A Winter That Was Kind

Storm Gareth has travelled on to the North Sea and if the weather forecast is accurate there will be no more rain until at least the end of the month. The mud will dry out and the alpacas will walk on firm ground again.

It’s been a kind winter really. Not bitingly cold or incessantly wet and that has helped Erica through another 6 months. She is 17 years old at least and looks it. She was imported from Peru when she was about three years old. Her twin babies died at birth and her first male cria died when he was 3. Ed was part of the rural studies department of a school and was a sort of companion animal for pupils who sometimes struggled to cope with classes. Then he struggled to cope with living and with a vet’s help his life ended at the school. He probably had a liver problem.

Erica has had 5 cria including the twins. Two still live here. Tina and Eve had two cria each, Gina (granddaughter) has had one cria which means that from Erica came eight live animals. All are as tall as Erica and like her, tend to squeal when they are shorn or have their toenails trimmed. When Erica was young her fleece was beautifully fine though never really long. Now she barely grows enough to keep warm in the winters and in some has needed a coat or to be penned in on bitterly cold nights. She lies down whenever the sun is out and is slow, always behind the rest of the herd. She has a friend who stays near her and she eats well. She is given an anti- inflammatory medication developed for horses, to help reduce discomfort in her rickety limbs. It’s difficult for vets to prescribe for alpacas because none or very little of what is available is produced or licensed for camelids. Erica’s yellow horse powder was suggested on a trial and error basis. It has helped her for at least two years now.

The British Alpaca Society and local alpaca groups focus on fleece and shows but say very little about welfare and it seems, nothing about geriatric animals. The most accessible advice on caring for elderly alpacas is on the websites of North American alpaca or llama ranches and farms.

In South America alpacas do not become old. They die or get killed when they are young – for food and skins mainly, that it the way it is. Being an old alpaca is something that has only happened in the last 15 to twenty years.

In ‘new’ alpaca environments with more easily attainable care and husbandry, female alpacas can continue breeding into their mid-teens by which time they are considered middle aged. Some produce babies even later than that and they can live well past twenty years of age. According to the BAS Pedigree Registry the oldest two alpacas are 27 years old. But things go wrong: teeth wear away, limbs become affected by osteoarthritis, digestive systems don’t work efficiently, tumours occur, hearts and livers pack up, immunity drops, status amongst the herd declines, weight is dropped or gained and the geriatrics cannot produce thick enough fleeces to protect them in the winter. So, older alpacas need culling or help to survive.

Of the 837 animals on the registry who are recorded as being born in 2002 and are therefore thought to be seventeen years old, 732 have died. From 18 years of age onwards more animals are no longer alive than are those who are.

As each winter approaches it seems that Erica will be meeting the vet for the last time. It didn’t happen last winter but it might the next.