Raising Alpacas in New Zealand
You know you've entered into a world beyond your comfort zone. When you suddenly have a group chat on your phone named 'KC Charm Birth'. A 24-hour chat group. Containing 5 people. Surrounding the opportune moment a pregnant alpaca decides to drop a baby. Alpacas have a gestation period of around 11.5 months. Imagine being pregnant for that long. The back pain, the pressure. The absolute peak of hormonal imbalance making you want to scream blue murder. Despite this imaginative horror story, alpacas seem pretty unperturbed about the ordeal. The look on our girls face suggested this was a minor issue. KC Charm, the queen of our story, had been soldiering on with her best life for weeks.
How had this happened? A writer, a photographer. Usually getting my hands dirty on photoshoots in ponds, not in alpaca poop. I was living on a farm on the outskirts of Christchurch in New Zealand's South Island. It was the second time in my years of travelling that the joys of farm life had become my daily commitment. The first time was a blueberry farm in Australia. An epoch of constant unrest I had attempted to withdraw from my memory. If I were to compare my time on the farm to one of Shakespeare's plays, it would be Romeo and Juliet. A complete lack of romance. Only a constant stream of drama and a tragic ending. It seemed somewhat inexplicable then, that I should find myself here. Every morning surrounded by alpacas, hens, and one gluttonous cat. Who'd long learned to take advantage of new bait. Acting out her own play every morning: The Cat Who Cried Starving.
The weather had taken a frosty turn, and the air began to clutch us in an icy grip. The winter sun gleaming a golden glow and melting the frost of the morning from my eyes. A bottle of warmed milk in my hand. Seeking solace in the art of hand-feeding a three-month-old alpaca named Salam. His adorable tail wag tugging at my heartstrings as he galloped across the paddock. Never in my life had I ever expected to one day be face to face with such a small nugget of joy daily. Letting his soft, furry lips kiss my face. Mine nuzzling the shock of silky fine fur on his forehead. Before letting him take the bottle of milk at his leisure.
He was doing well now. His mother was always nearby. One eye on her boy and the other on her breakfast. Such kindness on her face and care in her intent around me and her offspring. I felt honoured to be part of the process in rearing such a special creature. Alpacas are social, curious animals with a gentle nature. They're bred here for their fleece. Which is much finer, retains more heat, and is more luxurious than a sheep's wool. Salam was the result of award-winning breeding. Everyone was crossing their fingers that he would grow strong through the winter. Fighting against the odds of being born a month premature. He had been hand-reared from birth, but he was finally taking less milk from the bottle and more milk from his mom. A spectacular result.
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Life on an alpaca farm is never dull
When you're ready for a quiet moment of peace. Bam! An unexpected episode will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. Or in our case, sat in the hay in a paddock at 3am yelling for a clue. Sod's Law was in full force when the owners of the farm decided to take advantage of the slow season. By relaxing on a cruise boat. Thoughts of poop, paperwork, and pregnancy drifting on the breeze. We had been on the farm for under a week. With the prospect of two days alone. Before the eldest son, the only remaining professional would leave for Sri Lanka. Two days of easy peasy daily routine. Feed Salam, check. Feed the hens, check. Feed the cat, double-check. We stood in the paddock on the last day. Staring around at the animals grazing, mewling and relaxing. Focusing on one in particular - a pregnant female named KC Charm. Due to odd circumstances, the date of her conception was unknown. The word around the farm was that she'd been pregnant 'forever.' It was a general concern that the baby would be stillborn. Fake pregnancies were apparently rife among alpaca aristocracy. We joked that the worst-case scenario would be if she dropped the baby in the next two days. Whilst we were alone on the farm. Seemed unlikely.
The first solo morning came and we cautiously made our way across the paddock. Crossing every appendage in the hope that all was well. We spotted KC Charm and held our breath. There was no change to behold. The bump was still comfortably encased within the alpaca. Phew, we thanked our lucky stars that the morning had passed without event. Veterinarian on speed dial, we went about the rest of the day. Trying to persuade unruly hens that a chicken coop; filled with lovely warm hay and yummy seed mix. Was a much better hang out spot than the begonias outside the front door. Then trying to remind the cat that she had already eaten that day and would soon be rolling instead of walking. Feeding Salam was always the most joyous of escapades. His smiley little face came bouncing over as usual and he was ravenous for milk and hugs.
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Alpacas are expert comedians
After chicken gate, feeding ourselves and our youngest nugget (the cat now sulking on the bed.) It was time to head back to the paddock for one last check on our pregnant pallier before the sun began to set. Charm was standing in the paddock, chewing on the grass with her bottom teeth; indifferent as ever. Alpacas are all about seeming calm and collected on the eve of impending alpacalypse. Her bloated stomach straining on this bleak, stormy looking afternoon. Only it didn't seem bloated at all, to any onlooker she suddenly seemed to be- not pregnant. I squinted at her, trying to see better through the burgeoning darkness. Was that even her? Had I accosted the wrong suspect, did I have an alpaca heist on my hands? I was pretty sure she was the only dark brown alpaca in this particular paddock. The dying light was playing tricks with my vision. As I reached her side, It took a double take and a moment of shock horror to look down and realise the gravity of the event. There, next to my muddy gumboots, was a small furry mass that vaguely resembled an alpaca. The newborn baby was standing, unstable on its spindly legs below me.
OH MY GOD! We have a baby. I was yelling. My mouth fell open, gobsmacked as I wailed over at my partner in crime behind me. I must have looked like crazed lunatic, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Looking back from my comrade to the tiny, fuzzy thing covered in goo at my feet. We have a baby! WHAT DO WE DO!? Naturally, KC Charm had decided to pull one over on us. Alpacas are expert comedians. There was no time to lose. We had no idea at what hour the baby had been born since the 4 hours we were last in the paddock. But we knew the first few hours were critical... Call the coastguard, there's a freaking baby!
Call the coastguard, there's a freaking baby!
No one had expected our girl to give birth in the two days we were alone. Tragically, it meant that we were completely unprepared. We had about as much idea about parenting as two four-year-olds left alone with a hamster. We made a few calls, and an onslaught of instructions pinged into our dm's. Dress the baby up in a few coats to keep it warm, try to get it to feed on mom's nipple, make sure it takes a pee after feeding, lead momma and baby into the shed for the night with a couple of friendly mates... Simple instructions of course. Easy as egg boiling.
It was an effort in full force to complete our mission. After about 20 minutes of wrangling, we managed to get the pair into the shed. Along with a few bemused stragglers. We wrapped the baby in so many layers he looked incomplete without a matching bobble hat. The next challenge was the most difficult yet. Getting the little furball to take his first drink. Drinking from his mother would be ideal. But after an hour of gentle persuasion, and another hour of vigorous effort that left one of us with a very sore knee from a well-placed kick. He still seemed hardly able to tell the difference between his mother's nipples and his own feet. The cavalry was called, and our pride put to bed. A couple of family members came to our rescue. Armed with a squeezy bottle of milk, and the ability to dodge an onslaught of alpaca spit whilst holding a newborn between the legs. We each stood silent with bated breath as we watched. Concentrating on not blinking. Until the moment this unfathomable, yet spellbinding little creature took his first drink. AMAZING! What a guy. Bravo, little twiglet.
It is the natural order to high five your conquering comrades when enabling a newborn alpaca to feed for the first time. So we high fived. Congratulated each other on being the champ of champs, and drove back home to bed. Until our alarms went off every 2 hours for the rest of the night; signalling the next feeding battle.