- the lazy alternative for eco-friendly rural diversification
Have you ever met an organic farmer? Their life seems to be constant struggle against both the elements and the local wildlife. They appear to live in a state of constant warfare against everything from badgers to beetles, or battling against too little sun or rain, or fighting the weeds that will smother their crop as soon as their back is turned.
Unlike their more rational colleagues in the industrial farming community, they don’t feel inclined to drench their crops – and surrounding area - with a powerful cocktail of pesticides and herbicides at the first sign of an invading insect or foreign flower. They can’t double their output just by dumping vast quantities of chemical fertilizer on their fields, whilst leafing through that glossy new GM seed brochure to select an even more productive, even more uniform crop variety for next year’s planting.
So why do they do it? They work longer hours than anyone else I know. It’s not for the money – do you know any rich organic farmers? I really can’t work it out, but I can only be thankful they do. Living in Devon, we have a tremendous choice of local organic produce, which apart from any environmental considerations, tastes so much better than the regimented supermarket stuff flown in by Jumbo jet from a plastic tent in Malawi.
We moved to this part of the world some years ago, and wanted to find a rural occupation using a few acres of our smallholding in a way that wouldn’t compromise our quality of life and the rich diversity of the land and surrounding area. We liked the idea of “going organic”, but were daunted by the sheer time, effort and commitment involved. Yet we wanted to be engaged in a sustainable, low environmental impact activity. Ideally, it should also avoid the problem of explaining to the grandchildren that Daisy had to be sent away last week to be made into sausages.
So how did we end up with Alpacas? Put simply, this turned out to be – by a considerable margin – the most eco-friendly option for the least effort.
This wasn’t so apparent at the beginning of the process, however. We spent a long time trying to find the “perfect” solution, but all seemed to have major drawbacks. We had the advantage of a neighbour who was running a (non-organic) 80-acre mixed farm, so we were able to see many of the problems at first hand. Let’s take just one aspect of raising sheep as an example.
For a period of 4-6 weeks every year, our neighbours were transformed into “the living dead”. Why? Because they were up almost every night “lambing”. This is some mysterious process, usually performed in the dead of night. Of course I have never witnessed this myself, since I’ve always been fast asleep in a nice warm bed while its been going on. For some unfathomable reason, sheep have chosen this way of reproducing their species, and seem to have difficulty in accomplishing it successfully without human intervention. I’m surprised they’ve survived this long.
Alpacas, on the other hand – and I know this sounds too good to be true, but believe me, it is – drop their offspring (called a cria) during daylight hours, usually between the hours of 10am and 2pm. They only drop a single cria, and frankly, the less people have to do with the business the better.
OK, this is fine for us, but what’s it got to do with environmental concerns?
The lambing situation is just one aspect of a wider problem. Sheep have been intensively bred to improve fleece and/or meat quality and yield for several hundred – probably thousands – of years, and as a result are very dependent on human intervention to keep them alive. As the old joke goes, sheep are prone to a wide range of diseases, the first symptom of which is generally death.
Flystrike, footrot and internal parasites are endemic problems in sheep. In a conventional regime, sheep have to be dipped and wormed on a regular basis, using powerful insecticides to prevent these various afflictions. Also, the fleece is heavily laden with lanolin – up to 30%, by weight. This is removed by washing with strong detergents causing a significant effluent problem. And the use of chlorine bleach and toxic dyestuffs to produce a wide range of fashionable colours has a further environmental cost. (For more information on the environmental benefits of using alpaca fibre, compared to other natural fibres, visit our sister site, isles-of-avalon.com)
Of course, many people now raise sheep in an organic regime, which finds far less environmentally threatening ways to manage and deal with the multiplicity of challenges in raising sheep and keeping them alive. However, it seems to be even harder work than my neighbours non-organic system, which already makes me want to go and lie down just by thinking about the effort involved.
The key difference with the alpaca is this – as in the case of lambing, the alpaca simply doesn’t have most of these problems to deal with in the first place. So we don’t dip our alpacas. We don’t stay up all night helping them give birth. We don’t routinely worm our alpacas. We don’t “dag” our alpacas. (And if you don’t know what “dagging” is, don’t ask!) We don’t put fertilizer on our pasture. In fact, the only routine treatment they get is a twice-yearly vaccination. This is not because we are farming under organic rules – it just suits the animals better.
The reason for this difference is fairly simple. The alpaca evolved in semi-desert regions of Peru, where the environmental conditions were much harsher than anything we are familiar with. Although domesticated over a long period, it has never been farmed intensively. So, for example, poor grazing suits its highly efficient digestion much better than lush pasture, which is why we use no fertilizer. However, you may need to adjust pH with lime, and get trace minerals into the soil if you have deficiencies.
goats, the alpaca
doesn’t eat down to the plant roots. And because it has a padded foot,
not a hoof, it does far less damage to the surface of the pasture, particularly
in wet conditions. This is also why it doesn’t get foot-rot –
or FMD, by the way. We graze our alpacas
at 8-12 per acre without damaging the forage or poaching the land, even
through the wettest Devon weather – double the typical stocking density
of sheep. They will need some extra hay over winter, of course.
Now don’t let me overstate the case. I’m not saying that no alpaca has ever had a serious worm infestation, or had fly-strike, or a foot problem. What I can say with certainty is that so far, we have not had any of these problems, in spite of the fact that we carry out no regular preventative treatment at all.
Good herd management, plus simple animal husbandry, coupled with a sensible pasture management strategy seems to keep them – and the local environment - pretty healthy. (This is a major topic in itself and the subject for a future article – watch this space!).
of all, we have all this without any great effort. This is how we discovered
are the perfect choice for people like us – environmentally concerned,
but lazy! It’s the little things you notice – being buzzed
by the swallows in the pasture, who swoop round the alpacas
hunting the plentiful flies in early summer. The flies thrive on alpaca
poo, and the swallows thrive on the flies. Regular worming would leave
enough insecticide into the droppings to kill the flies, so the swallows
would have to hunt elsewhere. And if we’d decided to convert our
old barn into desirable holiday cottages, I suppose they’d have
find somewhere else to nest too. I’m too just too lazy to bother.