The Alpaca industry has now been in New Zealand for around 30 years, and our industry pioneers have long since moved on, their fascinating stories lost. However, here in Masterton still lives the man responsible for introducing alpacas to New Zealand and the world. We were lucky enough to meet up with Ian Nelson again recently when he was a guest at our local alpaca group. Now aged 90, Ian retired from farming alpacas only about 5 years ago. We took the opportunity to catch up with some of Ian’s reminiscences on how he became involved with alpacas.
Ian and his wife Virginia (Dinny) were Masterton sheep farmers most of their lives. In 1985, Ian decided to retire, passing his sheep farm on to the next generation. However, as with most farmers, his heart was in the land, and he and Dinny decided to buy a small holding (around 10 acres) up near Taupo. Having farmed sheep and cattle for 40 years, they decided they wanted to do “something different” as their retirement hobby, and started to investigate farming llamas. At that stage, their were about 5 llamas in New Zealand in zoos, and Ian managed to acquire 3 of them. During Ians study of llamas as a potential hobby, he also heard about alpacas – but nobody knew anything about them.
Ian and Dinny then decided they would take a vacation in Chile, and while they were holidaying would take the opportunity to investigate acquiring some llamas to bring to New Zealand, and would also take a look at some alpacas if they could. It is now history that Ian was blown away by the fleece of the Chilean alpacas, and from that moment on, llamas were no longer part of the equation – especially as Dinny had found the llamas too large and overpowering.
Ian then returned to New Zealand and applied for a licence to import alpacas from Chile – and was turned down flat by our Government, who were concerned alpacas might bring exotic diseases into New Zealand that could potentially devastate our existing sheep and cattle industries.
However, Ian was not going to give up. He enthusiastically promoted alpacas as a future farming option for New Zealand to anyone who would listen – and their were a number of people who became caught up in his excitement. This group of people continued to lobby the government for permission to import alpacas for farming, and eventually gained a partial agreement from the NZ Government, on condition that Ian and his associates built a quarantine station on Niue Island in the Pacific, and paid to have it managed by Agresearch staff. While they were on Niue Island, they would be studied to ensure they carried no diseases that could affect sheep, cattle and other primary industries.
Obviously, the experiment worked! With Ian finally granted permission to import alpacas, things turned out to be not quite that simple, as there were no rules (protocols) regarding the importation of alpacas into New Zealand from South America. So while the New Zealand and Chilean governments started working on protocols, Ian (who had been years lobbying the government) was too impatient to wait any longer. He was given permission to import some alpacas from a zoo, and so his first 3 alpacas actually came from London Zoo. One of the females, a brown, was extremely “spitty” and was given the nickname “Vomiting Violet”!
Without meaning to, Ian became a world changer – as soon as New Zealand agreed to the farming of alpacas, many other countries (Australia, UK, Europe, USA, Canada) quickly followed suit, with the result that many of the first alpacas imported into New Zealand by various entrepreneurs who had jumped on the bandwagon, bounced out of New Zealand to the rest of the world within months of arriving here.
Ian continued to farm alpacas for around 20 years, only making his second retirement a few years ago, when “Vomiting Violet” died, aged 28 (because she was purchased from a zoo, unlike other imports, her birthday was known).
Alpaca owners the world around owe an enormous debt to Ian and Virginia Nelson.