This week I’m going to tell you a little about one of our South American animals, the alpaca. Our herd has been temporarily moved to the Muddy Duck Farm over winter – as these animals are quite enthusiastic grazers, this will give the grass in their normal home under the Treetop Walkway a chance to recover! This also means they’re a bit easier to spot, so if you come to visit us over the winter you’re more likely to catch a glimpse of them.
Alpacas are in the same family as llamas and vicuñas, which are collectively known as camelids. It is often difficult to tell them apart from llamas, but if you look closely, llamas have longer banana-shaped ears whereas alpacas have shorter straight ears. Llamas are also significantly larger than alpacas, weighing around twice as much, and so are often used as pack animals and to pull carts.
We also keep vicuñas at the zoo, which over the winter can still be found in the Treetop Walkway section. The vicuña is thought to be the wild ancestor of the domesticated alpaca, and the striking differences between them are a great example of how farmers have used selective breeding to express the characteristics they want in animals. The most obvious difference is in their size and stature, with vicuñas being much more slender and long-legged than their stockier cousins. Vicuñas are only found in one colour, a dusty brown, and their coats, though fine, are fairly short. Alpaca wool, however, is prized for its quality and warmth, and so alpacas have also been bred to give many different coat colours of a much increased thickness. Our alpacas can be seen in colours from white to brown to black to a mixture of all three! Despite this increased thickness, alpacas can still only be shorn once per year, and so their wool attracts a very high price compared to sheep wool and synthetic fibres.
Why not come and see the differences for yourself! The zoo is open during weekends and school holidays over the winter period, and with tickets from just £7.50, it makes for a fantastic family day out. Be sure to visit the Education Centre for free crafts all day and our ever-popular Meet a Creature sessions!