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Nick and Sue Atkins and their family of Alpacas

PUBLISHED: 14:11 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Who are you?

Who are you?

They're gentle, inquisitive, cuddly and they smell like digestive biscuits ... Tracy Spiers and photographer Anna Lythgoe meet the Atkins Alpacas

I've just spent the day with the alpacas and it was absolutely fantastic!" declared a family friend, positively glowing from her experience. Visions of her hiking up a mountain with a religious order immediately came to mind. I had no idea what an alpaca was but I didn't let on. I'm not the only one. Six years ago Nick and Sue Atkins confess they hadn't a clue either, and they're now alpaca experts.



"I thought they were people who walked around with back-packs on," admits Sue.


"But when Nick showed me a photo of one on his computer screen it was love at first sight and I knew we had to have them here."



Here is an idyllic newly-renovated 300-year-old Cotswold barn surrounded by five acres of beautiful countryside on Minchinhampton Common with breath-taking views and lots of open sky. It's also home to 60 alpacas - the most enchanting yet comical looking creature one is likely to meet. They're a gentle, inquisitive domesticated member of the camelid family, cousin to the llama, with a cuddly teddy-bear appearance. Natives of the Andes Mountains in South America, alpacas were treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation and helped clothe Incan royalty with their luxurious fibres. But while their fibre is akin to cashmere and much sought after, the alpacas have given Nick and Sue a greater gift. They've enabled them to leave the rat race and live The Good Life.



"I've been a hairdresser all my working life, having opened my own salon at 21, but when I reached 50 I felt it was time for a change. A client came into the salon one day and asked me if I wanted to buy a barn, which had fallen into disrepair. We approached a planning officer and was told "derelict barns form part of the rural landscape," and unless we could earn a living from it we wouldn't be allowed to live there," recalls Nick.



"We had just built a new house, but I suggested it to Sue and to my amazement she said yes," explains Nick (53), who met Sue (43), a farmer's daughter, when he took her on as a hairdressing apprentice 25 years ago. When she's not seeing to the alpacas, Sue's nursing her plants (fertilized by alpaca poo!) which she sells at Stroud Farmers and Cirencester County Markets.



"We realised the land wasn't viable to farm cattle or sheep because there wasn't enough and in any case these animals would eventually end up at the slaughter house which wasn't what we wanted, so I rang the NFU and they suggested alpacas. Once we saw these beautiful creatures, they stole our hearts."



It's hard to believe within just six years, the Atkins Alpacas have become internationally successful. Nick and Sue will soon be the only British breeders to have American studs. Their five "boys" - Sizzlin' Hot, Nova's Knight, Avalon, XXXCalbur and Harley Davidson (so named because his father was brought down a mountain on a motorbike) - are in quarantine in Canada, waiting to join studs Discovery and Witness, who have been busy getting 40 girls pregnant. Nick's confident the American boys are ready for business and the consequences of their actions.



"Two weeks after the stud has performed, the female will know if she is pregnant. If you then put her near the stud she will spit at him. This is called a "spit off," and it's the sign breeders look for to know she's pregnant. In the early days, we had one female who was spitting for England, but she was still spitting a year later with no baby to show for it. It turned out she had a phantom pregnancy," remembers Nick.



This confusion led them to buy a mobile pregnancy scanning kit. So now, like a midwife going about her rounds, Sue uses the small scanner attached to a doppler and rubs baby oil on the Alpacas' abdomen to see if they are expecting.



"One of the girls miscarried and because we had a herd of pregnant females, we didn't know which one had lost her baby, so I was able to use the scanner to see which one it was without causing any distress," recalls Sue, who also offers this mobile scanning service to alpaca owners country-wide.



Gestation is an average eleven and a half months. As a rule alpacas give birth within daylight hours because in their natural habitat they need to be on their feet and away by nightfall to avoid predators. The Atkins admit they've stuck to the suggested birthing kit.



"We were told we'd need a stiff drink to steady the nerves, a rope to tie our hands down and a pair of binoculars to keep an eye on them in the field," says Nick, who also shares the task of clipping almost 500 toe nails but leaves the fleece shearing to a New Zealand expert.



Within an hour cria (name for baby alpaca) are up walking around, feeding from mum and by evening running.



"It's quite an amazing sight, but all the new babies start to run round the field, bumping into each other as if they're doing the Conga. In Peru, once the sun goes down, it starts getting chilly and they run to keep warm," explains Sue, who knows each one by name and by character.



"Libby's the boss. She stands in the field with her head held high and will wait until all the others have gone for their food, then as she approaches, they all part, let her through and she has a whole trough to herself! Her daughters are treated like little princesses and she won't let them play with the others," reveals Sue.



Atkins Alpacas is a family business which offers consultancy and planning advice for those venturing out on new enterprises. Nick and Sue are at the helm, son Oliver (20) designs and updates the website and daughter Jess (18) takes the photographs and is largely responsible for naming the new arrivals. They use an alphabetical system to identify which year the cria were born. All those beginning with an "a" were born six years ago. The "f"s will be born soon. But the Atkins will always remember their very first cria, Amy.



"Her mother was Farah and I hand-spun Amy's fleece and knitted Jess a scarf for Christmas," recalls Sue, who learnt to spin after Nick bought her a spinning wheel for her 40th birthday.



"We've got Biscuit - that's because when the alpacas are confined and get hot, they tend to smell like digestive biscuits. Dennis is named after Dennis Healey because of his bushy eyebrows. There's Cherry, she's a deep reddy brown colour and we've also got Bliss, because we were sitting outside one morning eating bacon butties when Evangeline went into labour and dad said "This is absolute bliss!" explains Jess.



Six years on, Nick and Sue maintain their life is just that.



