I’ve been feeling sad. I came back to Scotland to visit my parents for Christmas on the 3rd December and on the 20th Morocco closed its borders to anyone from the UK because of the new UK Covid variant. Those borders remain closed as of now, the end of May. I miss my home, my life and the camels.
Enter my knight in shining armour – Cousin Charlie.
‘Alice, how’s it going?’
‘Not bad. I’m not dead. I’m not in prison.’
‘Are you missing Hamish?’
‘So, badly. The way he sprays foam all over me, the way he puffs his stomach out so I can’t undo his girth, the way he tries to bite my head off…’
‘Hmm, sounds bad, but I think I can help. How do you fancy walking with alpacas? I’ve booked you two hours with Bobcat Alpacas in the Pentland Hills.’
I danced around the sitting room in glee and when I told Ma and Pa what I was going to do, some surprising family history emerged.
‘I was attacked by an alpaca once,’ said Dad. ‘I was about nine years old and my Mum had taken me to the shows in Dunbar. It was in the days when they travelled all round the country and they came to us once a year. The showmen had all the animals out and were walking around the crowds. Suddenly, I was knocked to the ground. An alpaca had escaped and he jumped right on top of me.’
Clearly the Morrison family’s affinity to the camel family is deeply rooted.
At last, Monday at 2pm arrives and Ruth (Charlie’s girlfriend and I) are standing socially distanced outside an alpaca pen in Bonaly on the outskirts of Edinburgh. We are looking at a group of fluffy beasts who are looking straight back at us. Bob, the owner, does the introductions. He explains who likes what: tickling behind the ears, proper hugs, dawdling at the back and then asks us to pick our walking companion.
I go for Petros. He is medium build and coffee-au-lait coloured. He likes to have his neck and head touched but anything below mid-neck is strictly off limits. He likes to walk at the front of the pack and there is something about his deep-brown eyes that reminds me of Hamish. Ruth chooses one that has exactly the same coat as a highland cow and sports a fine pair of buck teeth. Alpacas only have lower teeth so it is just gums on top.
We set off out of the fields and up the hill, leading the boys by a strap tied to their head halters. Petros makes it clear early on that he does not appreciate a short halter or any commands. If I give him a loose rein and walk ahead as though I am not with him, he is happy to follow along. He reminds me of my niece and nephew. He is very aware of his position as leader and is constantly alert, his nostrils flaring to catch any scent of danger. Male alpacas will see off predators and there is a turkey farm in Scotland that uses them to ward off foxes.
They are clean animals and have scoped out three areas on our walk that they like to use as loos. When we get to the first one, those in need, trot over to the grassy verge. Petros remains on guard. I sink my hand deep into the soft fur of his neck. It is so thick that I lose my fingers. I am not sure that he loves it, but he tolerates it for a while and then breaks away to do a 360 reconnaissance.
As we walk, Bob fills us in with fabulous facts about alpacas.
- They are not a naturally-evolved animal but were bred by humans by crossing a vicuna with a llama.
- They talk by humming. There are two in our group who are particularly chatty including one musical chap aptly called Amadeus.
- They spit and it is the last thing that they have eaten so it tends to be green. The good news is that they usually spit at other alpacas, usually for invading their personal space, rather than humans.
- Their wool is seven times as warm as sheep’s wool and perfectly adapted to their usual habitat in the Andes.
- They rarely give birth to twins.
- The lady alpacas need a pedicure to cut their toenails every ten weeks or so.
Walking with the alpacas reminds me of childhood pony rides on recalcitrant shetlands. We may be holding the leads but there is no doubt about who is in charge. The minute they see something tasty, like a low-hanging rowan branch, they veer off the path and stop to munch. Fence posts are used for a satisfying side rub. They dart in and around each other to walk with their particular friends. When Petros wants to stop, he just does and only continues when he is ready to, or when Bob comes up behind and taps him on the back.
We pass some dogs and toddlers and each group looks at the other with wide-eyed amazement. Amadeus hums loudly and Petros extends his nostrils to their fullest extent. It is a typical Edinburgh spring day so the sun comes out and then it rains a little. W
We come to a dusty semi-circle and the alpacas all kneel down and then roll over on their backs and kick their legs up in the air. There is nothing like a back scratch to make you feel good.
Bob is one of 35 alpaca breeders in Scotland and his animals get used for all sorts of purposes including weddings, going into care homes to cheer people up – I can vouch for that working – and using their fleeces for wool which you can buy in the shop. They are going to be sheared in about ten days’ time by a specialist alpaca shearer. He is originally from NZ and follows the alpaca shearing season all round the world. It takes him just seven minutes to take off the two and a half kilogrammes of wool that they typically produce.
One part they don’t shear is their polls – their heads. Each alpaca has a very distinctive hair do and this is how they recognise each other and tell each other apart. If you cut it off, they get confused and don’t know who is who. It is true: each of our boys looks totally different. Some are Elvis-quiffed, some are Gallagher-fringed and some are just fluffy balls.
At the end of the walk, I don’t really want to leave Petros but the pain of parting is eased by being taken to meet the females and the babies. The females aren’t used for walking because they are usually pregnant or feeding their cria (alpaca lambs) and Bob doesn’t want to stress them. We are given handfuls of compressed grass nuts to feed them and they scoop them up from our hands with their gummy mouths.
Bob gives us an hour of extra time until the last people still handing out nuts are me and a three-year-old in a pink dress. Eventually, I say goodbye and Bob prises me away by saying I can come back any time to pet them.
I haven’t stopped smiling since the moment I arrived. My face hurts.
If you are lucky enough to live in Edinburgh, do check out Bobcat Alpacas! And if not, do a google search and see if there is anything similar near you – it is the best fun.