The value of an alpaca comes from its high-quality fleece, and one farmer tapping into that potential is Andrew Chilton, who swapped an executive career in tech for farming life in the west of Ireland.
Chilton was born and raised in South Africa and lived in Dublin for a stint, where he met his now wife, Angela, but they now reside in Knockvicar in the heart of Co Roscommon with their family and 44 alpacas.
Specialising in fleece production, Andrew sends fleece to the UK for processing and then utilises it to make pillows and duvets, which he sells from the farm.
Alpacas are shorn once a year, which produces about 2kg of fibre, which is worth circa €17/kg, which is more than organic sheep wool, which can be as low as 70c/KG.
According to Teagasc, alpaca fibre is more valuable than cashmere, and the Guinness World Records has confirmed that alpaca fibre is the finest in the world, being soft, fine, and strong in nature, with strength second only to silk.
The fibre is made of hollow fibres with insulating qualities that are reported to be “significantly” warmer than sheep’s wool.
Appearing during the sixteenth episode of the latest series of RTÉ’s Ear to the Ground, he told presenter, Ella McSweeney:
“The fibre has a number of amazing characteristics. Firstly, it is hypoallergenic (suitable for allergy sufferers), and secondly, it is an excellent thermoregulator.”
“Imagine where they live in the wild in the desert, with daily temperature fluctuations of, for example, -10 or -15 degrees Celsius, and it could increase to 30 or 35 degrees Celsius during the day. There is almost a 50 degrees Celsius change in a 24-hour period.”
“The alpacas that we have here are either first or second-generation Europeans or Australian or English; they are not native South American animals,” he explained during the segment.
Because alpacas are used to sunny South American weather, they require a boost of vitamin E during the Irish winter months, while a dust bath helps to prevent parasites in their fleece.
Moreover, aside from fleece production, the farm generates income from paying visitors who spend time with animals.
On a neighbouring plot of land, Andrew and his family farm organic vegetables and a herd of Dexter cattle.
Unlike cattle, alpacas are not classified as livestock by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine and are, therefore, deemed to be exotic pets, which is something that Andrew believes, needs to change.
“There are zero regulations around them at all. They can get TB, so we now have a TB policy in place with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, so that is a good step forward.”
When asked by McSweeney if he would be hopeful that alpacas would gain official recognition in the future, Andrew replied: “Absolutely – why should they not?”
“They are animals, grazing grass. Why should they not get recognition for them utilising the grass if we are trying to establish a sector and as a form of farm diversification.”
“This is something we most definitely can do,” he added.