"It is the ideal life and we love it. It's an absolute joy. The alpacas give us so much and it's lovely breeding an animal we know won't get slaughtered. It doesn't feel like a job and it's our little bit of heaven."


I've just spent the day with the alpacas and it was absolutely fantastic!" declared a family friend, positively glowing from her experience. Visions of her hiking up a mountain with a religious order immediately came to mind. I had no idea what an alpaca was but I didn't let on. I'm not the only one. Six years ago Nick and Sue Atkins confess they hadn't a clue either, and they're now alpaca experts.



"I thought they were people who walked around with back-packs on," admits Sue.


"But when Nick showed me a photo of one on his computer screen it was love at first sight and I knew we had to have them here."



Here is an idyllic newly-renovated 300-year-old Cotswold barn surrounded by five acres of beautiful countryside on Minchinhampton Common with breath-taking views and lots of open sky. It's also home to 60 alpacas - the most enchanting yet comical looking creature one is likely to meet. They're a gentle, inquisitive domesticated member of the camelid family, cousin to the llama, with a cuddly teddy-bear appearance. Natives of the Andes Mountains in South America, alpacas were treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation and helped clothe Incan royalty with their luxurious fibres. But while their fibre is akin to cashmere and much sought after, the alpacas have given Nick and Sue a greater gift. They've enabled them to leave the rat race and live The Good Life.



"I've been a hairdresser all my working life, having opened my own salon at 21, but when I reached 50 I felt it was time for a change. A client came into the salon one day and asked me if I wanted to buy a barn, which had fallen into disrepair. We approached a planning officer and was told "derelict barns form part of the rural landscape," and unless we could earn a living from it we wouldn't be allowed to live there," recalls Nick.



"We had just built a new house, but I suggested it to Sue and to my amazement she said yes," explains Nick (53), who met Sue (43), a farmer's daughter, when he took her on as a hairdressing apprentice 25 years ago. When she's not seeing to the alpacas, Sue's nursing her plants (fertilized by alpaca poo!) which she sells at Stroud Farmers and Cirencester County Markets.



"We realised the land wasn't viable to farm cattle or sheep because there wasn't enough and in any case these animals would eventually end up at the slaughter house which wasn't what we wanted, so I rang the NFU and they suggested alpacas. Once we saw these beautiful creatures, they stole our hearts."



It's hard to believe within just six years, the Atkins Alpacas have become internationally successful. Nick and Sue will soon be the only British breeders to have American studs. Their five "boys" - Sizzlin' Hot, Nova's Knight, Avalon, XXXCalbur and Harley Davidson (so named because his father was brought down a mountain on a motorbike) - are in quarantine in Canada, waiting to join studs Discovery and Witness, who have been busy getting 40 girls pregnant. Nick's confident the American boys are ready for business and the consequences of their actions.



"Two weeks after the stud has performed, the female will know if she is pregnant. If you then put her near the stud she will spit at him. This is called a "spit off," and it's the sign breeders look for to know she's pregnant. In the early days, we had one female who was spitting for England, but she was still spitting a year later with no baby to show for it. It turned out she had a phantom pregnancy," remembers Nick.



This confusion led them to buy a mobile pregnancy scanning kit. So now, like a midwife going about her rounds, Sue uses the small scanner attached to a doppler and rubs baby oil on the Alpacas' abdomen to see if they are expecting.



"One of the girls miscarried and because we had a herd of pregnant females, we didn't know which one had lost her baby, so I was able to use the scanner to see which one it was without causing any distress," recalls Sue, who also offers this mobile scanning service to alpaca owners country-wide.



Gestation is an average eleven and a half months. As a rule alpacas give birth within daylight hours because in their natural habitat they need to be on their feet and away by nightfall to avoid predators. The Atkins admit they've stuck to the suggested birthing kit.



"We were told we'd need a stiff drink to steady the nerves, a rope to tie our hands down and a pair of binoculars to keep an eye on them in the field," says Nick, who also shares the task of clipping almost 500 toe nails but leaves the fleece shearing to a New Zealand expert.



Within an hour cria (name for baby alpaca) are up walking around, feeding from mum and by evening running.



"It's quite an amazing sight, but all the new babies start to run round the field, bumping into each other as if they're doing the Conga. In Peru, once the sun goes down, it starts getting chilly and they run to keep warm," explains Sue, who knows each one by name and by character.



"Libby's the boss. She stands in the field with her head held high and will wait until all the others have gone for their food, then as she approaches, they all part, let her through and she has a whole trough to herself! Her daughters are treated like little princesses and she won't let them play with the others," reveals Sue.



Atkins Alpacas is a family business which offers consultancy and planning advice for those venturing out on new enterprises. Nick and Sue are at the helm, son Oliver (20) designs and updates the website and daughter Jess (18) takes the photographs and is largely responsible for naming the new arrivals. They use an alphabetical system to identify which year the cria were born. All those beginning with an "a" were born six years ago. The "f"s will be born soon. But the Atkins will always remember their very first cria, Amy.



"Her mother was Farah and I hand-spun Amy's fleece and knitted Jess a scarf for Christmas," recalls Sue, who learnt to spin after Nick bought her a spinning wheel for her 40th birthday.



"We've got Biscuit - that's because when the alpacas are confined and get hot, they tend to smell like digestive biscuits. Dennis is named after Dennis Healey because of his bushy eyebrows. There's Cherry, she's a deep reddy brown colour and we've also got Bliss, because we were sitting outside one morning eating bacon butties when Evangeline went into labour and dad said "This is absolute bliss!" explains Jess.



Six years on, Nick and Sue maintain their life is just that.



"It is the ideal life and we love it. It's an absolute joy. The alpacas give us so much and it's lovely breeding an animal we know won't get slaughtered. It doesn't feel like a job and it's our little bit of heaven."

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