AT shows and events, I am often asked whether alpacas are shorn and, if so, how this is done. I have been told but recently I had my first opportunity to see two different shearers in action at two alpaca herds near to where I live.
I have seen sheep shearing at shows and been impressed by the speed and accuracy of the shearers. However, alpacas are bigger than sheep with longer legs and necks. Turning them on their backs is simply not practical. However, few alpacas will stand or lie still while being sheared although I have been told of owners who get someone to hold the head and then shear the animal while it is standing up. One of the aims is to put minimum stress on the alpaca, especially if it is a female in the very early or late stages of pregnancy.
The more normal procedure is to lie the alpaca on its side and restrain its legs. One shearer I watched laid the animal on a pad on the ground while the other had set up a board at waist height on the back of a trailer - much kinder on the back.
The shearing team usually consists of two people but there are always others around to help with collecting the alpacas and holding them if necessary. One is the shearer and other the assistant. Two people are needed to turn the animal over and secure each foot in a loop of rope just above the 'ankle'. The ropes are then tightened using a pulley system so that the alpaca can only wriggle, not move around significantly.
The assistant takes the opportunity to trim the toenails on each foot. This is a job which is done regularly, three or four times a year, as keeping alpacas on green pasture does not wear away the nail as would happen on the bleak rough ground of the altiplano in South America. Trimming only takes a couple of minutes and then the shearer starts work.
The fineness and strength of the fibre can be mechanically tested and the first cut is to take a sample from the mid-side. This is bagged and labelled and will be sent to the laboratory for testing.
The shearer then generally starts with the legs and this fleece is separated out, as it is the lowest quality, together with the fibre over the belly. The prime quality fibre is in the blanket, which covers the back and sides of the alpaca. Second quality is found on the neck and chest and at the top of the legs.
Working quickly to minimise stress, the shearer cuts in long sweeps along the length of the body, pushing the fleece away from him to leave a clean edge. Having shorn one side, the alpaca is turned over and the process repeated. He then shears the neck and chest, leaving the bonnet on the head.
Both shearers I saw were using a new type of shearing comb. The bottom blade is slightly bevelled so that the fibres are cut slightly away from rather than very close to the skin. This leaves a short length of fleece over the body, which gives a degree of protection against the weather.
The bulk of the fibre is either put into a paper sack or mesh bag for later processing or it is skirted and graded as it come off the animal. Skirting involves removing contamination, second cuts and areas of low quality fibre. The fleece is laid out on a table and the first step is to remove large pieces of straw and other vegetation, which have got tangled in the fleece. Smaller bits will be removed when the fibre is processed into yarn. 'Second cuts' are also removed. The shearer aims to take long single sweeps over the body so that the cut edge of the fleece is even. However, short bits may be left behind which he will trim off. There are known as 'second cuts'. They are short and can be identified easily because they have two cut ends. The main fleece will have bundles or staples of fleece with a straight cut at one end and a tapered tip at the other. Second cuts need to be removed and discarded, as they are not long enough to be spun and can spoil the quality of the yarn.
Areas around the outside of the fleece, which consist of coarser fibres and significant amounts of the stronger, straight guard hairs are divided off. The guard hairs are the ones which are responsible for the 'prickle' factor in a finished garment and are to be avoided as much as possible. Again, guard hair is removed during further processing.
The remaining fleece is then graded with the different qualities being stored separately until they are required for processing. There are generally three qualities but some breeders will work to five, depending on the eventual end use for the fibre.
When the shearer has removed the fleece, the last check is of the animal's teeth. Alpacas only have teeth in their lower jaw and these close on a soft dental pad in the upper jaw. The edge of the bottom teeth should meet the front edge of the dental pad but sometimes the jaw is undershot and the teeth protrude. The tips of the teeth can be removed with a saw wire and then the edges are smoothed with an abrasive wheel fixed to a small drill.
This year, because of the problem of bluetongue, a fly repellent was trickled along the backs of the alpacas immediately after shearing to help protect them until their fleeces began to grow again. Although some protested very loudly during shearing, none of them seemed the worse for wear when they were released and went off to join their friends. In fact, I think they were probably quite relieved to be rid of their warm coat, especially during some of the hot weather we have had since.
The alpaca is kept for its soft, fine fleece, which can be made into luxury garments. This means that shearing is a very important time for owners as this is their 'harvest'. Each alpaca yields some three to five kilograms of fleece. Although this is not a lot if someone only has two or three animals, if stored properly, it will keep for a number of years and fleeces can be collected up until there is sufficient to warrant taking it to a mini-mill to be spun into yarn. In the next few issues we will consider the fleece, its processing and marketing.
- I would like to thank Glendon Hall Alpacas, Toft Alpacas and shearers Ben Wheeler and Trevor Gellatly for letting me watch the shearing.