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Battleground

A hundred yards from where the alpacas shelter is a pond about the size of a function room. Ten years ago, it was overgrown with yellow flags and alder trees and not much else so in autumn 2016 when its bed was almost dry it was dug out and cleared leaving only a small reserve of growth. Plants and ecological balance have taken three years to recover but now it is much healthier, a thriving wildlife pond with ragged robin, campion, vetch, grasses, cow parsley, a few flags, water forget-me-nots, water mint and marsh marigolds. It was dug for water for cows and is marked on a map from 1886 when it was much larger as the existing border around it it shows. There used to have frogs in it but not any more maybe because the territory has been taken over by newts. And dragonflies. Flycatchers dart out from the remaining alder tree and house martins dive at it to scoop mud for the 18 nests they build under the house eaves. In the evenings, birds are replaced by bats.   

Every year two moorhens raise at least one brood of chicks in the tall flag leaves, bending the tops over to create shelter for their nest. Moorhens are vicious murderers, stabbing to death any intruder and flying with menace at garden birds who come down to the water edge to drink or wash.  

Every year mallards prospect for a suitable nesting site but they don’t stay long, even in pairs. The male and female that arrived at the beginning of April seemed more determined than others in the past and there were frequent stand-offs between the drake and the moorhens. They circled each other and each other’s part of the pond looking for, or defending, territory. Then one morning, much like last year, only the drake mallard remained to quack half-heartedly in the deepest water because the female had disappeared. For a few days he swum without apparent purpose – not feeding or guarding his space.  

Now the female moorhen is off the nest and repeatedly darts at him chasing him from the water. He sits on the bank and settles his feathers looking confused.  

Has she gone off with another drake, has she been eaten by the fox that steals the chickens from the farm at the bottom of the hill then drags them 300 yards to the alpaca shelter to dismember, has she been hit by a car or has she been drowned by the moorhens? There are no feathers nor a carcass on the ground.  

Unfortunate Timing

Most years we shear the alpaca at the end of May, this year it happened at the cold start to the month. It’s a job that takes about four hours and about the same amount of time in preparation and then another two or three hours to tidy and clean up. Shearing day means that the alpacas have to come to the shelter by the house where there is power for the electric shears and they are suspicious of being driven up the hill probably remembering the how it was for them last year. It’s several days hard work and cunning planning because they each have a good memory.

Ian the shearer does the job with an assistant who catches, holds and then ties the animals down onto a mat. Each complaining leg is caught in a rope and pulleys are used to stretch the animal out – legs to the front and to the back. It takes about 5 minutes to strip each alpaca. Ian files any long teeth, covering his mouth with a mask because alpaca tooth dust is carcinogenic, toenails are trimmed and they get given a shot of anti-tetanus treatment and another for parasite control. Our role is to collect the fleece, draw up the injections, sweep the mats and get rid of rubbish. That includes the urine that leaks onto towels in protest.

The alpacas resent the treatment but most years are pleased to be relieved of a coat that is four or five inches think. They stand up, look annoyed and then usually, are let out into the field. This year because the weather was cold and rain was forecast, they had to stay in the shelter overnight. Three decided to make a break for it and escaped into next doors pasture. Eve decided not to rejoin the herd for two days.

Once they are stripped, leaving about a cm of fleece, any problems that have developed over the year are easier to see. Lumps, bumps, sores, cuts, being very thin or more usually here – being unhealthily fat. The better fleece is bagged individually in clear plastic sacks ready for sorting and collection by a Yorkshire mill. The stuff that is only suitable for carpets or insulation or nothing at all, gets put into one huge sack. One year the sort revealed an elephant hawk moth which had become entangled in the fibre. It was desiccated.

This year the cold wind and heavy showers that continued for several days after shearing should have been sufficient to keep them all in the shelter. It didn’t and they shivered and looked miserable and lay flat on the ground as if they were hiding from the weather. Alpacas are known for their stoicism but not usually for making things hard for themselves.

Now in the sun they should be looking shiny white -most of them, but they are not because they have rolled in the soil.

Blackthorn

The hedgerow theme round here has been almost black brown and tinted pink white. The variable weather since last autumn has led to lanes and lanes of frothy blossom set on the dark twigs of blackthorn. Which is excellent news because maybe, it means easy to pick sloes for sloe gin in October. There weren’t so many last year and the fattest ones were high up out of reach. Until January one blackthorn tree stood on its own at the top of the hill facing the strong winds and was always good for at least two or more, usually four, litres of sloe gin. Unfortunately, the contractor employed to cut the hedges slashed it pieces even though it wasn’t part of a hedge, which amounts to a sort of vandalism.  

The tree that was flavoured 4 litres of Co-op gin last autumn. The gin sat in its cool dark place taking up the purple than red of the sloes and absorbing the sugar.  Bad timing meant it wasn’t ready for Christmas but in January it was strained and bottled, but only half of it because the other half ended up a mess of smashed glass, split almonds and coloured gin which seeped across a concrete floor – the pub smell lingered for weeks.  

