Alpaca milk, beaten thin by unknown hands, is rolled down the paths of mountains as alabaster mist. It then rises from creeks and fissures to mingle with smoke twisting from distant chimneys across the valley. Trees come and go from one world into another, first a vague shadow wrapped in a mystery, now a glistening sentry watching over grassland sparkling in the sun.
The rasping of mountain toucans speckles the highlands as unfinished rain clouds linger, abandoned, slumped like a mourner between two weeping candles.
I am on the border of the Nudo del Azuay, a mountain range in the southern tier of the Ecuadorian Andes, adjacent to Sangay National Park, to participate in the shearing of alpaca. The herd exceeds 500.
Roger, the foreman of the ranch I am visiting, has been working with this herd for eight years. He explained the process to me in terms I could understand, “We will be giving the alpaca a haircut.”
Alpaca fiber is softer than cashmere, warmer than wool, hypoallergenic and water repellent. However, there is a dramatic variation in the diameter of the fibers depending on whether they are harvested off the back, which is best (22 microns is excellent), or along the legs and stomach. The sorting takes place as the animals are shorn and each grade is carefully bundled up and labeled for the intended use.
This efficient process to, “waste not, want not”, has gone on virtually unchanged for generations. Care is also taken to shear quickly to lessen the stress on the animals. While some critters cry, complain and generally behave as if this indignity is appalling to them, most simply lie down and endure the ordeal — fresh grass for grazing is only moments away.
The sorting that begins with the first cut of the shears is also the time to consider sorting the alpacas themselves. This is the time to closely examine each animal for signs of general health, dental issues, and nail clipping. One of the more important tasks is checking whether or not a female is pregnant. Those that are will be ushered into a nursery with other expectant mothers where they will be carefully monitored during the 13-month gestation and given special care for their optimum comfort.
I thought this to be a nice touch too; the seniors, those between 13 – 17 years old, are most often left to spend their days chewing their cud in comfort. Their contribution days are over. The job now is to grace the landscape with a beauty befitting only the finest mountain meadows — members of an exclusive club whose gentle ways compliment the land.
I had the distinct pleasure of joining grounds men of the Palermo as they began the long process from shearing to long yanks of fine wool ready for knitters to fashion into the coziest and warmest sweaters ever. And, I was able to momentarily wrap myself in the beauty of the highlands while joining those who turn the wheel in ways unchanged since forever. It was an honor I will cherish forever.
We can all join in to protect and save this land. Fundacion Cordillera Tropical (FCT), An environmental NGO based in Cuenca. FCT has worked for the last 19 years to protect wild habitats and restore degraded ones in the Nudo del Azuay, a collection of upper Amazon watersheds to the northeast of Cuenca. FCT builds bridges between residents of the agricultural frontier and the needs of Ecuador (and the planet) to limit the extinction event underway.
For more information on how you can help, please contact Stuart White, firstname.lastname@example.org.