The human population recently surpassed seven billion, putting even more pressure on world resources. By 2050, it is expected to reach about 10.5 billion individuals. Clearly, vigilance and novel solutions to environmental stressors are essential for survival.
One of the most important reasons alpaca is poised to take its place in the global consciousness and on the shelves of luxury retailers worldwide is its low impact on the environment.
Simply put the physiology and habits of the animals themselves are quite remarkable. They evolved to have a light impact on the earth and to use resources incredibly efficiently.
Alpacas are hardy animals with one of the most superb natural fibres for insulation on earth. They are able to withstand cold temperatures, having come from one of the harshest and least forgiving environments on earth – the high altitude altiplanos (austere high altitude grasslands) of the Andes in South America.
While the cria (young alpacas less than a year old) may need more care than adults, once they pass through the critical first few months, they can be expected to enjoy a robust life of about twenty years.
Alpacas are easy keepers, able to withstand cold temperatures and able to wring more nutrition from less food than other fibre livestock animals.
An alpaca drinks far less water than a similar fibre-producing animal, having evolved in a harsh environment where water is only consistently available in low areas of the altiplano. As water becomes ever scarcer, this makes alpacas a very attractive fibre livestock.
Alpacas’ specialised three-stomach digestive system metabolises most of what they eat with little waste. While all ruminants are considered efficient, since alpacas evolved in harsh conditions, their specialised stomach compartments utilise their food even more efficiently than others. They only require feed in the form of grass or hay and a proper mineral balance.
In addition, alpacas browse on a variety of plants so there is no need to plant a mono crop for them to feed on. This enables pastures to recover more easily because they rely on natural techniques of survival that have been working for years on the same acreage.
Alpacas do well on a variety of high fiber, low protein grasses, including native species. Native vegetation does not require chemical fertilisers to thrive. Therefore, alpacas allow us to eliminate one of the major reasons our water is becoming increasingly polluted: chemical fertilisers and their inevitable overuse and runoff.
Unlike sheep and other animals, alpacas can also thrive in deserts and mountain plains because their conversion rate is better. This simply means they require fewer resources to thrive.
One well-bred alpaca can produce enough wool to produce about four or five sweaters every year while it would take four goats to do the same in one 365-day cycle.
Alpacas weigh less than other fiber producing livestock and therefore cause less soil compression, which tends to leads to infertility in ecosystems. Compare a 100-150 pound (45.3 kg) alpaca with a sheep, which can weigh between 90-450 pounds depending on its sex, with rams weighing in on the high end.
Soil that is light and fluffy can support vegetation and earthworms and other creatures that add to soil health. Aerated soil grows vegetation more effectively than dense soil. In turn, more grass is available to retain water, reduce runoff and ultimately, nourish alpacas.
An alpaca lacks teeth in its upper palette, which makes the way they eat grass different than other fiber bearing animals with teeth on both the top and bottom. An alpaca plucks grass from a bunch, not disturbing the roots.
Conversely, goats can rip entire clumps of grass out of the earth quite easily which exposes the roots and makes rangeland recovery longer and more difficult. Displaced dirt can then be easily eroded away by weather, causing soil loss, depletion and erosion. A longer recovery time for pasture translates to less available feed for livestock and the need to supplement with hay. The need for hay, an extra expense for ranchers, can make hauling hay by truck necessary, which burns fossil fuels and adds to pollution.
An alpaca mouth is uniquely evolved to allow it to pluck grass from the altiplano without harming the surrounding soil.
Alpacas’ two-toed feet have soft pads on the bottom, with a texture much like a dog’s footpad, with two toenails that naturally wear down in the silica rich soil of their native South America. These padded feet allow the animals to tread grasslands with very little impact. In contrast, other fiber animals such as goats have hooves, which can dig into the turf and cause erosion. This has been seen in recent years with the desertification of grassland in Mongolia due to overgrazing cashmere goats.
Alpacas feet have soft pads to lessen soil impact while alpaca stomachs are able to wring the maximum nutrients from their food.
All members of a herd of alpacas will consistently defecate on the communal poop pile. This makes cleaning up after them less time consuming than for other fibre producing livestock. Their feces are round pellets, which are easy to scoop.
The burgeoning gardening population is always looking for sources of less expensive, natural or organic fertilisers and the manure alpacas produce is some of the best on the planet. Often referred to as “time-release” pellet fertiliser by gardeners, it leaves no toxic waste in the water supply like other synthetic fertilisers.
Defined as a fatty substance found naturally on sheep's wool, lanolin is something that must be vigorously scoured from wool before processing. Alpaca fleece is nearly free of lanolin and what is present can be easily scoured away with environmentally friendly soaps before textile manufacturing begins. This eliminates the need for harsh cleansing chemicals and can be accomplished simply, easily and with no harm to the environment.
On top of all the advantages of the animals themselves, alpaca fibre is environmentally superior to nearly all other natural animal fibres for many reasons. Truly, alpacas are the most exciting livestock today in terms of ecological sustainability.
As alpacas become more and more well known outside South America, and the finest of their fiber makes its way into the global consumer’s favorite garments, they will again become recognised as one the most appealing and useful natural fibres on earth and a great hope for the future of textiles.
Learn more about alpacas and alpaca fibre through participating at an educational seminar presented by Alpaca Culture on 23 September during Cashmere World, stay tuned to www.cashmereworldfair.com for more updates or visit www.AlpacaCulture.com.