ENGLISH HILLS — The alpacas of Deb Galway’s Menagerie Hill Ranch seem to hardly notice the human activity around them as they sun themselves on an English Hills slope.
Half a world away from their native environment on the lower slopes of the Andes, they are producers of what Galway says is the softest fleece you will find anywhere.
It was Deb Galway’s husband’s concern about keeping the area clear around their 3,000-acre English Hills ranch that got the family into the business of raising animals.
“We needed lawnmowers, so we got some Barbados sheep,” Galway said.
The family’s involvement in 4-H increased the animal population to include horses, a steer, hogs, llama and other large farm animals, giving rise to the name Menagerie Hill Ranch.
It was at a 4-H Kidfest that Galway met an alpaca breeder and was impressed with what she calls “their greenness.”
“They are not destructive. They are easy to clean up after. They produce good fiber,” Galway said. She later said that they also require much less acreage than other farm animals. “They are very mild-mannered and also show guard behavior like a llama.”
Their interest in people visiting the ranch ranges from mild interest to benignly ignoring whatever is going on.
Members of the camel family, alpacas are native to the Andes of South America, where they are domesticated herd animals. They are smaller than llamas. The first alpacas, outside of zoos, were brought to the United States in the 1980s. The number of breeders has grown slowly since.
Galway bought her first five alpacas in 2008 and has since slowly expanded her herd to 33, not counting about a half-dozen others she is boarding for others who are in the process of setting up their own acreage. With the exception of a few llamas, alpacas comprise the current population of Menagerie Hill Ranch.
Growing her herd is a slow process because female alpacas only give birth to a single offspring once a year.
Galway said alpacas are intelligent and respond well to training and handling. She spends about two hours a day feeding her herd and shears them once a year.
“The fleece is excellent,” Galway said, “It’s really soft. It’s really dense.”
While there is a lot of interest in alpaca fleece and the customer base is growing, Galway said there’s not a thriving commercial market yet. She makes most of her fleece sales at her ranch and at shows.
“Most farmers sell in small amounts off their farm,” Galway said.
Galway’s ranch is one of about four or five ranches in the Vacaville area with alpacas. Most have smaller herds, what she calls hobby farms.
She also operates a small store in her barn, selling the fleece, alpaca yarn and items that include alpaca socks and pet beds. She will be one of a host of alpaca breeders who will bring their animals and alpaca products this weekend to the Dixon Fairgrounds for the first time.
The Ninth Annual California Classic Alpaca and Fiber Show will have more than 150 alpacas from California, Nevada, Oregon and Arizona farms gathered from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Dixon Fairgrounds, 655 S. First St.
Visitors who are curious about the unusual animal will get the chance to learn more about the alpaca industry by talking to the breeders who care for the animals and the artisans who create everything from clothing to pillows from their soft wool. There will be vendors offering the latest alpaca fashions and handcrafted items.
Alpaca wool has often been compared to cashmere for its softness. It is also hypoallergenic and is one-third the weight of wool, according to the Alpaca Owners Association. The California Alpaca Owners Association was the Alpaca Owners Association’s first regional association formed in the northern hemisphere in 1989.
Visitors can also watch the show ring competition, where the alpacas will be judged on the quality of their fleece and whether their bodies conform to the standards for an alpaca.
Galway advises anyone who is thinking about getting alpacas to “start with a plan and work out what you want them for, whether as a hobby or making a big operation out of it.”
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.