I’ve been boasting about telling local stories and wanted to share this with you. It’s a little thing I wrote for a local magazine last year.
Photos and story: Jillian Doyle
Fifth generation sheep grazer Di Sanderson turned a few heads in 2005 when she broke from tradition and took a chance on introducing an alternative herd animal to her Northern NSW property.
Di and husband Phil’s property is part of land originally purchased by Di’s shepherd ancestors from the AA Company between 1908 and 1910 and they built their sandstone block home on the site of her grandparents’ home just south of the township of Duri near Tamworth 25 years ago.
So, when the daughter of a dedicated Merino sheep man purchased two Alpaca wethers to help combat stock loss it created a bit of a stir in the grazing community.
While some considered alpaca to be a novelty, Di saw them as an viable stock option for the district.
“It was about moving the (sheep) industry forward and introducing new practices,” Di said.
“We had 80 crossbreed sheep at the time and in the first season our lambing rate went up to 115 per cent.”
Today the Sanderson’s are bringing the traditional sheep grazing and alpaca worlds together with a herd of around 100 alpaca which has been bred on property.
Although very grounded in grazing practices Di has an obvious love for her herd who are all named.
She justifies the naming practice with the ultimate aim of the breeding process.
“I find the genetics side of breeding very interesting and improving on the good pairings and you have to know where they all come from.
“They are so majestic with a natural curiosity and when handled correctly they aren’t as prone to behavior like spitting which some people associate with the bred. You can’t stop it totally because it is their natural way of showing their stress or agitation but a calm animal isn’t as prone to doing it.
“We sell what we need to sell but for me it is about the genetics and breeding a better animal with temperament being just as important as the fleece quality,” Di said.
While alpaca is more commonly associated with their luxuriously soft fleece which is greatly valued by spinners and weavers and those looking for quality cold weather clothing; the Sanderson’s are quick to point out the many benefits of the inquisitive animals.
These include alpaca as sheep herd guards.
“They are easy on the ground and paddock grasses and lower maintenance than sheep however the basic care is the same,” Di said.
De-sexed wethers are sold as herd guards and graziers who have taken the chance have reported lambing success similar, and better, to those of the Sanderson’s.
“I have sold some on as pets to people on small acres with a few sheep or to reduce the need to slash five acres blocks but I will not sell only one at a time. These are herd animals and selling one is not an option as they are happiest in the company of other alpaca and are most effective against a threat in pairs. These are very intelligent and social animals and their instinct is to work as a team.”
She said sadly a single alpaca against a grazier’s worse enemy, feral or a vicious domestic dog, is more likely to be injured or killed while defending the flock.
“Dogs are as big a threat for alpaca as they are for a flock of sheep. Dogs don’t fight fair as most aren’t driven by hunger; they attack out of boredom or for sport and that never ends well.”
How many neck chops are there?
An emerging profit area for the alpaca industry is for their meat.
“A common joke question among producers are how many neck chops are there,” Di said.
“A producer down Sydney way is pushing this side of the industry which is going well for him.”
“I’ve tried the meat and it is very tasty but personally after living around this lot I can’t bring myself to eat it,” she smiled.
Like sheep Alpaca need annual shearing for their own well-being as well as for the fleece.
The Sanderson’s shear their own animals due to a declining number of available shearers in the region. This has led to them helping out other alpaca owners with the annual clip.
“Over past years some of the old shearers have retired and it has been getting increasingly harder to find someone to do the job. We have been trying to help those who can’t find one for the animal’s sake as well as the fleece it produces for its owner.”
Alpaca are sheared on a specially designed table, which the Sanderson’s set up long ago in their Alpaca friendly shearing shed but Di assures the shearing is still the same back breaking work associated with sheep.
“We did our own and a few for other people last season and it was full on. Phil and I were exhausted and a bit sore after.”
She said their main buyers the spinners and weavers who create the beautiful, warm items we are all familiar with.
What is the future of alpaca industry in Australia?
Di said the steady growth of the industry looks to continue across the wider grazing community and she is looking forward to it being recognised as a regulated industry to standardise breeding practices within Australia’s growing herd of alpaca.