As part of a new mini-series, involving previous ACRONS participants, Catherina Cunnane, That’s Farming editor, speaks to Kath White of FineOaks Alpacas, which she runs from her charming five-and-a-half-acre smallholding near Millstreet in Cork.
Originally from London, she tells us about her passion for breeding top-quality alpacas and training them to provide experiences for people, ranging from therapeutic and well-being to nursing homes, community hospitals, schools, weddings, parties and even corporate events.
“I do not hail from a farming background, although I have grown up all my life around animals.”
“As a child, I badgered my parents from a young age for a pony and eventually, aged eleven, they conceded and bought me one, after many years of riding lessons.
I have had horses ever since and still do, to this day, alongside my alpacas, but I have never been involved in farming.
To lay the foundations, I bought my first three female alpacas from a well-known, very reputable alpaca breeder in Northern Ireland, Roger, and Elaine Clarke of Amberly Alpacas.
I bought my females pregnant after discussing which males would best suit the females and they went on to produce beautiful cria (baby alpacas) for us the following year.
Having worked for many years in various industries including landscape architecture and HR management, I always knew that I wanted to work with animals, and preferably work for myself.
I wanted to breed animals that would provide me with a source of income, but I did not feel I could be a traditional farmer due to my inability to part with animals that one day would likely end up in the food chain.
So, I started researching animals that would fulfil my requirements and I came across alpacas.
They intrigued me, with their long necks, their beautiful big eyes, and the scope they provided to build a business with many different strands.
When the company I worked for as a manager went through a restructuring, I decided the time was right to part ways and fulfil my desire to breed alpacas and start up my business.
My father used to have his own engineering consultancy company in the UK called Fineoaks Ltd, which he closed down on retirement.
Our property has many oak trees on it, and I love the motto ‘From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow’.
I thought it very apt that, not only would I keep my father’s company name alive, but it would provide me with a strong foundation and motto to where I wanted to be in the future.
Thankfully, I have a very supportive husband and father who have provided me with the ability to start up this business and get it off the ground, in the hope that it will grow into something sustainable.
We have two beautiful children, so I am at home running the business while supporting them in their day-to-day lives.
Alpacas – some facts
There are lots of things to tell you about Alpacas… they are unique, intriguing creatures with fantastic temperaments:
- Alpacas are camelids, part of the camel family;
- A baby alpaca is called a ‘cria’, gestation is 11.5months;
- Alpacas do not have upper teeth on the front jaw, they have a hard pad of gum;
- Alpacas are bred traditionally for their fleece, which is soft and luxurious and can be turned into very beautiful garments. Depending upon the quality of the fleece off the individual animal, the comfort factor can be 100%, meaning there is no itch, unlike off sheep’s wool, as the fleece is not actually ‘wool’ but a hollow fibre. Alpaca garments can be worn both summer and winter and right up against the skin as a result and will keep a person warm in the winter and cool in the summer due to the naturally occurring air pocket in the fibres;
- Alpacas have many uses, one of which is that they can be used as ‘flock guards’ for both sheep herds and poultry flocks, protecting them from foxes and other predators;
- Being mountainous creatures by origin, they require supplementing over the autumn and winter months with vitamins A, D and E, which they would otherwise get naturally in their natural habitats;
- People often say that they are just like sheep. This is not true at all, they have different requirements, veterinary practices and handling. They are sensitive and stoic, so they will not show illness until they really are extremely unwell.
I like their temperament; their calm and inquisitive nature is most endearing.
They are beautiful creatures and once you have gained their trust, they are fun, interactive friends, always involved in everything going on around them.
On the whole, alpacas are easy to work with. They do require a level of maintenance, including obviously feeding the correct feed (specialist camelid feed, not sheep feed).
In addition, they need a constant supply of hay for its fibre content, they need vaccinations and worming and require injections or oral paste through the autumn and winter months of vitamins A, D and E as mentioned above.
They are originally from high up in the Andes, where levels of sunlight are higher.
Therefore, in Ireland, they do not receive the same levels of vitamin D from the sunlight, which is important to ensure they do not develop rickets.
Training tends to begin just before weaning, which is around the 6-month mark, and it is at this point their training as social animals begins.
Our animals are lucky enough to meet many people as small cria, which is an important starting point in their socialisation training.
The first part of their formal training is being taught to accept halters.
They start first being fitted with alpaca halters which are left on for a couple of minutes to begin with, slowly increasing this until they are comfortable wearing them.
Once they are comfortable and have accepted the halters, we then begin to ask them to accept being led in hand.
This lead training begins after they are fully weaned and the stressful period of being away from mum is over.
The time taken depends upon the individual. We train them all together at the same time as a group, lead them together and generally allow them to gain confidence from being in constant contact with each other throughout their training process.
Before we took delivery of our first alpacas, we attended a ‘basic alpaca husbandry’ training course, which was delivered in Northern Ireland by Amberly Alpacas, where we purchased our first alpacas.
