Wednesday 19 June 2019

Humming Alpacas a hit with visitors to Grange

Siobhán prepares Chester for a trot around the fields on her farm.
Siobhán prepares Chester for a trot around the fields on her farm.
Siobhán Watters with her alpacas on the Wild Atlantic Way Alpaca Farm in Grange. Pics: Donal Hackett

Sorcha Crowley

The cutest fluffy faces ever seen north of Sligo town can be found on Watters farm in Grange.

They don't belong to the many lambs, Bernard the donkey, or even the five pygmy goats. They belong to a herd of 11 fidgety Alpacas who stand, halters on, waiting for us to take them for a walk.

What started out as a hobby for owner Siobhán Watters, has now grown into a viable tourist attraction to diversify their working sheep and suckler farm, now called the Wild Atlantic Way Alpaca Farm.

Siobhán and her family have started offering visitors a chance to walk one of these curious creatures through their pastures at the foot of Benbulben.

We marvel at their large Disney eyes, peeping out through comical long fringes like teenagers, their improbably long necks and soft fleeces (despite being shorn in July).

Each Alpaca has a name - Donny rocks a Phil Lynnott hairdo, there's Marty who likes to think he's the alpha male (he's not), Wilson is named after a TV character because he's always looking over a hedge.

Alfie is just six weeks old and the first cria, or baby, born on the farm.

Because the national herd in Ireland is so small, breeding is strictly controlled to prevent inbreeding and only a tiny number of male Alpacas are allowed become studs, the rest must be neutered.

A few breeders in the UK have top notch studs brought in from either their native Peru or Switzerland.

It takes Alpacas a year to have a cria and they only have one at a time so females are "precious."

Siobhán tells us about the origins of her herd as they gaze innocently at us.

"The sound they're making now is humming and they hum when they're contented," says Siobhán.

"It's takes a lot of work to get them this calm. You get out of them what you put into them," she says.

We are each given a halter and told to take our time, if the Alpaca stops for a graze, just go with the flow.

"What if he bolts?" we ask as Siobhán hands over the halter to a black chappy called Chester. "Don't let go," replies Siobhán, warning us not to hang around behind them either in case they kick out.

Chester is definitely a goner if he bolts.

We head off across the fields in between showers, with Chester leading the way. Each Alpaca walks placidly along the trail laid out by Siobhán's son Tristan.

We pass fairy forts, ancient trees, a rushing stream and a flock of sheep. It's the perfect escape from the rat race. Cameras are out for the obligatory selfies.

Along the way, we hear that Alpacas will only give birth between 11am-4pm, never at night.

"In the wild, their biggest predator is the Mountain Lion, that's what kills their babies. So if they have their babies at high noon they have so many hours before six o'clock. Ten minutes after Alfie was born he was up suckling.

"A half an hour later he was running about. In Peru if they have those few hours before nightfall to get the baby strong they have a better chance of survival that night," she explains.

But her Alpacas don't know they're not in the mountain lion-riddled Andes. They're in Grange, so Alfie was born at 11.05am on the dot: "You don't have to sit up all night waiting for a baby!"

Alpacas are not just funny faces, they're also useful for protecting newborn lambs from foxes or dogs.

"They would kill a dog. They gurgle up a green bile and would spit it at the face of a fox or dog and burn their eyes, and then kick them," she says.

"They're not all fantastic sheepdogs" says Siobhán and only two of her herd are used for this purpose in Spring.

They will only take small groups at a time of up to 20 people so not to stress the Alpacas and Siobhán has dreams of growing her herd to 25.

Fáilte Irelands Aoife McElroy was impressed with the enterprise and will now include the Alpaca farm on the 'Local Experts' programme.

As lead facilitator she trains and updates local businesses and staff on how to promote local tourist attractions.

"It's fabulous, such a different experience and it's brilliant that we can give visitors something different. I never thought I'd walk an Alpaca," she said, handing back the reins to funky Donny.

Once back in the yard, we reluctantly pat our furry friends goodbye and watch as they gallop into a nearby paddock shared with the pygmy goats and sheep.

Chester leads the charge.

Sligo Champion