How To Decrease Losses to Your Sheep, Goats and Chickens
Alpacas belong to the Camelid species along with camels, llamas, vicunas and guanaco.
Of all the domesticated grazing animals in Australia, alpacas are the most environmentally friendly. The soft-padded feet are equipped with two fairly soft nails. The ground foot pressure of an alpaca has been measured at 39kPA (kilopascals) compared to 82kPA for sheep and 185kPA for cattle. Even kangaroos (46kPA) affect the topsoil more than an alpaca.
Alpacas are hardy and intelligent. They are kept mainly for their fleece which is renowned for its softness, warmth and lustre. However the alpaca is gaining increased recognition in Australia as a useful guardian to run with smaller livestock species.
Alpacas, both male and female, are very protective of their young. They are gregarious and social creatures with strong herd instincts and soon bond to mobs of sheep, goats, miniature ponies and/or chickens.
They have excellent eyesight over quite a long distance and are alert and attentive to their surroundings. Although they don't normally vocalise much, they can give a piercing scream to alert their herd to potential danger.
While normally tolerant and gentle towards other species, alpacas seem to have an innate dislike for dogs and foxes. They can outrun and out-manoeuvre a fox. Once they catch the fox, they will strike at it with the forelegs. Once they have the fox on the ground, they will pummel it, dropping down on the animal again and again with great force.
This is usually fatal for the fox. If it isn't fatal, the fox or dog is normally cowered by the experience and rarely returns for a second dose. Anecdotal evidence suggests alpacas will get between lambs/kids and eagles or crows on the ground.
The alpaca is adapted to a high fibre diet and they have a conversion efficiency of feed to bodyweight greater than goats and sheep. Alpacas have high resistance to internal parasites. They defecate and urinate in specific areas and do not graze near these areas. In this way they avoid ingesting internal parasites which may be present in the ground. However when grazed with other ungulates they will pick up the same parasites and should be drenched in the same way. A cattle dosage rate of bi-annual 5 in 1 chlostridial disease vaccinations is recommended plus similar drenches and dosing rates for internal parasites when their sheep or goat friends are done.
Don't use external preparations on alpacas as they are rarely affected by external parasites. In general they will do very nicely on the available sheep/goat feed but if there is a necessity for mineral or other supplements these will need to be given in a loose mix as alpacas are unable to lick.
As guardians for lambing ewes and goats, it is recommended that wether alpacas be used. Entire males may be a problem trying to mount the ewes and/or does. The alpacas should be fully grown and at least 18 months to two years old. Any younger than this and their protective instincts will not be developed sufficiently to protect a flock.
When introduced to a chicken flock, the birds take a little while to become accustomed to the alpacas but can then become very familiar to the extent of hitching a ride on their backs as they graze. Alpacas keep foxes away from the area around the chickens' enclosure which is even more helpful as even the presence of a fox is enough to upset egg production and weight gain.
With bigger flocks it may be useful to have more than one alpaca. It really depends on the size of the flock, the size of the paddock, the layout and terrain of the grazing area. Anecdotal information suggests that two is generally satisfactory but more may not be so with larger groups forming their own herds.
Smaller birthing paddocks with good visibility increases the effectiveness of alpaca guardians. Avoid common fences between guarded mobs as guardians in adjacent paddocks may congregate along the common fence.
Ideally the alpaca(s) should be introduced to a flock of pregnant ewes some four to six weeks before lambing/kidding. This will allow time for familiarisation and bonding between the alpaca and the flock. But, although this may be the ideal, introduction of an alpaca at any time will be beneficial. The alpaca will normally patrol the boundary and survey his area first. He will then normally stay in quite close proximity to the flock and take on his role as guardian.
It is possible to move the alpacas and their flocks from paddock to paddock using dogs but take care to control the dogs, particularly once the sheep are yarded.
If the alpaca is not needed in a flock for whatever reason, it should not be kept on its own. A single alpaca can be given a few sheep as companions. When not 'on duty', keep the alpacas relatively near the homestead where they can become accustomed to the farm dogs. Feed them by hand occasionally to keep them friendly and easy to handle.
Alpacas can run to obesity when run with breeding ewes so when lambing is over it may be best to separate them from the ewes and keep them with dry sheep. The lower teeth of the alpaca continue to grow and the animals should continue an active, useful life for at least fifteen years.
It is important that the fleeces of sheep bred for wool are not contaminated by other fibres. Thus contamination of valuable wool is generally not an issue but it is still best to separate alpacas from sheep before they are yarded and preferably about two months before shearing. The alpaca does not shed and will not come into physical contact with their charges unless forced to do so. After shearing the sheep, the alpacas should be shorn. Australian Wool Exchange (AWEX) quality control allows alpacas to be shorn in shearing sheds but preferably after all sheep have been shorn.
Alpacas are normally shorn by being laid on their side, reasonably firmly stretched between two posts by ropes. Each pair of legs can be separated by a 30cm spreader board. With such a long neck and legs, this is the safest way of restraining the animals for shearing. This is not upsetting for the alpaca. The belly, leg and tail fibre is removed followed by the main fleece then the alpaca is turned to the other side for the same procedure. While intact adult males sometimes need the canine teeth trimmed, this is rarely necessary on wethers. If the ground is not sufficiently stony to wear down the toenails, these will also need trimming.
Alpacas will come into the yards with a mob of sheep or goats when mustering. Often they will lead the way making penning up easier. Put them up the race and draft them off. Mobs are often much calmer when accompanied by their guardians.
Being intelligent, alpacas learn to recognise family pets including dogs, although caution might be needed when flocks are yarded. The degree of tolerance will vary. Some allow dogs to herd sheep. Some allow dogs on utilities or motorbikes but not on the ground. Introduce dogs gently and gradually so they are not seen as a threat. Very occasionally, a human, through inappropriate actions, may be seen as a threat.
If you source an alpaca from an area where feed types are significantly different, care should be taken as regards feeding as sudden changes of feed may cause problems.
As useful as alpaca guardians are, it is unrealistic to expect an alpaca to protect a flock against packs of dogs or multiple hunting or fighting dogs. They can handle individual small to medium size non-fighting dogs and may cope with an individual dingo or larger dog but many have died trying to protect a mob against dogs bred to hunt and fight. Alpacas will reduce losses, not eliminate them.
If your property is on the outskirts of a town and your small animals are subject to attacks by dogs wandering in packs, you may need to take other precautions. Contact the local ranger and/or shire office as a starting point.