It’s the witching hour of dusk and Blackjack has the urge to run. A dozen alpacas fall in line.
They start with a rhythmic trot then break into a sort of canter along the fence line of a former riding ring. Moving smoothly and noiselessly, the long-necked creatures make their way from one field through a chute into another, zip into a barn and race out the back non-stop. Round and round they go for twenty minutes.
“Once one starts they all follow, they are so herd-oriented,” says Barbara DuVall, who has operated Briar Rose Alpacas since 1999. “That’s why you just can’t raise one alpaca.”
On a sun-drenched morning a couple of guests are introduced to a cluster of the gentle animals: Fancy Pants, Aurora, Evening Star, Snickerdoodle, Ginger Snaps, Black Pearls and Silvery Moon. Under a spreading elm tree they mill sociably around us-- quizzical, big-eyed creatures with the luxurious fleece, those oh-so-cute faces, the big ears, the comical hairdos, and the improbably long lashes.
DuVall and her husband Jerry feel a sense of peace from working among their herd of 38 alpacas at Briar Rose in the lush countryside of New London Township. The couple had some experience with livestock-- raising a pair of docile Angora goats-- Beauford and Blossom-- and their eight-acre farm had fenced pastures and a barn.
"You get around these alpacas and you feel your blood pressure drop 20 points," she says.
DuVall got hooked in Atlantic City, of all places. “It was a production sale where they kept the alpacas in tents in the hotel parking lot,” recalls DuVall, a smile creasing her face. “The animals were ushered down a red carpeted runway into the dining room. I’m not making this up. Anyway, you bid on each of the animals. I bought a pair of pregnant females, one with a baby. Within a year I had eight and then I kept buying females.”
A couple of “kids” only a few weeks old are about the size of large dogs; others full grown, stand nearly five feet tall with their elongated necks erect.
Nearby, a gray female naps in the sun, dead-like, snout pointing skyward.
Alpacas hum, a bunch. Aurora, the farm’s prized black Suri female, starts a soft humming to her baby boy, head down nibbling grass. It’s a soothing tone that sounds something like a happy kazoo.
“From birth until six months, mamas and their crias (babies) hum to each other constantly,” DuVall explains. “They hum when they are curious, content, worried, bored, fearful, distressed or cautious.”
Mostly though, they are quiet, very quiet.
“They are shy around new people, but also very curious, but it’s on their own terms,” DuVall points out. “They are pretty smart. They can easily be trained to walk on a lead, walk through obstacles, or even step onto a scale to get weighed.”
Alpacas have no incisor teeth, horns, hooves or claws. They do have two toes on each foot which is split like a goat’s. The bottoms of the feet are soft like a dog’s paw. They are very hardy animals.
It is believed that the Alpaca is descended from the Vicuna, which has the finest, most luxurious fiber in the world. The Vicuna cannot be domesticated, but their little descendants handle it very well. Distantly related to the camel and a smaller first cousin of the South American llama, alpacas are native to Peru, Bolivia and Chile and were imported commercially into this country in 1984. Suri and Huacaya alpacas’ numbers have climbed over the past the past decade and there are roughly 241,000 in the United States according to Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association.
Briar Rose is home to modern-day Suri alpacas domesticated for 6,000 years by the people of the Andes. DuVall has earned 50 blue ribbons at national and regional shows. She often transports a pair of alpacas in her mini-van to the Harrisburg, Pa. event each spring.
Springtime is also shearing season. Much like a barn raising or a quilting bee, shearing day is a time for teamwork and sharing. DuVall hires a troupe of shearers that work a number of the farms in Chester County. Suri fibers curl in a spiral rather than crimp, and the long distinctive locks drape down the side of the animal’s body. Soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter and stronger than wool, the fleece comes in a natural rainbow of colors-- more colors than any other fiber producing animal.
Each adult animal produces three to six pounds of the prime or the blanket fleece.
“The key to shearing is to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible so there is minimal stress on the alpacas since most of them are pregnant females,” DuVall says.
As her herd increased DuVall began selling yarn and fleece to local spinners who create textiles including sweaters, scarves, socks and fingerless gloves. But the bulk of her income comes through the sale of females and obtaining stud fees. Like purebred horses, all of her alpacas have pedigrees that create certain desirable characteristics, as well as increasing the animals' value for breeders. Four years ago Briar Rose alpacas were fetching $20,000 to $25,000 for each animal.
However, when the economy tanked, prices dropped but DuVall says the market is starting to pick back up. A week before my visit to the farm she sold a pair for $8,000 and $6,000. In addition, income comes from boarding and breeding fees for clients without farms such a woman who recently purchased her own farm in Bucks County, Pa.
Start-up costs for a small production farm are typically around $400 a year per alpaca. They require a lean-to shelter for hot and inclement weather, one bale of hay a week and supplemental feed. An adult alpaca eats one pound of feed per day. There is a generous tax deduction to get the business rolling.
Blackbeard is DuVall’s most prominent sire, commanding a stud fee of $2,000. Black as coal, he is a stunning son of the infamous Captain Morgan and granddad MacGyver. Like those champion herd sires, Blackboard produces champions, and gets better with age. Nearby his prized son Blackjack grazes.
“Blackjack is so sweet, has such a handsome face and he’s got extremely dense and lustrous fibers,” DuVall says. “He could be my rock star.”
Meanwhile, Blackbeard is fervently pacing back and forth on a dusty path poking his head in and out of a paddock fence, busily gazing at a herd of females across a distant pasture.
“Blackbeard just finished up with several of the girls a couple days ago,” DuVall reports. “He’s anxious to get back to business.”