Since then, I have done many alpaca training courses including, ‘breeding, birthing and cria care’, and ‘alpacas in therapy’.
I have also completed a ‘fleece skirting and noodling’ course, which focused on the process used to remove the unwanted parts of the alpaca fleece in preparation for either processing the fleece into useable balls or in our case, sending the fleece to be judged at the All-Ireland National Alpaca Fleece Show taking place later this month.
These training courses are carried out by certified trainers in line with the British Alpaca Society and the Alpaca Association of Ireland.
The role of alpacas in therapeutic services
Alpacas play a vital role in therapeutic services, offering comfort and healing to individuals of all ages.
Their gentle nature and soothing presence can reduce stress and anxiety.
Interacting with alpacas, whether through petting or simply being near them, promotes relaxation and emotional well-being.
Their non-judgmental demeanour creates a safe and welcoming environment for therapy sessions, particularly for those with emotional or mental health challenges.
Alpacas’ soft fur and warm companionship provide tactile and emotional support, making them valuable partners in animal-assisted therapy.
Their involvement can boost self-esteem, encourage communication, and enhance overall mental health.
These lovable creatures have a unique way of brightening spirits and fostering connections, making them cherished members of therapeutic teams worldwide.
My business has diverse opportunities for growth across multiple dimensions.
One of our primary goals is to enhance the quality of alpacas throughout the Island of Ireland.
We achieve this by breeding high-quality stock, exclusively utilizing top-tier stud males in our breeding programmes.
This approach ensures the production of robust and healthy offspring with exquisite fleeces, ideal for the textile industry and the creation of premium garments.
Alpacas possess a wide range of applications, and we aspire to excel in these various areas.
Our ambition is to be a respected member of both local and broader communities, recognized for our contributions to society through the use of alpacas.
These versatile creatures have the potential to bring happiness to a diverse range of people.
Currently, we have nine alpacas, including a new cria and currently employ our animals in several capacities, including:
- Participating in weddings, where they bring joy and an extra special touch to the celebration;
- Attending birthday parties and private events, adding a unique element to the gatherings;
- Joining corporate family days, well-being events, and festivals, enhancing the overall experience;
- Offering stud services featuring our top-quality herd sires;
- Conducting therapeutic visits to nursing homes and community hospitals, providing comfort and companionship;
- Engaging in therapeutic visits to special needs centres and schools, offering valuable emotional support;
- Facilitating educational visits to schools, promoting understanding and appreciation for these remarkable animals.
ACORNS has provided me with many benefits in that first and foremost, it has given me the confidence in myself and my business idea to push forward with my plans.
Being a business that is a little different, I saw scope for this to grow into something special.
However, with very few out there doing the same thing in Ireland and therefore, few to compare with, it was a case of being brave and stepping foot outside the comfort zone.
Being selected to be on ACORNS by both Paula Fitzsimons (Director of ACORNS) and my lead entrepreneur Caroline Reidy (The HR Suite), really boosted my confidence.
They allowed me to openly speak about my ideas in a room full of women experiencing the same ‘imposter syndrome’ as I was.
ACORNS also introduced me to like-minded women, all with different business plans and ideas, but all in the same situation, moving in the same direction and facing the same challenges. This group of women have become invaluable, lifelong friends.
We have supported each other (and continue to do so) through our challenges, helped in areas that might have been sticking points for each other, through conversations, brainstorming and general thought processes.
We stuck by each other through all our ups and downs, holding each accountable to our own actions and pushing each other forward in our businesses.
These friendships could not have been easily forged in any other situation.
We all understand each other and where we are with our businesses and our lives surrounding them and that, in itself, is important.
ACORNS has also helped promote my business within Cork and the wider community.
The PR that has come out of the programme and the continued support from the hub of ACORNS remains a vital source of continued help and assistance and for that, I am truly grateful.
The DAFM has announced the opening of the call for applications for ACRONS 9 with a deadline of midnight on September 22nd, 2023 – to find out more, or to apply, click this link.
The future ahead
I have aspirations to own a larger farm that would enable me to offer a broader range of experiences.
This expansion would involve increasing my alpaca herd, which is something I am genuinely enthusiastic about.
Ideally, I envision maintaining a herd of around 50 alpacas, comprising both male alpacas for providing engaging experiences to the public, stud males for breeding purposes, and female alpacas for breeding.
In addition to the ability to expand the herd, the larger property would allow for the development of walkways, providing an opportunity for people to interact with and walk the alpacas in the open air and also the ability to provide other experiences, including well-being services such as alpaca yoga for example.
Inside, I envision establishing a café that offers interactive alpaca experiences, fostering a deeper connection with these delightful creatures.
Crucially, the property should provide ample space for the herd to grow comfortably without compromising the integrity of the land or the well-being of the alpacas.”
To share your story, email – [email protected]