Meet the alpaca farmer - whose hobby led him to owning the largest alpaca herd in Ireland

Eoghan MacConnell

It’s a sector in its infancy in Ireland but alpaca farmer Paul MacDonnell believes it’s one that offers real potential for Irish smallholders.

He runs Hushabye Farm Alpacas in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains near the Offaly border in Co Laois with his wife Elizabeth and four young children. 

Paul says he got into alpaca farming by accident after buying two alpacas-one a pregnant female or Hembro - from the UK to keep for a hobby on two acres 10 years ago.

“We literally fell in love with them and then decided to just give it a go,” he recalled.

In order to expand their operation, Paul purchased another 26 acres where he now farms around 60 alpacas. “They are very easy to handle. We don’t need any big machinery or sheds,” he said.

He farms the alpacas for their fleece, which he said is hypoallergenic, 10 times warmer than sheep’s wool and more valuable than cashmere. Aside from selling alpaca fleece and products, Paul also sells the animals a wide variety of people.

He views alpaca farming as a good alternative farming option for those with 20 or 30 acres, but advises people to grow their business gradually.

Alpacas are docile animals. They live for around 25 years and are suited to the Irish climate. Alpacas don’t require winter housing as they are accustomed to temperatures of between -40 and + 40 degrees celsius in their native South America.

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While they don't need winter housing, Paul has put up open fronted field shelters for his herd.

As their fleece is highly prized, it is essential the alpaca's fleece is correctly shorn before being sent for processing, said Paul.

“We have a team of guys come from New Zealand every year,” he explained. The New Zealanders are professional shearers who travel across Europe every year, he said. 

Once shorn, the fleece is sent over to Wales for processing. It is then used to produce pillows, quilts and bedding which Paul sells himself, while some fleece is also sent to craft spinners in Ireland.

Starter Herds

Paul sells starter herds to people looking to get into alpaca farming and believes it is a viable venture for smallholders, bu that it is a 'get-rich scheme'.

An animal suitable as a pet, that is no good for breeding, can be brought for about €500 or €600 but breeding females can cost €3,000 or €4,000, he said.

One customer recently bought six from him, for her orchard as couldn’t get a mower in under the trees, a number of sheep farmers have bought them in recent years to help keep foxes away.

The docile animals prefer their own company though and while they may be in a flock of sheep, Paul says they need company and at least two should be kept together.

"If they are on their own, even if they are in a flock of sheep, they will worry themselves looking for other alpacas and their health can deteriorate. “We would never sell an alpaca on its own, they are very much a herd animal,” he said. 

He estimates that there are around 1,000 Alpacas in the country at the moment and said they first arrived into Ireland in 2000, while numbers in the UK are at around 50,000.

The industry at home, he says, is improving as the Alpaca Association of Ireland holds its own shows within shows. Paul, whose own alpaca won a Gold Medal at the Tullamore Show last year, said Irish herds have improved enough to now compete in the UK.

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