It was a case of sink or swim. When Paul and Liz MacDonnell opened an alpaca farm in the midlands in 2010, they knew they'd have to plot their way forward alone.
While alpaca farming came to the UK more than 20 years ago, the MacDonnell holding at Hushabye Farm was the first major venture with the South American animals in Ireland. So the MacDonnells had to learn every part of the business for themselves.
"It was a steep learning curve," says Paul, who now farms 70 alpacas just outside the village of Killeigh near Tullamore. "Sometimes when you are thrown in at the deep end, it can be the best thing for you. We didn't have anyone to turn to for help so we had to build up a lot of experience on how to run this alternative farm enterprise ourselves.
"It is standing to us now: we are helping other people to get started in the business and that is a really big part of what we are doing.
"When I started, and I was in at the deep end, I said to myself that if I could ever help someone in that position, I would. Now we can do that, which is great. And we're still learning. We made a load of mistakes along the way and we learned from all of those."
Having grown up in a conventional farm in Ballygar in Galway, rearing alpacas was a step into the unknown for Paul.
"The basics of animal husbandry are similar of course across all types of farming but the relationship we have with our alpacas is the real difference," he says.
"They are unique and individual, extremely intelligent and oozing personality.
"We endeavour to breed alpacas with the finest-quality fleece and wonderful temperament."
Hushabye Farm breed and sell Huacaya alpacas. The fleece of the Huacaya is ten times warmer than sheep wool and softer than cashmere, and once processed is one of the most expensive fabrics in the world.
Paul has focused his breeding efforts on top-quality animals, buying often expensive alpacas and making a return by careful breeding and selling their progeny and fleece at the higher end of the market.
"We now have in Ireland some wonderful breeding stock, well fit to stand on its own four legs," he says.
"Every day is a school day, and with that in mind we try to further our knowledge of all aspects of alpaca breeding, attending shows and workshops.
"For anyone thinking of starting their own alpaca adventure, I'd recommend contacting a well-established breeder like ourselves or any of those listed with the Alpaca Association of Ireland.
"Only buy alpacas that are fully registered, microchipped and come with a complete husbandry chart showing all the interactions they've had since birth by way of husbandry.
"Try to find a breeder who will support you through the whole process from choosing your starter herd to helping you with the initial husbandry calendar and breeding decisions in the future."
The success of the alpaca farm was the springboard for further growth at Hushabye Farm. Paul and Liz also run a successful Airbnb, with the majority of their customers attracted to stay by the presence of the alpacas.
They also host craft workshops and make a number of products from their alpaca fleece.
"There are lots of strings to our bow but at the core of everything we do is the alpaca. There are no grants, no headage payments, no trips to the factory, no end-game," says Paul.
"We host spinning workshops for people with an interest in the ancient craft of spinning yarn.
"From the yarn and fleece produced, we offer a range of products for sale including alpaca bedding, jewellery, bespoke clothing and novelty items."
The MacDonnells helped establish the Alpaca Association of Ireland (AAI). The national herd of alpacas now stands at approximately 2,500, and the AAI expect numbers to increase to 10,000 in the next decade.
"The interest in alpacas comes from a wide range of sources. Some people want to copy our model and embark on a quality breeding programme of their own," says Paul.
"We sell starter herds to help get people established across the country and further afield.
"We recently completed an export to Germany, have sent alpacas back to the UK and have had recent enquiries from as far away as the Middle East and the Netherlands.
"We have clients who are looking for alpacas for a variety of reasons such as therapy animals, flock guards, pets, lawnmowers, for wedding venues and nursing homes.
"The demand is constant and growing."
Owner Paul MacDonnell says they have 'learning on the hoof for the past ten years, and advising anyone intending to go into alpaca farming to buy the best stock they can at the start.
What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
"The business grew organically over the last few years so the start-up costs were spread out over years.
"We started with three alpacas and that set us back in the region of €15,000. That's at the lower end of the scale. We have bought animals who were much more expensive. They are quality livestock."
Was financing readily available from the banks for this sort of business?
"We pieced the business together over the past few years without any massive, once-off investment. We didn't go to a bank manager and ask for €100,000.
"We've increased our stock bit by bit and did up a few farm buildings as we went, so we never really had to get into financing in a major way."
Was planning permission required and if so was it difficult to get?
"The houses and buildings that we are using were there already, so we were just doing them up. We didn't build anything new so planning permission was not an issue."
Did you need a licence or permission from any other government body?
"All of the alpacas are registered with the Alpaca Association of Ireland and with the British Alpaca Society, because we are members of both associations.
"The Department of Agriculture don't really have an interest in them - they are not considered livestock, they are considered an exotic animal.
"The only real interaction we have with the Department is when we are importing and exporting animals. So we have to get export and import licences but we are used to [organising] them now, so they are not an issue."
Are you required to pay rates or any other charges?
"Beyond the usual water rates, we are not required to pay rates."
What grant aid or other assistance was available?
"Because of the way we went at this, growing it organically, there wasn't really a huge amount of supports that would have suited us."
What supports bodies/state agencies were able to help?
"We didn't go down that line. Mentoring programmes did pop up on occasion but they were usually linked to funding or other things that didn't really work. We have been learning on the hoof for the past ten years."
Was insurance required?
"We approached FBD and initially they were a bit apprehensive - like a lot of people at that time, they didn't really know what alpacas were.
"But through FBD's involvement in the Tullamore Show, and our involvement in helping to launch it, we came up with a plan for insurance that would work for us and also for other members of the alpaca association.
"There are people around the country now looking to do things like alpaca trekking, and I'd say 99pc of the people who come to our Airbnb, come because of the alpacas.
"But from an insurance point of view, they [insurers] weren't sure how the alpacas would react with people. But they are very gentle and docile. Once we worked with FBD on this, they were quite happy to come on board."
How did the new business affect your tax dealings?
"Tax was something we had to consider. We hired an accountant and let them deal with it. It was the easiest way to do it."
How much time was needed to get the business off the ground?
"My main passion is breeding alpacas and trying to promote them nationally and internationally. It's a lifestyle for me, not a business. I don't wake up in the morning and think that I have to go to work."
Did you encounter any unexpected pitfalls or challenges?
"We made some mistakes in terms of farm layout over the years.
"Breeding stock is another big thing to get right, whatever you start out with; that's what you're going to finish up with.
"I would advise anyone who is interested to try and buy the best alpacas you can at the beginning."
We started with three alpacas and that set us back in the region of €15,000