Fleece in our time

PUBLISHED: 01:17 03 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:30 20 February 2013

Fleece in our time

Fleece in our time

Shy, timid and beguiling - Alpacas are South American visitors who are very much at home on a Warwickshire farm, Nicholas Butler discovers

They come from Peru, in twenty-two different colours: black, grey, white and a host of browns and beiges. In size, they are somewhere between a large dog and a small horse, their withers about three feet from the ground. Their fleeces are soft and light. They are clean, quiet, docile, rather timid and most beguiling. Alpacas began to colonise Europe in the 1990s; there are now 25,000 in the UK.

The largest Warwickshire herd is at Toft Manor, a stones throw from Dunchurch, where Rob Bettinson has run an alpaca farm since 1997. However, he calls himself a professional theatre director.

Having trained as an actor, he worked at the Belgrade Theatre, acting, writing, directing and eventually running the Theatre in Education team. Thence he graduated to the West End, where he co-wrote and directed a number of musicals, including Buddy Holly, Jolson, 125th Street and Jailhouse Rock.

He never moved to London, partly because of the expense, partly because he wanted to bring up his four children in Warwickshire. Instead, he bought six acres of countryside near Dunchurch, with a superb view over Daventry Water, and looked for a way of supplementing his income. He saw an advertisement for alpacas and at a venture bought four males and four females. The eight multiplied to 200 and his acreage, including land he rents, to sixty.

Initially, his neighbours, who had never seen an alpaca outside a zoo, were concerned about an influx of wild animals into the countryside. As it happens, these tamest and mildest of creatures have been domesticated for six thousand years.

The animals are sheared in early May and their fleeces spun into yarn at Banbury. The yarn returns to Toft Manor and is either sold as such, or farmed out to thirty knitters, scattered over Warwickshire, who produce hats, scarves, cardigans and other items, which are sold at the farm.

Robs wife, Shirley, who used to run the Physiotherapy Department at the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, looks after the animals, and his eldest daughter, Kerry, a graduate from York University, runs the shop. Another daughter, Laura, does the advertising, besides working as a singer in London. One son is studying mandarin in China, the other marine archaeology at university.

The alpacas win rosettes at all the big agricultural shows and as one of the first in this particular field, Rob Bettinson is often asked to do the judging himself. He also gives talks and runs numerous workshops at Toft Manor.

He has a particular ambition. He believes that before the Spaniards conquered Peru in the sixteenth century, alpacas produced some of the finest fibres known to man. But the invaders drove the indigenous population up to the altiplano, 12,000 feet above sea level, where vegetation is sparse and so the quality of their alpacas fleeces deteriorated. At present each animal produces one-a-and-half to two kilos of fibre a year. Rob wants to double that; he means to bring his herd up to pre-conquistador sixteenth century standards.

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