Alpacas are fast becoming one of the most efficient, cost-effective ways of protecting sheep flocks from lurking predators on farms nationwide.
The furry, domesticated species, which hail from South America where they live on the high plains of the Andean Mountains, are now owned by about 150 people across the country, including some sheep farmers.
The social animals warn flocks about intruders by making a sharp, noisy, high-pitched shriek. They also attack smaller predators with their front feet, and can spit and kick. Foxes are a particular pet hate of the alpaca.
Joe Phelan, vice chairman of the Alpaca Association of Ireland, based in Greystones, Co Wicklow, says farmers are running up to three alpacas with their sheep.
"Alpacas hate foxes and foxes hate alpacas. If a farmer has a fox problem, they will essentially eliminate that problem. In some cases they will fend off a single dog but not multiple dogs," he said.
Their ability to protect sheep from foxes was originally discovered by farmers in Australia where the animal is more established.
"We're not sure why, it's just a fact of their nature. First, they will give a screech out as an alarm, they are always on the look out for danger because they themselves are prey animals."
"Their method of survival is to actually spot danger coming and flee so there is always someone on duty with the alpaca," said the banker and alpaca owner from a farming background.
They also protect broods of hens or rafters of turkeys and other poultry.
"Ideally farmers should have two or three alpacas, they are a herd animal so they get stressed when they're on their own," said Joe.
Alpacas live up to 25 years and cost between €400-€500. Large males can grow to 100kg with long legs and long necks.
"From a sheep farmer perspective it's a good investment, you will have them for a long time. They need to be acclimatised into the herd a number of weeks before lambing."
Joe says alpacas have a natural affinity with sheep. "They take a little while to settle but once they do they quickly take over as guards. They are also quite paternalistic. You will always see an alpaca go over to a new born lamb," he said.
Farmers normally run male alpacas with flocks as females are kept for breeding, however females are considered every bit as assertive as the males. "They are very intelligent animals, unlike sheep who are a bit brainless. They are inquisitive and very easy to train. Their upkeep is actually less than sheep because they eat less and they don't graze down to the root so they always leave good cover on meadows," said Joe.
* Macra’s Queen of the Land, Karen Elliffe, is set to dazzle Ryan Tubridy this Friday night when she appears as a special guest on RTE’s The Late Late Show.
The Westmeath farmer, who says her life has been a “whirlwind” since claiming the prestigious crown, will feature on a panel discussion about women in farming.
Meanwhile, basketball clubs from across the country will arrive in the capital this weekend for Macra’s highly anticipated national playoffs.
After months of training and conquering county rounds, teams from Cork, Kilkenny, Sligo, Laois and Dublin are hotly tipped for a spot in the finals in the men’s and women’s competitions.
All support is welcome for the day long event, sponsored by the National Dairy Council, at the ALSAA Sports Centre, Dublin on Sunday.
Also, the nomination process for Macra’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates has now closed. As Odile Evans, Wicklow and James Healy, Cork, continue their battle for top office, Cara O’Mahony, Kildare, is running for Leinster vp, Tom O’Donoghue, Waterford, is running for Munster vp, while Sharon Corcoran, Mayo and Brendan Curran, Leitrim, are both contesting the north west vp seat.