About six thousand years ago the alpaca first appeared from the domestication of the vicuna and enabled the alpaca to develop the wonderful range of colours that we see today. Left to their own devices, natural selection would have ensured the survival of the more naturally camouflaged vicuna colouring.
The various cultures which developed in South America continued to breed the alpaca and they were found in the high Andes at 4,000 metres, right down to the coastal regions. Mummified remains of alpacas which had perished some 1,000 years ago have been discovered in Southern Peru which have allowed scientists to confirm that breeders then were selecting their alpacas for fleece fineness – as we still are today.
Alpaca remains were often buried in the floors of houses as offerings to the gods and the rain-free environment has meant that their state of preservation was superb giving us a unique opportunity to study pre-conquest alpacas.
The Spanish Conquest of Peru led to the death of 90% of the indigenous peoples and animals, driving the alpaca high into the Andes slaughtering them in favour of European sheep. However, the inexplicably alpaca linked Quetcha people were able to prevent the alpaca becoming extinct and have since been increasing their herds. The last century saw a huge demand for alpaca cloth, particularly in England, which saw an equal explosion in the alpaca herds of South America.
Peru’s alpaca population numbers around 3 million, with a further 300,000 in Bolivia, and only 30,000 in Chile.
Alpacas have been in the UK and Europe since the 19th Century, mostly in zoos although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert owned 2 alpacas, one white and one black.
The first privately owned alpacas in England were surplus zoo stock, and these formed the foundation of several early alpaca herds. In 1989 there were only 150 alpacas in the UK and it was not until 1995, with the first import of around 300 alpaca from Chile, that interest began to grow. 1998 saw the first import of Peruvian alpacas giving the breeders of that time access to the enhanced genetics of millennia of selective breeding which had produced a thriving alpaca fibre industry.
In 2008, there are around 25,000 alpacas in the UK. Many breeders now compete at the Agricultural shows and have started competing in shows in Europe where there is a burgeoning market.
The alpaca market is expanding at an annual growth rate of 20% and it is expected that there will be 100,000 alpacas in the UK by 2015 and 5,000 owners.
The growth possibilities for alpaca farming are very strong, and even a small herd can grow in a few years. Current prices for alpacas reflect the demand for high quality breeding stock.