went to www.brackenfieldalpacas.co.uk
Search alpaca treks Derbyshire for other places.