Sunday, February 21, 2010

The highs and lows of February gardening

The highs

DSC02270 As this is an alpaca blog I thought I should include some of the girls in the background

It’s a great time of year in the garden, everything is going into overdrive: chillies, capsicums, a second flush of strawberries, more tomatoes than we can manage – we’ll be bottling and preserving within the next week or so and the grapes! we only grow them for the Alpacas as treats (alpacas love grapes and vine leaves) but there’s more than we can use this year – and we still haven’t finished last year’s grape jelly.

The Lows

Stink Wort…. Horrible stuff. If you’ve never met it before, it looks like wild rosemary and has a sticky sap that smells like rotting violets. It’s not toxic but it is an intestinal irritant for animals and we have, or rather had, an outbreak in the stud boys’ paddock. Trouble is that, at this time of year, unirrigated soil is like iron. I’ve certainly broken up softer concrete. Weeding over here involves a pickaxe, mattock and hours of hard labour singing chain-gang songs.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vicugna or Lama?

Now, I’m not a regular Facebook user but I do drop by a couple of times a week to see what’s going on and throw in the the odd comment or picture.

There are quite a few Alpaca breeders there though and there was a conversation a few days ago that raised the subject of Vicugnas (or vicuñas).

Anyone who’s had to listen to me prattle on about the subject will know that I have a soft spot, verging on the obsessive about these beautiful animals.


It all started a couple of years ago when I was writing a short article about alpacas and included the Latin name – Lama Pacos in brackets afterwards I thought I’d better check the spelling, typed ‘alpaca pacos’ into Google Scholar and began an 18 month search, during which I had dozens of online arguments, read many published papers, learned more than I ever wanted to know about Camelid genetics and spent some interesting time on my last visit to the UK with the curator of mammals at the Natural History Museum. I’m confident enough now to say that I keep and breed Vicugna Pacos rather than Lama Pacos.

You may be familiar with the story of the full name and heritage of the Alpaca but I wasn’t, so I’ll share a tiny part of it here.

The wild South American Camilids are the Guanaco and the Vicugna (both descended from a common ancestor, 2 million years before). For more than 250 years the zoological establishment believed that only the descendants of the Guanaco (lama Guanico) had been domesticated and that it was from this line that the modern Llama (Lama Glama) and Alpaca (Lama Pacos) came. It was thought that the Vicuna (Vicugna Vicugna) had never been domesticated and remained an independent line.

Then, in the mid 90’s, along comes Jane Wheeler (no relation unfortunately) and a group of archeozoologists who claimed that evidence from Peru suggested that the Alpaca was bred from the Vicuna 6-7000 years ago

To cut a long and fascinating story short, in 2001 Wheeler presented a paper to the Royal Society showing clear DNA evidence that the Alpaca was a direct descendant of the Vicuna rather than the Guanaco. So, genetically, the Alpaca and Llama are cousins rather than siblings.

Today, the V. Pacos name is accepted by most authorities and is gradually gaining ground in the scientific community, a quick search on one of the leading research databases finds 18 papers published in the last year that use the Vicugna form against 67 that use the Lama form – these things take time. Officially, either is acceptable for publication.

It goes without saying that I’d give major body parts to have the first Vicunas in Australia. It’s not going to happen of course, the Vicuna is still threatened, having been brought back from the brink of extinction after a great conservation success story, even now though, there are only a little over 125,000 of them living protected in South America and definitely not for export.

Every so often though, we do get a throwback – meet Flossy


Flossy is James’s rather than ours – he beat me to the wallet. She is probably one of the closest to Vicuna type alpacas I’ve seen in Australia and has just had her first Cria – it looks pretty special.

Jane Wheeler has most of her work and a lot of other fascinating stuff on South American Camelids on her website at A lot of it is in Spanish, but Google makes a reasonable job of translation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sharing responsibilities

We’ve seen some behaviour in the maternity group this year that we haven’t noticed before.

I’ve mentioned before that, like many other breeders, we run a maternity paddock, an area close to the house where we bring in the girls about 2 weeks before they’re due and for the first few weeks afterwards. We’ve seen three interesting behaviour patterns this year, two of which are new to us.

The babysitting service
Nothing new here, fairly common practice, but still good to watch. One of the mothers (and the duty does seem to rotate) is designated babysitter, she goes off with the crias while the rest of the adults congregate for a child-free feed, dustbath or a drink and chill-out session.

The defensive wall
Haven’t seen this one before. Occasionally a fox, kangaroo or other perceived threat passes through (although the foxes seem to have learnt to keep well out of range!). One or two of the girls herd all the babies into a tight group and then they all form a barrier around them, either a complete circle or a semi-circle facing the danger – any fox that’s hungry, brave or stupid enough to fancy cria for supper would have to first pass though a wall of kicking, spitting angry mothers. Watching it happen reminds me of old westerns – form the wagons into a circle…

The milk bar
Alpaca mothers are usually strict about making sure that they only feed their own offspring, they can even be quite rough with any interlopers. But that all seems to have relaxed this year. Possibly because there’s very little natural grazing in the maternity paddock this year so we’re feeding out – the result is that there’s is no competition for food – there’s plenty for everyone. Yesterday Mali, a big Suri mama, was feeding two simultaneously

DSC02249Not the best picture – I had to grab the camera in a hurry

They don’t seem to mind this year – some of the babies (not all) just grab on to whoever’s handy at the time.

Then there’s the girl with the human chin fetish, the near-adult that wants a bottle, the one that we’re going to have to book into the Betty Ford clinic to get off her lucerne habit and the one that used to be psycho-paca but has suddenly turned as soft an anything…

It’s an odd year.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Slowly Roasting

Never, not for even a moment, do I regret moving to South Australia. But, just around this time of the year I do start to pine a bit for Northern Hemisphere weather.

Sure, the sun is great and sitting by the pool sipping frozen daiquiris or taking the dog down to the beach sounds idyllic. And it would be if it was a holiday. But it’s not, there’s work to be done, animals to look after and it’s  %&**$# hot!

Take this morning, another cria born – one of James’s, a brown boy and his 7th so far (identity number ends 007 so, at the moment, he’s provisionally called ‘Bond’). Not a straightforward birth so I had to stay with them for about an hour and a half and I’ve found that Alpacas don’t seem to understand ‘Hang on a moment while I go and get some sun-screen’.


“They call me Bond, James’s Bond”

It’s just tipped over 40 degrees and I now have what feels like the mother of all hangovers.

I know this blog gets quite a few readers in the UK and Scandinavia and I know you’re having it tough over there with the snow – but I am enjoying the photo’s of frozen farms – I’d just like a little bit of it please to stick my head into…

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Babies, babies everywhere…


It’s cria season here at the farm and they’re hitting the ground every day at the moment (which means a serious marketing effort later in the year, otherwise we won’t be able to feed them all!). It’s a daft time of the year really, it doesn’t really tie in with the Australian show season – Any that are worth showing only get a couple of shows at the end of the season and are too old for the 6-12 month classes next year.

DSC02178 So far, the results are good, mostly females and only one lighter than medium fawn.

DSC02234 Our little Suri sideline project is looking promising as well with both of Colin’s to drop so far being beautiful solid browns.

One more and we’ll be able to enter a progeny team at the end of the year. We’ll keep you posted on how things go.

So far this year, no serious problems (keeping everything that’s crossable well and truly crossed…), we had one mum that was a bit fragile, but after a couple of false starts, she gave us another brown girl.

Even Juno, our only fancy has managed to ‘go solid’ this year.


As you can see from the pictures though, it will be nice when we get some grass back…