In this week’s Farmer Focus segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Gainne Mor Alpacas about turning a hobby into a business.
Trevor and Rita Wilson of Gainne Mor Alpacas, Downings, Co. Donegal have turned a hobby into a thriving business on a former dairy farm.
The full-time landscape photographer and builder’s provider store employee ventured into alpaca farming in early 2019 with two breeding females. The couple currently has 21 Alpacas with births due in July and have diversified into yard production and agri-tourism.
Rita told That’s Farming: “My husband’s father was a sheep farmer, and his uncle was a dairy farmer in Downings.”
“Sadly, his father and uncle passed away a few years ago, and the dairy farm was no longer in use. However, the old dairy buildings and land had potential, and we thought of something we could do with tourism and farm in a more sustainable way.”
“After a lot of research, we found that Alpacas suited perfectly with their gentle nature and low carbon footprint. We fell in love with them and their ethos and who could resist their good looks. My husband is part-time at present but aiming to be full-time by summer 2022.”
Alpaca fibre production
When they realised alpaca fibre’s potential, Rita contacted William from McNutt of Donegal in Downings to learn more about the process of weaving scarves.
McNutt of Donegal has been producing some of the world’s finest weaves for over 60 years. To have someone on board with “so much knowledge and experience of the market” was a real asset to the couple.
After a very knowledgeable discussion with William, the idea of making scarves from their alpaca’s fleeces was finally a reality. Being able to trace each scarf back to the animal was their unique selling point for the business.
The next step was learning all about alpaca fibre and, with the help of alpaca breeders, Roger, and Elaine Clarke from Amberly Alpacas in Clogher. They guided the Wilsons on the best qualities to look for in a fleece.
Roger is a qualified BAS alpaca judge, and Elaine is a committee member of the British Alpaca Society. “With guidance from both, we knew we could produce a fully Irish product with traceability that is 100% sustainable.”
“We have both Huacaya and Suri. The Huacaya breed has a dense, crimped fleece, which results in them looking like teddy bears.”
“The fleece of the rare Suri breed grows longer and silkier, giving it a lustre appearance. Watching a Suri fleece blowing in the wind is a sight to behold.
Alpaca farming is known for its many benefits. According to the husband-and-wife duo, the animals are “fairly simple” to manage and are relatively problem-free.
They consume a varied diet, primarily grass throughout the year, whilst hay must also be provided on an ad-lib basis all year round.
As alpacas are susceptible to cattle, goat, and sheep worm parasites, they should have dung samples tested regularly. They require a camelid supplement feed daily and an AD&E paste/injection over the winter months.
“We weigh them every month as alpacas are great at hiding their body condition underneath all of their fibre. So scoring or weighing will alert you when there is a problem.”
“Alpacas weigh in at between 55kg and 90kg. Alpacas are induced ovulators and, therefore, can be bred at any time, although planning for spring births is preferable.”
“The females are generally re-mated a few weeks after the birth. Males become fertile at about 18 months to 3 years. They are herd animals and will not thrive on their own. Two or ideally three alpacas is the minimum investment required.”
Revenue opportunities for Gainne Mor Alpacas
Opportunities for alpaca farming in Ireland include, but are not limited to, agri-tourism and yard production, both of which the couple has branched into,
As alluded to earlier, alpaca fibre production is a lengthy process that starts on the couple’s farm by selecting good stud males to improve fleece quality. The alpacas are sheared annually, and fleeces are skirted and graded.
They are then sent to a processing mill in the UK to be turned into yarn. The mill they use to process the fleeces to yarn is eco-friendly, much in the same ethos as the alpacas themselves.
The last stage involved bringing finished yarn to McNutt’s premises to begin designing and weaving scarves.
In addition, the couple also offers alpacas walks on their farmland and farm visits by appointment. Their farm is situated in the picturesque area of Sheephaven Bay, Downings, Co. Donegal.
The public can take one of their males for a walk lasting approximately 90 minutes before returning to the enterprise to meet other animals and learn about the process and steps of creating yarn from their very own alpacas.
“Alpaca farming can provide a viable living in Ireland, but you need a very well-thought-out business plan. There is no quick money from alpacas; it is a slow investment. The initial setup costs can be high – depending on your future goals and direction.”
“There are many ways of making a return from an alpaca herd, but you should embrace as many aspects of the industry as you can, like fibre production, agri-tourism, alpaca walking, care home visits etc.”
“Some breeders use them as a visitor attraction in their tourist business or holiday cottages. If you are interested in starting an alpaca business, it is advisable to do careful research and visit as many farms as possible.
Animal health and Covid-19
“The most challenging aspect for us is when an alpaca goes down. It can be a challenge to find out what is wrong as they are stoic and hide problems very well. We are lucky to have a good veterinary practice willing to learn about alpacas and the backup support from our breeders, Amberly Alpacas.”
“They make the difficult times a bit easier to deal with. One of the biggest decisions when purchasing alpacas is to make sure you buy from a reputable breeder who will give you that support in good times and bad.”
“Our main difficulty was the delays to work on the farm due to Covid. The pandemic slowed us down from opening the farm in 2020. For the health and safety of our animals and the public, it was essential to create a badger-proof perimeter to the farm for biosecurity. This was taking longer than expected.
“With construction restrictions, we were without our larger steel shed that we ordered for the winter. So, it meant a lot of moving around the male alpaca groups to get them to the main outbuildings when the weather turned bad.”
“Living at the coast, the gales can be severe, and that combination, and rain and low temperatures, would make them uncomfortable. But thankfully, we recently got our steel shed erected, and that was one less thing to worry about.”
“However, the Covid restrictions have made us sit back and plan our long-term goals more. They have given us more time for thought on pasture layouts and farm improvements,” added the members of the Alpaca Association of Ireland, British Alpaca Society and CAMELIDynamics.
‘Untapped potential’ and a year of milestones
Ultimately, the Wilson’s goal is to have a Suri breeding programme. “The elegance and lustre of the Suri fleece had been reeling me since I first saw them.”
“When the opportunity came to purchase a female called Lignum Million Dollar Baby from Amberly Alpacas, we jumped at the chance. Out of the 3 million alpacas globally, less than 10% of the breed is thought to be Suri.”
“There has never been a more exciting time to raise alpacas and more opportunities to create revenue from those activities. One area growing in interest and popularity is fibre production.”
“Alpaca fibre is one of the world’s most luxurious fibres. It grows in 22 officially recognised colours and every shade in between. The yarn industry for alpacas is an area with untapped potential and ready to be developed as an additional revenue stream.”
“Our journey has been a rewarding one, but we faced many challenges in our first few years. Nevertheless, we have lots to look forward to in 2021, with many of our females due to give birth and our first Suri to be born on the farm.”
“I cannot picture our lives without them now. We learn something new each day, and there is never a dull moment with each alpaca having their own unique personality. To welcome visitors onto our farm this summer will be a true privilege,” Rita of Gainne Mor Alpacas concluded.