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Tuesday, 30 July, 2002, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Australian alpacas watch flocks by night
Andean alpacas watch over sheep in Australia.
Vigilantly tending the flock
A growing number of Australian sheep farmers are swapping traditional sheepdogs in favour of South American alpacas.

These odd-looking creatures are better known for their soft wool than their shepherding skills. But some alpacas will bond so strongly with a flock that they will protect it with their lives if it is threatened by predators.

"Alpacas will readily adopt sheep or goat herds as their own. They have excellent eyesight and the intelligence and fleetness of foot to avert fox attacks," Bob Richardson, vice-president of the Australian Alpaca Association, told BBC News Online.

The alpaca has a thick furry fleece.
A castrated male Huacaya, the breed best-suited for tending sheep

Good qualities when you want to protect vulnerable newborn lambs from crows, eagles and foxes.

"Following the introduction of alpacas many sheep breeders have reported their best lambing percentages ever," Mr Richardson said.

One man and his alpaca

It sounds like a sequel to "Babe", the cute Hollywood story about the pig that learnt how to herd sheep, but this is no sentimental Hollywood fable.
Suri alpacas are even fluffier
Another alpaca breed called Suri is reared for its fine wool

According to Mr Richardson, about 1,000 alpacas are currently employed on sheep farms in Australia out of a total Australian population of 35,000 - the largest outside Peru and Chile.

Originating in the Andes, alpacas belong to a group called South American camelids, which includes llamas, guanacos and vicunas.

Archaeologists believe alpacas and llamas were first domesticated about 5,000 years ago in the Lake Titicaca area of Bolivia. Guanacos and vicunas still live in the wild.

The use of camelids for tending sheep is not confined to Australia.

Rodney Newth, a council member of the British Llama and Alpaca Association, says that some sheep farmers in the United Kingdom are using llamas to guard their flocks.

Alpaca facts
Native habitat: South America
Number in South America: 3.5 million
Number in Australia: 35,000
First domesticated: 4,000 BC
Adult height: 1 metre
Adult weight: 50-80 kg
Average lifespan: 15-20 years
He says that one of the reasons the llamas bond so well with a flock is because "they see the sheep as little llamas that need protection".

Mr Newth says that in the UK there are about 6,000 to 8,000 alpacas, mainly bred for their fleece, and 2,000 llamas kept as paddock animals or exotic pets.

Spitting image

Camelids are also related to camels and share some of their less pleasant traits, such as the tendency to spit if annoyed or frightened.

"It all depends on whether or not they've been grazing, but the spit is an unpleasant mix of cud and saliva. It can be nasty if you're not expecting it," said Mr Newth.

Castrated male alpacas bond with sheep
They look soft but they will defend a flock of sheep with their lives

When they sight danger, alpacas emit an ear-piercing shriek that alerts the sheep and also the farmer. They then try to corner predators and will trample them with their forelegs.

"Alpacas are fast and will quickly catch foxes and smaller dogs," Mr Richardson said.

"There are cases of males bravely protecting ewes and lambs in the paddock and being killed defending their flock," he added.

Pictures reproduced with kind permission of Bob Richardson, Australian Alpaca Association.

See also:

01 Jul 02 | England
17 Jul 02 | Americas
21 Jan 98 | Science/Nature
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