When Chris and Vicki Agar bought three pregnant alpacas in 2000 they had no idea that years later they would have more than 100 animals and be running hugely popular alpaca walks five times a week.
“If you turn the clock back to 2019, for weekends we were booked up three months in advance and for weekdays a month in advance, with people clamouring, trying to get in on walks,” said Chris, who owns Spring Farm Alpacas, near Fletchling in East Sussex.
Now, the easing of pandemic restrictions is fuelling a new boom in alpaca walking. After three lockdowns, people are keen to do something different, get out into nature and be with animals.
The Agars have bookings through to the end of September. “There’s an element of people searching for things to do in the country, and of people relating to animals,” said Chris. “It’s a much more tactile experience than going to the zoo.”
Across the UK alpaca walking operations are gearing up for a busy season. Duncan Pullar, chief executive of the British Alpaca Society, which has about 1,500 members, said: “Demand is really high. Nearly all the businesses I’m in contact with have said they’ve got orders queueing up. They’re all raring to go and have plenty of people lined up. Some are booked two or three months ahead.”
According to Pullar, alpaca walking is on offer all over the UK, from the Isle of Wight and Pembrokeshire to just north of Inverness.
Usually the experience involves a training session on how to behave around alpacas, leading them on a halter for about an hour and then feeding them.
“Fifteen years ago, there were two or three people running alpaca walking,” he said. “Now 40 farms have a trekking operation as part of their alpaca keeping and there will be others I don’t know about. It has accelerated in the past five years.”
Emma Smalley, director of Alpacaly Ever After, an award-winning social enterprise with four sites offering alpaca walking in the Lake District, first advertised for alpacas in 2017. She and her husband started with a herd of five and now have 170 alpacas and llamas.
“We get fully booked really quickly,” she said, adding that they are now booking into 2022. “It has taken off. People are beginning to understand that time in nature is vital.”
Smalley has noticed new businesses offering alpaca walks in the area and receives many requests from people interested in doing it for themselves.