BY MICHELLE MAISONVILLE
When someone walks up to the pen where the alpacas are housed it’s likely the animals will all crane their necks to look at who it is.
“They’re very curious, they don’t miss a thing,” said Ann Clayburn, who owns Alpaca Acres along with her husband, Dan.
Alpaca Acres is a farm located in Perth County, Ont., between Stratford and Shakespeare. It is roughly a half hour drive from Kitchener.
They breed huacaya alpacas, a breed with a dense, fluffy fleece, which makes it able to adapt to the Canadian winter. They also offer alpacas for sale, alpaca shearing services and finished alpaca products.
Dan first got the idea when he saw an advertisement for alpacas. At the time they didn’t have a farm property they could raise the alpacas on.
However, he had grown up on a dairy farm so he had a background in livestock. “A little bit of farming background went a long way,” he said.
“The more he read the more he was intrigued by how different they were compared to cows,” Ann said.
They said the ad sat in their desk for at least seven years, even after they moved onto a farm property.
Dan kept teasing his and Ann’s parents that they were going to get alpacas all those years until Ann found out she was pregnant with her now 13-year-old son, Colby. Neither Ann or Dan’s parents lived nearby, so they didn’t have their help to take care of their newborn child.
It was decided that Ann would stay at home to take care of Colby and Dan would continue to work.
Dan brought the idea of raising alpacas up again after that decision was made.
“My grandparents had a farm so I was exposed to farm living but I just wasn’t sure how we were going to make it work,” Ann said.
They started by researching alpacas online and from there it progressed to going and visiting a few farms that bred alpacas, which then lead to purchasing six pregnant females.
“We just jumped right in and ran with it,” she said.
When they bought their herd they didn’t realize they had purchased show quality animals. Once they realized that they started showing their alpacas and entering their fibre in competitions.
The Clayburns have won many ribbons, which can be seen hanging in their store, which sells alpaca fibre products.
However, they made the decision not to compete anymore.
Their son plays hockey so they decided to focus on that, rather than competing.
Ann said going to shows means travelling and it takes a lot of time and energy.
They currently have 35 alpacas, each with its own personality and quirks Ann said.
The animals live in a barn but are free to come inside or go out to the pasture.
In the warmer months the alpacas enjoy spending their time outside. They love water, so the Clayburns spray them with a hose to cool them off.
“They keep us active and always give us something to do. It doesn’t feel like a chore,” said Dan.
Their fibre is sheared once a year in the spring, typically in April or May, over the span of three days. Eight pounds is considered to be a good amount of fibre to get off an alpaca, but one of the
Clayburns’ male alpacas, Timmey, has a shear weight of 12 pounds.
Their fibre is used to make alpaca products, which are sold from their home, along with some alpaca fibre products imported from Peru.
The products they sell include rugs, blankets, socks, shawls, slippers, hats and mittens.
Ann said the fibre is as soft as cashmere, however, unlike cashmere, it will not lose its lustre after washing. She also said it’s five to seven times softer than a sheep’s wool.
The fibre also has an antibacterial property that resists staining and odours. For example, Ann said if you spill something on a rug made out of alpaca fibre it takes longer for it to soak in, giving you more time to wipe it off.
Their close proximity to Stratford, home of the Stratford Festival Theatre, brings plenty of tourists to their store.
The visitors who come to purchase alpaca products are allowed to go back to the barn and see the alpacas. They also have potential buyers who visit the farm to see the alpacas for sale.
However, Ann wants to be clear they are not a petting zoo, nor do they wish to be one.
She said they receive many requests from people who want to come and visit, and others who just show up on the farm unexpected.
There are times when they will let visitors come or the alpacas to be shown but they are selective about it.
For example, a few alpacas are brought to the Stratford fall fair each year where fairgoers can see them and pet them.
A few alpacas have also been borrowed from Alpaca Acres by their friends in Tavistock to use in a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s walk to the stable.
The alpacas are used in place of the camels, and they have kids dressed up as the Three Wise Men who walk the camels, or in this case alpacas, to the stable.
They’ve also let a small movie company film their alpacas for The Alpacing Dead, which can be found online on Vimeo. The short film features what they call “a new breed of zombie.” Instead of people getting bit and turning into a zombie, they turn into an alpaca.
Ann said they didn’t make money off of it but it was something fun their alpacas got to take part in. The crew even attached a GoPro to one of the alpacas to get their viewpoint.
“We’ve done stuff like that but we don’t do it a lot because we’d have everyone phoning us for everything,” said Ann. “That’s not what we’re all about.”
Although breeding the alpacas is mostly a positive experience it can be hard on their son.
Ann and Dan said sometimes Colby gets attached to the alpacas, which can be difficult when they sell them.
Ann said when you breed animals you have to remember that even though they might not be with you anymore, they’re still going to a good home.
“It’s fun. We have no regrets … They make us smile everyday,” Ann said.
“I still enjoy it. It doesn’t feel like it’s been 12 years,” Dan said.
“We’ll probably still be doing it another 12 years from now.”