Another almost black brown and tinted white sight is the back end of this alpaca, Bea. Blackthorn would have been an excellent name for her – she is spikey and hardy and tough, coming from a line of spikey, tough females. She is 10 years old and gets more irritable with age.  

Hanging On A Branch

Early morning, walking the dogs in 400 acres of forestry commission wood on tenanted land in an area of outstanding natural beauty. A favourite walk because on well-chosen paths the ground is flat and mainly gravelled which is a novelty round here. The chalk hillsides flanking the paths are steep, planted with beech then mixed conifers and woodland trees. The beech tree growth forms most of the canopy and prevents other plants from growing in its shade but provides fertile sites for fungi. This is ancient semi-natural woodland and the rides are rich in wildflowers especially bluebells, wild garlic, primroses, foxgloves, and great mullein. Sometimes a hugely noticeable white buck with a small herd of female roe deer crosses the paths and there are always bird feathers on the ground plucked from a carcass by the buzzards. Pheasants are penned in the bottom slopes, then let loose so that after the beginning of November they can be shot at.

In the very early morning, it’s usually empty of people and then around 7.30 the forestry commission heavy vehicles come trundling along the tracks to cut down and replant and manage.

The walk that morning was not exploratory, the dogs know it well but what was new was the sight of a skull with moss Mohican style hair hanging on the dead branch of a shrubby tree. It looked darkly gothic seen for the first time in the dripping mist but maybe it was a bit of fun for the forestry workers.

It had dirty, crunching type teeth and big eye sockets and a wedge-shaped muzzle. The forestry people probably know what it was when it was alive but it was definitely very different to an alpaca skull where the nose bone is comparatively short and drops off sharply. That sharp drop makes alpacas semi-obligate, nasal breathers who breathe though noses rather than their mouths. This is important to know when handling the head of an alpaca because they don’t like being suffocated by a heavy hand in the wrong place.

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.

A Solitary Snowdrop

End of February, less darkness, no snow or rain or wind, little frost, alpaca care is much easier than a month ago. It’s time for the annual photograph of a new born lamb in the daily paper. This year’s lamb was about the same size as the daffodils it had been posed with at a tourist attraction in Devon. Inevitably its name is (or was) Snowdrop. 

That’s not a natural name for an alpaca.  With good management most cria are born quite a while after snowdrops have dropped, planned so that animals and breeders do not struggle in winter weather and short daylight hours.  

No animal in this household has been called Snowdrop. There were, amongst many others, Ha’pworth the poodle, McTavish and Hamish both mice, Rosie the giant schnauzer and Lily the leonberger; all the alpacas have people names. Ha’pworth ate McTavish and Hamish at a campsite next to field of cabbages in Ramsgate.  Rosie tried to smother the (human) baby because she wanted the carrycot to herself. The leonberger, breed to look like a lion, was very plausible in the role and ate anything with protein in it but not the rabbit Bunty which had already been caught by Poppy the retriever. Snowdrop is a name probably best left to lambs.  

The town of our postcode is working on becoming the first ‘snowdrop town’. Over 180,000 snowdrops have been planted since 2012 and events are held throughout February to bring in visitors who will help halt the decline of the rural high street, perhaps.  

Here outside the town, multitudes of snowdrops grow in the lanes and hedgerows, woods and in neighbours’ gardens. We planted some in 2014 and in 2017. One is still alive, the rest we think were breakfast for mice or surrendered to incompetent gardening technique.

Sludge Red

Issy’s colouring is known as ‘rose grey’. She was born in Chile, imported in 2006 and became ours in 2008. Like some other greys, she has only ever been able to produce one cria, Rupert. Rupert’s dad was dark grey and Rupert is a lovely rich brown. He moved around a bit and ended up in Somerset.

Unable or disinclined to produce more grey alpacas, Issy’s main purpose apart from looking lovely, is to produce soft fleece that appears grey. It isn’t grey at all but a combination of black, white and brown fibre. The purpose of the fleece is to create a mottled yarn over which to dye vibrant colours to achieve smoky hues. Or maybe they are shades because they contain black.

It is always interesting to see what happens in the dye pot. There are no precise measurements or recipes and no way of ensuring that the same result can be achieved twice. The variables are difficult to replicate – temperature of the water, small differences in the amount of dye, how much dying process takes a couple of hours regardless of quantity and the final colour isn’t apparent until the yarn is dry which takes up to twenty-four hours.

Using Issy’s rose grey which sounds pretty but is not, vermillion dye was used to achieve a brick red yarn, royal blue to arrive at dusky blue and aquamarine to produce a wild sea watercolour. The blue and the aqua were good results, the brick red is unsympathetically industrial and reminds me of some sludgy unguent my father, a proud scientist and bodger kept in the garage. I think it was used to mend holes in the radiator of a car.

