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Alpaca Wonderland : Shamarra Alpacas

If you’ve ever visited an alpaca farm, you might be aware of the overwhelming joy that you feel when interacting with these soft-fleeced animals. Similar to and often confused with llamas, alpacas are part of the South American camelid family and complement wool as a secondary source. They were first introduced into New Zealand in the 19th century and were brought to the Banks Peninsula in 1869 by W. B. Rhodes. Continuing the tradition of raising alpaca in the Canterbury region, Frank and Anya Walkington run Shamarra Alpacas, based in beautiful Akaroa – a destination that you don’t want to miss, featuring around 170 alpacas.

Frank and Anya are the proud, passionate owners of Shamarra Alpacas, a farm overlooking the Akaroa Harbour with views of Banks Peninsula. Zimbabwean-born Frank and Anya, who is originally from South Africa, spent many years based in the Caribbean. After having kids, they decided to relocate to New Zealand where they’ve been farming alpacas for the past 20 years.

After residing in Silverdale, North Auckland, Frank and Anya decided to move to Akaroa 12 years ago and spent a good amount of time developing the farm. Noticing the absolute excitement it brought them, the pair thought it would be a good opportunity to run a tourism business where guests can visit the farm to learn more about alpacas and interact with them, whilst being surrounded by picturesque landscapes. On the farm, they have two full-time workers, Lydia and I Chen, who help them out with the alpacas – including knowing each animal by name. They manage the alpacas’ welfare, along with running farm tours. Shamarra Alpacas hold three tours per day, seven days a week, and are only closed for shearing and on Christmas Day.

“It's an interactive tour; people join us in the reception area where we give them a brief talk about the history of alpacas and we describe the fleece to them. From there we'll go out into the paddock – we have males in one area, where visitors will go and interact with them and they are usually quite friendly. Visitors can take photographs, they can hold them, and in some cases they can give them a big hug,” Frank said.

“We'll then go to the next area, which holds the mothers with this year's babies, where we’ll feed them. This can be quite an experience because there’s a lot of competition for food, and everybody seems to have a good time. We finish the tour at the reception area, where we have tea and our world-famous homemade cookies,” he added.

Shamarra Alpacas also have a shop, both on-farm and online, where they sell New Zealand-made alpaca fleece products. Alpacas get shorn once a year, with each alpaca growing two to three kilograms of fleece, which can work out to be around ten centimetres in length. Alpacas are slow breeding animals, pregnant for around 11 to 12 months, carrying just one baby at a time. They can sometimes go over the one-year pregnancy mark; this can be a slow, yet very rewarding process. Female alpacas, also known as hembras, can have up to ten babies throughout their lifetime as alpacas tend to live for around 15 to 20 years.

Lydia, one of the workers at Shamarra Alpacas said, “On the farm we separate them by gender as they can breed any time of the year. From there, we pick our male and female and bring them in for a short date of around 15 minutes, then separate them for a week. After a week, we will know whether she’s pregnant or not. There’s a funny way of telling if they’re pregnant; if it wasn’t successful she’ll sit down ready to be mated again, and if she is pregnant, she’ll spit at the boy – their personality changes when they’re pregnant. The baby alpaca weighs around seven to eight kilograms when they’re born and an adult female alpaca usually weighs around 65 to 80 kilograms, which is around the weight of a human adult.”

Their fleece, an alternative to wool, is regarded as being softer, lighter and warmer. Alpaca fleece is all-natural and doesn’t need to be dyed. At Shamarra Alpacas they have around eight different colours of fleece, but tend to specialise in fawn colours. When breeding alpaca, you don’t know what colour you’re going to get, but ultimately it’s the quality and feel of the fleece that matters, rather than the colour.

“The high-quality alpaca fleece is comparable to cashmere, but there’s less of it in the market so it does make it a bit more special, especially compared to Merino; there's a lot of Merino in New Zealand and it’s mostly dyed. That's where our herd is a little different because we don't have to dye it. It doesn't have lanolin. We also use very fine fleeced alpaca so you don't get that prickle factor as well, and that's also a big plus for the product,” Anya said.

“We’re very much into value-adding, so we shear the alpacas and buy fleece from other farms in New Zealand, as well as import from Australia. Everything's processed here in New Zealand, it goes through the whole washing and scouring process down in Timaru. Our fleece is spun at Design Spun in Napier for our knitwear and at WoolYarns in Upper Hut for our blanket range. After that, it goes to our manufacturers and they turn it into beautiful knitwear and blankets that we sell exclusively in our farm shop, as well as online. It's just a nice add-on for the farm tour guests where you get to buy something New Zealand-made. It's a completely natural product and makes great gifts. And again, it’s exclusive – they can't get it anywhere else.”

When Frank and Anya were showcasing fleece that came straight off the back of one of their alpacas, they emphasised how important it was to have a couple of income streams when farming the animal. For them, showing and attending regional A&P shows and the National Show are part of their bread and butter, and an integral way to market their genetics and sell stock. “We’ll get a championship ribbon and then the next morning, we’ll be getting emails,” Frank said. “It's good marketing for our overseas clients as well, because they will follow the shows and they know the ones that get the ribbons and the ones that don't.”

Frank and Anya are no strangers to awards, with one wall of their shed featuring rainbow-coloured ribbons dedicated to their great successes, accompanied by a table filled with trophies. Just recently, Shamarra Galactica won the Supreme Huacaya Fleece Award at The National Royal Agricultural Society Golden Fleece competition.

“Award-wise, when compared against a good number of other alpacas in New Zealand, it’s a good way to see where we are positioned in the country. New Zealand National Awards is the highlight of the seasonal show circuit. It’s quite exciting and good if we win something of that status,” Anya said.

“Environmentally, they do tick a lot of boxes. Alpacas have two toes placing them in the camelid family – two toes with a soft pad. Pugging is a big issue with a lot of livestock but with alpaca, you don't have that problem. They are very efficient converters of feed to energy, so you don't have to feed them enormous amounts of food. Obviously for lactating females we make sure that they've got plenty of feed, but they tend to do well on rough pasture. Alpacas don't need enormous amounts of water as well, and are very gentle on the earth. They also have communal dung piles, so that does help to a degree with controlling worm burdens and parasite build-up. We have minimal chemical input and have used AgriSea for nearly 20 years,” Anya added.

With plans for their daughter to enter the business at some stage, they will have family involvement, and will continue creating a space for visitors to learn about and meet the affectionate, inquisitive alpacas. “We're just trying to improve from year to year. Every year we would like to breed a better type of alpaca. They are amazing animals and are very interesting. They’re quite complex, but they are easy to look after. Like any animal, you put a fence around them and you’re responsible for them. We've got to the point now where we have a database that’s nearly 20 years old, so we have records that go back for a long time, and we've built up this knowledge about how to farm alpacas over the years. We still don’t have it 100% right, but we do make decisions now much closer to where we should have been ten years ago, or even before we came here. They are special animals and they really do make you feel good,” Frank said.