Tony Burton-Page visits a farm near Beaminster which is home to some distinctly non-indigenous domesticated animals
Published in August ’09
One of the biggest drawbacks of going on a jaunt to some romantically remote spot is that somebody has to carry the picnic. And if you are reasonably strong, self-sacrificing and of a saintly disposition, the lot will undoubtedly fall upon you. Modesty forbids me to mention how many times I have been the beast of burden on these occasions, but one family outing did at least provide me with a rare opportunity for a genuine use of the palindrome: ‘Ma, I am a llama, I am.’
For llamas have been known as beasts of burden for a very long time – 7000 years is a conservative estimate. Their natural habitat is the altiplano, that area of central South America where the Andes are at their widest. Its average height is about 11,000 feet (3300 metres) and it is the most extensive high plateau on our planet apart from Tibet. So it was quite a surprise to discover a llama farm a few miles north-west of Beaminster, on the edge of the village of Mosterton.
It was ten years ago that Chris Eke and Jo Harwood started UK Llamas. It was a completely new beginning for them. Jo had been working in finance and Chris had been air crew on commando squadrons and RN search and rescue. The change of direction happened completely by chance during a holiday in Arizona. After a flight over the Grand Canyon by helicopter, Chris had got talking to one of the flight engineers, in the way that flying people do. ‘You ought to meet a friend of mine – he goes packing with llamas,’ said the engineer. Jo had seen a television programme on the subject some years before, and, being keen walkers, the idea appealed to them. They called on the friend, who was a naturalist with the forest ranger service, and spent two days trekking with him and his llamas over Bill Williams Mountain. The spell was cast: on the flight home, 36,000 feet above the Atlantic, they decided to get some llamas and see what happened.
The first two were Charlie Brown and Denis Healey – the latter being thus named because of his huge, bushy eyebrows. Ten years on, Chris and Jo have fourteen llamas and would not change their lives for anyone else’s. Intrigued to find out what was so special about these creatures, I visited New House Farm at Mosterton, the headquarters of UK Llamas, and put the question to Chris.
‘They’re South America’s best-kept secret,’ he told me. ‘They’re one of the three most useful animals on the planet, along with reindeer and yaks. They supply everything you need to survive as a human being: food, transportation, accommodation, clothing and fuel – all you need is fresh water!’
He explained that llama meat provides the food (and their milk is drinkable but they only produce very small quantities); their hides can be made into sturdy tents, sewn together using sharpened llama bones; their luxuriant fleece is ideal for the clothing needed for the low temperatures which make life in the altiplano so difficult; even their dung is useful, both as a slow-burning fuel when dried and also as a fertiliser – gardening experts have described it as the best natural fertiliser they have encountered. Small wonder that the Incas domesticated the llama several thousand years ago. In fact, there are no llamas in the wild at all nowadays; like its cousin in the camelid family, the alpaca, all trace of wildness has been bred out over the millennia, although there are two other members of the family which can be found in the wild – the vicuña and the guanaco. (There are a few alpacas and one guanaco at New House Farm, primarily so that visitors can see the differences between the species.)
‘And if it wasn’t for the llama, there’d be no such thing as fish and chips!’ added Chris, with a twinkle in his eye. The explanation for this conundrum is that potatoes originally came from llama country and could only be transported to the shores of the Pacific by huge trains of hundreds of llamas carrying them in panniers – woven, inevitably, from llama fibre.
Llamas have proved their usefulness in diverse ways since Inca times. They make excellent livestock guardians. Jo told me about Hamish, a former resident at New House Farm, who went to Tipperary to guard 300 ewes. The farmer had been losing fifty lambs a year (mostly to predators) but since the arrival of Hamish, he has not lost a single one.
They are intelligent animals and can learn straightforward tasks after only a few repetitions. They can be trained to pull a cart; they can be used as fisherman’s ghillies and golf caddies – in the United States, whole matches take place using llama caddies. But Chris and Jo use their llamas for trekking: in other words, the llamas are the ones who carry the picnic on that jaunt to a romantically remote spot.
‘We decided to focus on the trekking rather than on the breeding or the fleece side. After all, we both enjoy walking and we live in a beautiful part of the world, so it made sense,’ says Jo. ‘And anyway, breeding them is a totally different business. You have to keep the females separate from the males, and the stud males will fight over the females. So we just have boys here – it makes for an even more peaceful atmosphere!’
I asked Chris to describe a typical day at UK Llamas, but he said there was no such thing. ‘Some days we do walks, other days it’s just people visiting us to see what it’s like here. And the walks are very varied – they’re tailor-made for what people want. If they fancy a short woodland walk in the area around the farm, that’s what we’ll give them; but they might prefer a long walk along the coast, which will mean putting the llamas into the trailer to get them to the starting point. And some groups will want one llama each but some like to share their llamas with one another.’
Although every day is different, each one starts in the same way. Chris checks the animals and the perimeter fences. If it is a walk day, Jo prepares the picnic while Chris takes the customers to the fields to choose their animals. The halters are fitted so that a lead can be attached, then the coats are brushed. ‘Customers often ask us, “Do you brush your llamas?” and I reply, “No – you do!” – both parties seem to enjoy it and it gives them a chance to get to know each other.’
Then the packs are loaded. Everything has to be stowed correctly so that each pannier of a pair weighs the same. The llamas carry the lot: the food, the water, the binoculars, the cameras, the medical kit, the tables and chairs, and spare clothing in case of vile weather. Chris gives a safety briefing, then the customers lead their llamas to the trailer. Loading is easy, as nothing seems to panic these creatures. When they are travelling, they ‘kush’ down with their legs tucked underneath, so there is no danger of their falling over. On arrival at the walk’s starting point, the panniers are fitted and off they go. At the lunch stop, the tables and chairs are set up for the humans, while the llamas are tethered to stakes so that they too can have a midday graze.
‘We get all sorts coming on our walks, but most of our custom is repeat business – people keep on coming back for more!’ says Jo. ‘A lot of them are from London. They come down totally stressed after a week in the city, but they go away from us completely relaxed. They are such gentle animals, and they love humans, particularly the young and the elderly. They’re interested in everything rather than being frightened by it: when the school next door to us had a firework display, they didn’t run for cover like most animals would – they just stood and watched. And this calmness radiates from them. We’ve had autistic children coming to visit us, children who are in their own little world and never make eye contact with you, but when they are with the llamas they’re behave like normal kids. We had some children from a special school on a trek once; there was one girl who never spoke, one boy who hated animals, and one ‘war zone’ who needed two carers. By lunchtime, the girl was chatting to the llamas like a budgerigar, the animal-hater had asked “Can I have Charlie Brown now?” and the war zone’s carers had left him on his own, completely enchanted. We call it “llama karma”.’
The Incas may have tamed them and used them as beasts of burden, but they had considerable respect for them: in fact, they worshipped them and referred to them as their ‘silent brothers’. The respect is there for all to see at New House Farm, but Jo adds two words of warning: ‘They’re addictive!’ She is right: I have to confess that since my visit I have hardly stopped thinking about these endearing creatures.
[UK Llamas are based at New House Farm, Mosterton, Beaminster, Dorset DT8 3HE, telephone 01305 868674]