Although my experiences with llamas are in Western Australia, and indeed I write from Western Australia, it is my hope that the article is of general interest, and also that it may give a retiree or two, actual or potential, an idea for a pastime in retirement. I have put links to a few ‘local’ locations towards the end of the article.
My Introduction To Llamas
I retired from full-time employment in September 2000, and, as I am not a serious gardener, our ½ acre ‘bush block’ in the Hills east of Perth, in Western Australia, requires little attention apart from a bit of pruning and leaf raking to keep it tidy, so I was left wondering what on earth I was going to do with my time …
A few days, literally, after retiring, I was introduced to a lady (we will call her Wendy F) who lived on a 50 acre property, known as Southglen Estate, in a valley about 3 minutes drive from our house, who, it turned out, kept llamas, so I offered my services to help with them …
At 7.30 a.m. on the following Tuesday morning, I experienced my first encounter with these animals, and I was hooked! … so friendly and gentle, even though some were as tall as me … 16 years later, and I am still involved, albeit in a greatly reduced way, as a few years ago, Wendy F sold the property and the herd, which, over the years, had risen to 46 … she kept 3 animals, basically as pets, and moved to a smaller property next door (only 40 odd acres) … I am now the permanent ‘llama-sitter’ when Wendy F goes away.
Firstly, a bit about llamas and their cousins …
The llama is a South American camelid, and, since pre-Hispanic times, has been widely used by Andean cultures for meat, wool, skins and also as a pack animal.
There are 4 camelids in South America, two of which are domesticated i.e. the llama, the largest of the four and likened to the horse, although not normally ridden, the alpaca, likened to the sheep and kept mainly for their wool, and the smallest … the third, undomesticated, is the guanaco, likened to the mountain goat, native to the arid, mountainous regions, and the fourth the Vicuna, also undomesticated, smaller than the guanaco and another ‘mountain goat’, native to the high Alpine areas of the Andes.
The height of a full-grown, full-size llama is 1.7 to 1.8 m (5.6 to 5.9 ft) tall at the top of the head, and it can weigh between 130 and 200 kg (290 and 440 lb). At birth, a baby llama (called a cria) can weigh between 9 and 14 kg (20 and 31 lb).
Llamas typically live for 15–25 years, with some individuals surviving 30 years or more. They are very social animals and live with other llamas as a herd … Llamas do not like to be on their own – they need other animals with them, although not necessarily other llamas, and are often used as ‘guard’ animals for sheep, for example.
The wool produced by a llama is very soft and lanolin-free, and it is used to make blankets and other articles of clothing in South America, but is not a ‘commercially’ viable product in the western world, whereas, that of the alpaca is commercially sought after.
Llamas are intelligent and can learn simple tasks after a few repetitions. When using a pack, they can carry about 25% to 30% of their body weight for 8–13 km (5–8 miles). In North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and England they are predominantly used in the tourist industry for trekking, but in America and Canada, they are also used by Government Authorities, such as Power and Forestry, to carry equipment and tools in to areas inaccessible by vehicles. They are preferred over horses, as their ‘toes’ do minimal or no damage to the ground, and, because of their excellent digestive system, their ‘poo’ does not carry seed like that of the horse.
The name llama (in the past also spelled ‘lama’ or ‘glama’) was adopted by European settlers from native Peruvians.
Llamas appear to have originated from the central plains of North America about 40 million years ago. They migrated to South America about three million years ago. By the end of the last ice age (10,000–12,000 years ago), camelids were extinct in North America. As of 2007, there were over seven million llamas and alpacas in South America, and due to importation from South America in the late 20th century, there are now over 158,000 llamas and 100,000 alpacas in the United States and Canada, as well as significant numbers in Australia, New Zealand and England.
That first Tuesday morning was spent learning how to approach and, more importantly, how not to … where to touch and where not to … how to brush and how not to … and how to handle … all so important from the llama’s point of view to ensure it retains its comfort zone, as well as from the safety point of view of the handler … I was to learn, luckily only very occasionally by personal experience, that llamas can kick and spit if they feel threatened, or if their ‘space’ is ‘suddenly’ invaded, both of these being normal and natural built-in defence mechanisms, generally used only against other llamas in the herd, as the need arose, and very seldom against humans, however, if you did something silly, then a reaction from the llama had to be expected.
Incidentally, llamas do not bite, as Adult llamas normally have three pairs of front teeth or incisors, located on the lower jaw … They do not have front teeth on the top jaw.
The next few Tuesday mornings were spent learning how to ‘corner’ an adult llama in its pen, and how to put a halter on the animal … easy enough you are thinking, and, yes it is, but not if you are going about it the wrong way … the llama just will not co-operate if it feels threatened in any way … if it is happy, it basically just stands there and lets you do it … I am lucky I guess, because I like animals, and I think there is a ‘sense’ (if that is the right word) transmitted between me and the animal, because I very seldom had a problem.
One thing to learn about halters, is that they come in different sizes, usually small, medium and large, and putting the wrong size halter on an animal, can lead to trouble … if it is too small, it sometimes results in discomfort for the llama and consequent bad behaviour from the animal … if it is too large, it generally results in poor control of the animal, which can lead to accidents, possibly resulting in harm to the llama, as well as possibly the handler or even others in a walking group … the difference in the sizes is the girth measurement of the halter where it fits over the llamas nose and under its bottom jaw … the length from front to back is adjustable in all sizes, by way of a strap and buckle, clearly seen in the picture below.
