WHY would anyone want to keep alpacas? People I talk to give a number of reasons. Some have fallen in love with this attractive animal and simply want to keep a couple in their paddock to enjoy. Others are interested in establishing a breeding herd in order to improve both conformation and fibre characteristics in future generations and provide stock to other owners. Others want to use the soft, luxurious fibre in a wide range of end products from carpets to baby shawls.

Before you decide whether to go ahead with what can be an expensive purchase, you need to decide on your end goal and do your research with that goal in mind. Even if you are only looking for some attractive lawnmowers, you need to be aware of their basic requirements and be sure that you can meet these and have the time to look after your stock properly.

Which type of alpaca should I buy? There are two types. The huacaya has a fine dense fleece and looks like a cuddly teddy bear. The suri has a long fleece which hangs down in ringlets.

Huacaya are probably easier to keep but the suri fleece can be particularly attractive and lustrous, making wonderful fabric, especially when blended with silk.

The UK pedigree register is maintained by the British Alpaca Society (www.bas-uk.com). Any imported animal must pass a screening test before it can be registered and only the offspring of registered parents can be listed on the register. Anyone thinking of buying alpacas is strongly advised to buy only BAS-registered stock.

How many can I keep? Alpacas must not be kept singly as they are a herd animal and become extremely stressed if kept on their own. The minimum number is two but a group of three is recommended. For pet animals, your best choice is probably two or three gelded males. The only 'product' from these will be one fleece, weighing 3–5 kg, per animal per year.

How much room do they need? This will be one of the factors which dictates the number of animals you can accommodate. If you are planning a breeding herd or are looking to fibre production, you will need space for a larger herd. For this, the recommended stocking rate is five to six animals per acre as long as there is always adequate grazing available. Even though alpacas do not generally challenge fences, you will need to enclose your paddock with something like a four-foot sheep stock netting, post-and-rail or electric-tape fencing.

Do not use barbed wire. Paddocks need regular cleaning but as alpacas tend to choose specific soiling areas, this is a relatively easy task. Paddocks should include an area of dry ground as in prolonged wet periods, alpacas can get foot rot, although this is not common. With their soft pads, the animals tend not to poach the ground.

Will they need shelter? Your alpacas will be happy living outside year-round but you should provide some shelter in the form of a hedge, trees or a purpose-built field shelter.

Do they have special feeding requirements? Alpacas must have constant access to clean drinking water. Because of their need for dry matter, you will also need to provide hay or haylage, particularly in winter.

This should be protected from the weather to prevent spoilage. A supplemental concentrate feed is useful, particularly in winter. This is particularly important for pregnant or lactating females. Various commercial feeds are available, formulated to the alpaca's requirements.

What routine husbandry is required? Your alpaca's toe nails need to be trimmed three or four times a year and teeth checked twice a year with any abnormalities being corrected. From around 18 months, males develop fighting teeth and these should be removed by a professional. Every six months, the herd should be vaccinated against clostridial diseases and should be wormed.

All animals should be vaccinated against Bluetongue and the latest situation regarding this disease can be found on the Defra website (http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/bluetongue/index.htm). Additional A, D and E vitamins are beneficial during winter, particularly to promote bone growth and development in cria (baby alpacas).

What about veterinary care? Hopefully you will experience few health problems with your alpacas.

However, as a prey animal, they give little indication that they are sick. By checking your herd twice daily, you will get to know each animal's characteristics and be able to spot anything amiss early on. Check if your local veterinary practice has anyone with alpaca experience. If not, or if they need further help, see the website of the British Veterinary Camelid Society (www.camelidvets.org) for details of an expert in your area.

How often are they sheared? Huacayas are sheared annually in the spring. Suris can be sheared every year or every other year. If you are aiming for a large herd, your animals will produce a significant amount of fibre.

This can be sold as raw fleece, although the price will not be high. To add value you can get it spun into yarn at one of the dedicated alpaca processing mills and sell this. Alternatively, you can use your yarn to produce a wide range of alpaca products for sale.

Breeders are beginning to promote alpaca products made from their own fibre but this is not easy and requires a lot of planning, effort and dedication. However, in the final analysis, this is the purpose of keeping alpacas and what greater satisfaction than selling a home-designed, home-produced item made from fibre from your own animals?

What about breeding? The gestation period for a cria is around 11½ months with the female being mated about a month after giving birth. Cria are weaned at six months.

Alpacas are induced ovulators with the egg being released by the female on mating. Stud services are available from a number of breeders and mating can be on a drive-by basis (the stud comes to your farm) or a drive-to basis (you take your female to the stud).

Births are generally in the morning and most are trouble-free although you should be aware of potential problems in order to intervene if necessary.

Where can I learn about alpacas? A number of breeders offer introductory courses where you can learn the basics, handle alpacas and ask questions. The BAS also offers courses on alpaca assessment and other aspects. You do not have to own alpacas to join the BAS and as a member you will receive the quarterly magazine, Alpaca, which contains society news and articles of interest. There are books and magazines available which give excellent introductions to owning and caring for alpacas. Before you part with your money, find out as much as you can and, if you are thinking of a larger scale operation, make sure you have a business plan in place.

Once you have your alpacas, make sure you enjoy these gentle, appealing animals.