In the last few years, it seems that small alpaca farms have been cropping up all over our area. My personal experience with the animals was limited to driving by as they munched happily in someone’s field. That was before I got a call from Brenda and Mat Thall with Red Barn Alpacas in Norwich, inviting me up to take a crash course in alpaca shearing.
I figured it might be interesting, so on a recent Tuesday I donned jeans and a T-shirt and headed up to their small farm on Gibbon Road in Norwich, ready to go to work. Well, fully prepared to observe, anyway.
Like their cousins the llamas, alpacas are considered camelids, which, as the name implies, means they are related to camels. They trace their ancestry to the Peruvian Andes, where for centuries they have been raised domestically for their soft, fine fleece. Alpaca fibers are both lighter and warmer than wool. The fibers are considered hypo-allergenic because they have no lanolin, which makes wool naturally water-repellent and triggers an allergic reaction in people like me.
The Thalls have been raising alpacas for about 2 1/2 years, according to Mat, but before they took the plunge they spent about seven years researching. Today, they have a small herd of 10 alpacas, which they take to shows up and down the East Coast. These shows sound to me like the camelid-equivalent of the Westminster Kennel Club
On the day of my visit, the Thalls’ herd of alpacas were due to be sheared, something which is done every spring.