The Kite Road

Alpacas have been bred as a (potentially) commercial activity in this country for at least 30 years. By the time Erica and Georgie arrived in England from Peru in 2004, canny and reputable breeders were offering essential and hugely encouraging (obviously) training courses for novices. Most alpaca owners were novices then.

One farm we visited for advice was and still is in the Chilterns. Introductory sessions were held in open barns and in the fields despite rain and wind which was a challenge to our enthusiasm for alpaca ownership. If the breeder thought our interest in induced ovulation and obligate breathing was overwhelmed by the conditions, she would look to the sky where huge red kites wheeled around, not just several and explain how it was that they were there.

In 1989 five young kites imported from Spain, were reintroduced to a quiet valley near Stokenchurch which was at about the same time as alpacas were brought to the teaching farm in Berkshire. The site was chosen because red kites are scavengers more than hunters and the area was a good one for them to find food and places to nest. Over the following five years another 88 were released. The scheme is thought of as one of the most successful conservation efforts to have been carried out, so successful that 300 Chilterns red kites were taken to other places in the UK. We could measure that success by how many we saw on the A303 which we use a lot, towing a trailer of alpacas to shows and for breeding arrangements. Each year the imposing birds travelled further westward with the road and then arrived pleasingly, first in our postcode and two years later over our hillside. They were said to have become a menace in villages where they were fed by people but we were delighted to be able to watch them from a window.

Red Kites breed in Wales and the Cotswolds, it’s not known if they do so in Dorset. They are here in the skies virtually all year www.natureofdorset.co.uk says. Its records show that in 2017 there were 63 reported sightings in this county, 151 in 2018.

Except that they are no longer seen on our hillside and haven’t been since they left to go south in the cold weather of last year. In Germany, France and Spain kites are declining because of changes in land use and poisoning. The hillside hasn’t altered but there has been, according to conversation in the pub amongst those with guns who notice these things, an apparent fall in the number of rabbits. There are no hillside rabbits either now nor in the garden, not even dead ones. Previously there were a far too many for a gardener to be happy. Perhaps the kites have played a part in that.

Is it OK?

Christmas Eve and the hunt were out – not sure which, their names probably mean something to people familiar with the hierarchy of hunt status. Boxing day and the hunt – a different lot maybe, were here again. New Year’s Day, and the hunt was on the road with their cars and their trailers and lorries and their hounds and their followers churning up the verges, blocking the roads as if they had every right to do so, milling, smiling or maybe smirking, waving, archaic. Rural hooliganism?

Each time they are in the area the alpacas, who are acutely aware of the predatory, huddle tightly in the middle of the field. Even if the hounds are a mile distant, they are terrified by the sounds of the dogs. As the pack gets closer, bothered Roe deer leap across the hedges to escape and all the birds leave the trees and fields for somewhere safer. This year so far, no fox – previously, a vicious mass of hounds chased one into our hedge. The outcome was not clear.

A week ago, our newspaper reported that members of an Oxfordshire hunt dragged a fox from its hiding place in the presence of the dogs. That seems like a deliberate act. Sometimes the resulting savagery is the result of the master of hounds not controlling his pack. The Portman hunt and a “disembowelled fox” featured in an item by the BBC this month.

So, two stories of the damage and distress caused to alpacas by mounted riders and their dogs:

Last February, “A hunting group apologised to owners of an alpaca farm after it’s hounds ‘unexpectedly’ entered their land – leaving the animals terrorised … despite being protected with fencing and barbed wire” (Hertfordshire Mercury).

In Derbyshire just before Christmas the BBC reported that hounds from the Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt ripped the back of an alpaca, injured another and terrified the rest of the herd. The mangled alpaca was euthanised. A hunt spokesperson said that the hounds had been removed as quickly as possible and that they are liaising with the owners – well, that’s alright then.

Two years ago, an owner in the New Forest who lost an alpaca to a dog attack, asked that alpacas receive the same legal protection as sheep. The NFU responded by saying that although they are farmed for their wool (it’s not wool, wool comes from sheep and alpacas produce yarn), alpacas are not legally Listed as livestock and therefore do not receive the same protection. (Bournemouth daily Echo 2017). That’s not really ok.

Pleasingly when the hunt came by the house recently, they were monitored by Hunt Saboteurs. An information leaflet was posted through our door. The leaflet focussed on the biosecurity risk caused by hounds entering land where livestock are kept including contributing to the spread of diseases such as bovine tuberculosis. A new reason to be unhappy about this bizarre entertainment.

Jane’s Sweater

This is Nigel with half a years’ growth of fleece and probably carrying the equivalent weight in mud.

Stephanie, wonder woman house sitter, took with her a bag of Nigel’s fleece when she left here in mid-October. In eight weeks, she has combed and spun the fleece, washed it, wound it into balls and knitted it into a jumper for a close friend. She says it is “grand”.