'Alpaca fleeces are 16 times more valuable than sheep's wool': Alpaca Joe brings the Andes to Ireland
Wicklow People reporter David Medcalf called in to Alpaca breeder and banker Joe Phelan, who is introducing his unusual flock - with 'treks' round the grounds of Killruddery House in Bray
Joe Phelan does not have the flu, but he has gone viral. Or rather his alpacas have gone viral. Or rather he is smiling because of the 10 million 'hits' clocked up by his short video featuring alpacas and prosecco.
Many of the hits are on internet platforms of which he had never previously heard. There are limits to how many social media a respectable 57-year-old banker is likely to be familiar with.
But it appears that the world at large is now tickled pink by the image of South American ruminants appearing with fizzy Italian wine. Ten million hits and counting.
It should be stressed that the alpacas are not required to drink any wine. Glugging the prosecco is the privilege of the humans who join Joe for his regular 'treks' around the grounds of the Killruddery estate in Bray.
With the help of all the social media publicity, these guided walks with the alpacas have become incredibly popular, introducing the public at large to his flock of unusual animals.
A man on a galloping horse riding past Joe's field would probably think that they were sheep grazing good Irish grass. But stand at the gate and look a little closer. For starters, the neck is all wrong, more like that of a camel than a sheep.
Look again and you may observe that the scale is all wrong. These specimens are considerably larger than sheep, maybe twice the size of a plump Suffolk ewe.
And, though many alpacas are similar in colour to Irish sheep, they come in 20 different shades across the spectrum from white to black.
Joe - or Alpaca Joe as he now likes to style himself with a touch of showbiz exuberance - understands that they are not automatically recognised in this part of the world.
While there are more than five million sheep on the island of Ireland, the alpaca population runs to a tiny total around 2,000 - though the number is growing.
Why he got into alpaca farming
The Phelan flock has little more than 60 but he expects to expand as retirement from the bank beckons and he has more time available to run this most unusual agricultural enterprise.
Alpaca Joe is a Kerryman, though he has been living in Greystones for the past 32 years.
His experience of working the land dates back to the time when he and his brother John would spend the summers of their youth assisting an uncle who had a farm in County Kilkenny.
The uncle's spread in the townland of Kilcreggan was a mixed enterprise, typical of its time, with nothing near as exotic as an alpaca.
As a young man, Joe started work with the post office and then had a brief spell as a health inspector - a career move which was not a success.
He eventually found a more permanent and more congenial niche with Bank of Ireland, spending ten years in the IT Department at Cabinteely in Dublin before being assigned to Procurement. Procurement? A business as big as the bank spends lots of money each year buying or acquiring or generally procuring things.
Those 'things' range from tea-bags to photocopiers to buildings and legal or other services.
The future star of alpacas with prosecco discovered he has a talent for organising such matters efficiently and economically, to the extent that he now speaks blithely about having responsibility for an annual budget of €200 million for some aspect or other of B of I spending.
With the security of a good job, he and his wife looked around for a nice place to live, hitting on the then quiet town of Greystones, where they have now spent more than half their lives.
They acquired a home in the Hillside estate - 'a fantastic place to bring up kids' - and it was there that they raised their four children.
Joe is particularly well known in his adopted town for his association with Greystones United.
Although he had offspring interested too in rugby or athletics, it was the soccer club which began to take up much of his spare time.
He played a little social football with the over-35s but it was on the administration side that he really made his mark. The procurement skills came in very useful when United set about upgrading their playing facilities and clubhouse.
It is a million euro project of which he is very proud but he has moved on from his commitment to the club since his children have grown up.
With retirement from the day job looming, while just one of the two daughters and two sons remained resident at home in Hillside, he began thrashing around five years ago for some alternative activity.
He stresses that the alpacas are not a pastime, not a hobby, but a commercial undertaking grounded in several years of research.
"Golf is not for me," he muses with a smile. 'I am more an active outdoor guy. I used to do a lot of hiking.
"I looked at traditional farming - big outlay, small returns - and then started looking at alternatives."
The alternative which appealed most was the alpaca breeding, so he began two years of looking into the practicalities.
He beat a path to the door of Zandria Williams in Kildare, one of Ireland's pioneers in dealing with this most out-of-the-ordinary livestock.
One major advantage he noted is that alpacas do not require expensive and elaborate fencing to keep them within bounds.
He also went to the UK where the larger flocks run to 600-plus head and there are 45,000 alpacas. And as Joe carried out his background research, he discovered Irish owners had been overlooking a most valuable product.
Value of Alpaca fleeces
Alpaca fleeces are many times more valuable than sheep's wool, by a factor of maybe 16 in terms of price per kilo.
Yet Irish owners had allowed a situation develop where they were paying the merchants to dispose of this unique resource.
Since taking up the cause, the Greystones resident has become a relentless champion not only of alpacas but also of alpaca fleece.
He points out that it is rated superior to mere wool and is in demand for Armani suits as the fibres are hollow so that they offer unique insulating properties.
He also mentions that, when the Spaniards conquered the Inca Empire, they found the locals in the Andes happy to hand over their gold.
Rather than set a store by rare metals, the Incans preferred to measure someone's worth by the quality and number of alpacas they owned - mainly because of the wonderful fleece.
So at his urging the Alpaca Association of Ireland has negotiated a rate to by paid by a British buyer for supplying a consignment of this precious stuff from this summer's shearing.
In selecting his breeding stock, he has been very careful to take account of the quality of a coat which is as soft as cashmere but harder wearing. Otherwise, alpacas - which are related to llamas - may be sold as pets and they are also in demand from some sheep farmers as babysitters for keeping foxes away.
Joe Phelan knows that 'alpaca tea' - an infusion made with the droppings - has a good reputation in some parts of the world as a plant fertiliser but he has not yet explored the commercial possibilities for the Irish market.
He also tells your reporter that the meat of the alpaca is low in cholesterol as though he is preparing to add another income stream.
Australians are beginning to acquire an appetite for alpaca while the Chinese, who relish such delicacies, have begun building up a flock.
However, he is aware that when this exotic steak appeared closer to home on the menu of a British restaurant in Dorset, the reaction was a sentimental backlash.
'I have no interest at the moment in eating alpaca - that is not high on my agenda.'
It is certainly hard to believe that Alpaca Joe would seriously consider sending members of his own flock to the slaughterhouse. The first four he acquired three years ago were named after his children, and he then moved on to apply the names of nephews and nieces.
With new arrivals being born this summer - thanks to the efforts of stud 'mules' Cedric and Hidden Asset - to bring the number past the 60 mark, this source of supply has long been exhausted.
However, each member of the flock continues to be christened - with Lavender, Prima Donna, Showstopper and Classic Touch among those on the roll call.
He rents land for his animals, mostly in the Newtownmountkennedy area, and has been training handlers to lead the treks which have become a valuable side-line.
All the social media publicity has generated enquiries from as far away as the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Germany.
The weekend walks in Killruddery allow him to share his passion for these gentle creatures: 'Every aspect of the alpaca seems to be superior - even their poo.'
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