Alpacas are known as New World Camelids, a title they share with llamas, guanacos and vicunas from South America, and Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa. Genetic analysis suggests alpacas were selectively bred from vicuna about 6000 years ago and there are many similarities between their size, fibre and teeth.
The Inca era
Alpacas were once the prized possessions of the Inca empire, providing meat, fuel and clothing to the population. Unlike many domesticated animals they were resilient and perfectly adapted to the harsh climate and poor soil of the altiplano of Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
The Incas were known for their highly organised and productive farming methods, and this included an extensive selective breeding programme with the alpacas. Only Incan royalty and nobility were allowed to wear garments made from alpaca fibre, and many people believe the fleeces produced then were better than any of the finest quality fleeces you can find today.
Following the conquest of the Incas by the Spanish in the 17th Century alpacas were slaughtered to the verge of extinction. The Spanish had viewed them as competitors on their sheep's grazing lands and, realising the Incas also relied on them, set about methodically destroying almost 30 million alpacas. Shortly after the remaining Incas fled to the highest reaches of the Andes to live in exile and took their remaining alpacas with them. Subsequently, these alpacas learnt to exist in extremes of temperature and very little vegetation and protein, laying the foundations for the hardy animals we see today.
It wasn't until the 1800s that the alpacas were heard from again, when English textile manufacturer Sir Titus Salt pioneered a machine for making worst from the coarse alpaca fibres and a process for spinning and weaving it. The resulting lightweight durable fabric was promoted throughout the textile mills and fashion houses of Europe and changed the face of the textile industry, making Titus a millionaire into the bargain. However, in time alpaca cloth fell out of fashion and with the decline of the textile industry, the alpacas once again disappeared from view.
The modern day alpaca
It was over a hundred years ago later that they re-emerged, when Australia started to import them in 1984, followed by America and Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Although the market is still in its infancy, the UK currently leads the way in Europe and, with the Australian and American markets 10 years ahead and growing at around 17% a year, the future for alpaca breeding in the UK and Europe looks very healthy.