The purpose of the Tuesday sessions was two-fold … firstly, the main purpose was to ‘train’ the llamas to get them used to being amongst people, and being handled by them, so that they could be safely used in ‘paid’ llama walks and picnics involving the general public, and secondly to give a group of people exercise in an interesting, fun and social way.
Although male llamas make the better trekkers, a). because they are ‘natural leaders’, so the others follow and b). because they are capable of carrying heavier loads, females are also used, but generally not until the cria are old enough to be separated from the mothers.
Now For The Serious Stuff
After familiarising the animals with their human handlers, the next major step in their training is to get them to carry packs (panniers) on their backs. Although a llama can carry up to about 25% of its own body weight, it needs to be ‘broken in’, starting with just a blanket, or similar, in order to get used to the idea of the feel of having something on its back, then empty panniers and then gradually adding weight over the weeks. It is very important to distribute the load evenly on each side of the animal, and also ensure there are no sharp or ‘lumpy’ bits on the inside of the panniers digging in to the animal. The animal will soon let you know if things aren’t comfy, by ‘misbehaving’.
These initial pannier training sessions were generally carried out on short walks, of no more than about 2 kms, on Wendy F’s property, but fully trained animals were taken further afield on walks of 12km, or even more. The walk below was on Wendy F’s property and was done for a filming session for a TV programme, one of several done at different times for different programmes.
The ‘Fun’ Stuff Begins
When the walks were longer and further from the property, the llamas were transported in what was known as the ‘Llama Limo’, which was a custom built trailer capable of carrying up to 4 adult animals, towed by a ‘Dual Cab’ Utility (Ute) carrying the walkers, and driven to a ‘drop off point’ … the Ute and trailer were then left, to be collected by Wendy F and myself later in the day.
Having unloaded the animals, saddles and panniers were put on to the llamas, and then the 10km walk back to the property started.
The terrain in the Hills is varied, consisting of gravel tracks heavily treed on either side for a lot of the walk, and then, suddenly, there would be undulating open space, and then a valley with a river running through it, presenting the challenge of a river crossing. In the winter months, the water was quite deep and fast flowing, but in summer, merely a trickle, and sometimes no flow at all, just the odd pool here and there.
Llamas don’t mind water and, quite often, the walkers had far greater problems than the animals … in summer, the spillway below is a dry gravel track, and there is little water to be found, unlike in the photo taken a couple of days after heavy rain.
Not much further on from the spillway, was our morning tea stop, welcomed by both llamas and walkers alike. As mentioned earlier, these walks were basically training for the animals, and ‘dummy runs’ for Wendy F to ensure she got it right for her guests on the fee paying walks, and this included trialling the food and drink for guests. We were treated to home made Quiche and such delicious items as smoked salmon and anchovies along with home baked bread or rolls. To drink, there was always champagne, of course, and/or orange juice … well worth the walking, just for the orange juice !
The llamas were always tethered close to hand, and after they had eaten their pellets, they would all sit down, happy and contented.
After ‘Morning Tea’ and a general natter, lasting about an hour, it was load up the panniers on to the llamas again and head off, revitalised and happy, for Southglen Estate and home … the homeward journey always seemed easier than the outward one … maybe it was the orange juice !
Having arrived back at Southglen Estate, after about 4 hours of walking, dining and nattering, the llamas had to be unsaddled and put away in their pens and all of the panniers, plates, glasses and other bits and pieces put in the Hacienda, ready for Wendy F to clean and sort and put away ’til the next walk. Wendy F and I then toddled off in my car back to the Llama Limo.
There was a walk for us, most Tuesdays throughout the year, often the one described here, but sometimes other routes were taken, but the routine was always the same. These weekly walks were interspersed with an annual trip to the Perth Royal Show Week every September, where a mother llama and her cria were prominently displayed on the edge of the main arena, in a specially made pen supplied by the Royal Agriculture Society, who sponsored and ran the show. There were also other local shows from time to time, and a trip or two to a nursing home with a llama … all of this was most enjoyable, interesting, challenging and even educational … time very well spent!
Although my experiences with these lovable animals were all in the Perth Hills in Western Australia, for those of you who are interested, or if you think you might be, here are some, what I hope are useful, ‘Local’ Links:
- Hensting Alpaca Farm, Kiln Lane, Brambridge, Eastleigh
- UK llamas, Dorset
- The Llama Park, East Sussex
- Walk With Llamas In The UK
Please note: I have not had any personal experience with any of the 4 sites above, so it is a ‘look and learn’ situation …
There are, I feel sure, other sites and locations … I hope you find something of interest … Have fun !!!
In passing, on 18th. August 2012, Jo Borton (some of the photos above are hers), along with one of her daughters, her sister and two friends, started the Wainwright Coast to Coast Walk from St. Bees in Cumbria in the west, heading for Robin Hood Bay on the east coast of Yorkshire, a distance of 303 kms (192 miles) … the trip took 20 days, and was done, not only as a personal challenge to each of them, but also to raise money for Breast Cancer Network Australia … a very worthy cause, which links those diagnosed with breast cancer … the walk was completed by everyone … Well done all of you.
Read blog posts by Doug Clews published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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