Shearing is important as an animal welfare issue as alpacas do not shed their fleece. They have an exceptionally thermal fleece, and will overheat (see Heat Stress) in summer if their fleece is not regularly removed – most alpacas need to be shorn annually, although some with slower growing fleece may take a little longer. So even if you have your alpacas as pets, and have no interest in their fleece, you will still need to regularly have them shorn, to keep them healthy and comfortable.
Alpaca fleece is also exceptionally valuable – far more so than sheep fleece. Alpaca fleece is softer than sheep wool of a similar micron, has less scratch factor, better thermal qualities, and a higher tensile strength. Many alpaca enthusiasts term the fleece “alpaca fibre” rather than fleece or wool to emphasise these differences, but alpaca fibre is still wool, whatever it is called!
Alpacas are not sheep! They cannot be shorn in the same manner as a sheep as they have a rigid backbone, and sitting them on their backside to shear them is out of the question. There are two main methods of shearing while the animal is standing, or laying the animal on its side and tying it in such a manner that it is unable to stand until released. The first is probably less stressful for the animal, but few alpacas are quiet and tame enough to reliably stand still – and movement on the part of the animal creates risk of injury from the shearing blades. The Alpaca Place alpacas are both well-handled and quiet, but we prefer not to take the risk of them moving unexpectedly when using sharp blades.
For methods of restraint, see Shearing Restraint
Shearing is normally a 3-person job – In addition to the shearer, and the handler holding the alpaca’s head, it is useful to have a third person to remove the fleece as it comes off the alpaca. At this time you should take a couple of good handfuls of fleece from the midsection of the alpaca – you should send this sample away for testing, most purchasers will want to know what grade your fleece is. Fleece needs to be sorted into blanket and skirtings and the easiest time to do this is as it comes off the alpaca. You need a sorting table with a mesh top – this allows dust and debris to drop through as you sort. Animals with a good quality fleece will give you a greater yield as “blanket-quality fleece can extend up the neck and lower down the belly, but as soon as the fleece quality starts to alter or deteriorate you should discard it as skirting. Fleece from the legs is generally useless, and must be discarded. When in doubt as to whether fleece is blanket, skirting or discard, downgrade it– you don’t want a reputation of having poorly graded fleece.
Once your alpaca has had all the fleece removed from one side of its body, the alpaca is rolled over and the fleece removed from the other side. Release the restraining ropes from the posts, and roll the alpaca onto its back and then to the other side. Don’t lose control of your alpacas head, or allow too much slack in the ropes to its feet. Again this operation must be carried out swiftly.
Having your alpaca restrained is too good an opportunity to miss – tell your shearer that you want to trim toenails, and if necessary, the teeth, before releasing each animal. Many people also find this a good time to vaccinate their alpacas!
Don’t forget your alpacas are very herd oriented if shearing a female alpaca, have her cria nearby where she can see it. All alpacas should have herd companions nearby when being shorn – preferably in a position where the restrained alpaca can see them, but certainly close enough that she or he can hear or smell them.
Most alpacas have their forelocks (the fleece that grows between, and in front of, the ears) left unshorn – this is mainly cosmetic! You may want to trim hair that hangs down over the eyes if it is starting to impede the alpaca’s vision, however. Tails can have a pompom left on the bottom, this will help to protect the genital area from the weather. Legs are usually shorn down to around the knee area.