Special Report: Getting back to nature on a trek with valley's alpacas

The Holly Hagg forest garden and community growing project has started offering walks along the Rivelin Valley with its alpaca herd - and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Thursday, 23rd March 2017, 9:00 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 9:53 am
Santiago, left, with Sanday and Gordon

Alpaca trekking across boulder-strewn hillsides sounds like a scene from the holiday of a lifetime - but it’s becoming a frequent spectacle around rural Crosspool and Rivelin in Sheffield.

Six amiable alpacas live at Holly Hagg forest garden and community growing project and have built up a large fan club. Their popularity has now sparked a stampede of people keen to join the fun.

Claire Gregory, left, in red, and volunteer Emily Gagnon, right, leading a trek

The alpacas are often to be seen strolling the by-ways, led on a long rein by volunteer handlers and paying guests, with frequent stops for hand-feeding, photos and chats with passers-by.

They arrived as pets at the three-acre garden site bordered by Long Lane, Crosspool and Hagg Hill, and their grazing keeps the grass tidy and their manure fertilises the crops. What started as a fun project, taking the alpacas out for an amble round the lanes and footpaths, attracted a lot of attention. Onlookers were keen to join in and now, with hour-long treks at £15 per adult, the alpacas are earning money towards the community garden project, which is self-supporting and has no public funding.

Thanks to glowing reports on social media, word has spread rapidly and Holly Hagg founder and project leader Claire Gregory has been inundated with requests for treks. She has had to set up a new online booking system to cope with demand.

Children can enjoy walking the alpacas too, with two leads attached to the halter so an adult can help keep control. The team of trek leaders is growing as more volunteers enjoy learning how to handle the powerful but placid creatures.

Claire Gregory, left, in red, and volunteer Emily Gagnon, right, leading a trek

Though alpacas are the stars of the show, Holly Hagg is usually a hive of industry.

Claire and a sociable team of volunteers have planted hundreds of trees, created vegetable beds and traditional hedgerows on their field. There’s an orchard and several ponds where the alpacas drink and even enjoy a paddle.

The site is nurtured using sustainable, organic permaculture methods, improving the ground and safeguarding its wildlife. Produce is shared out among the gardeners.

A beekeeper keeps a hive on site, with flowers and shrubs planted to encourage the bees.

Everything is recycled. The polytunnel hothouse is built out of children’s trampolines donated by friends. Local gardeners donate their grass cuttings and garden waster for composting in the site’s many compost heaps.

The field is self-sufficient for water. A spring feeds into a pond and is piped into a battery of tanks, sufficient to water the crops all season.

Alpacas, natives of the Andes in South America, are perfectly at home on the steep, stony slopes above Rivelin.

Six neutered males make up the herd, with five more owned by a neighbour in the field next door. Members of the camel family, passers-by often mistake them for llamas, though llamas are about a foot taller and more muscular, with curved ears.

Alpacas are pack animals and roam the field together. They’re happy to take their feed pellets from your hand and won’t bite, although as a species they don’t welcome being stroked or cuddled - a shame, given their cute appearance. However, Holly Hagg’s newest arrivals, the youngsters Theodore - or Teddy - and Santiago, are both happy to let you stroke their soft fleece.

Alpaca fleece is highly-prized, and Claire and her friends have set up a spinning and weaving club, meeting weekly at her Lodge Moor home to work their way through the mountain of fleece produced when the alpacas undergo their annual shearing in June.

Claire, aged 55, said: “In this digital age we wanted to redress the balance with a place where people can enjoy nature and get out in the fresh air. At Holly Hagg we offer opportunities to learn new skills and really get your hands dirty. We enjoy growing things together and sharing our passion for the plants and animals living here.”

Treks are held every Saturday at 11am and Sundays at noon and 2pm, though groups can book at other times by arrangement. Many people buy them as birthday and anniversary gifts, and the response on the Holly Hagg Facebook page has been extremely positive.

The field also hosts family days one Sunday a month throughout summer, with the first on April 2, 3pm to 4pm. Visitors can tour the site and feed the alpacas, while children can enjoy pond-dipping. Admission £1.20 adults, 60p children, including a bag of alpaca food.

And for those who fancy a brisk workout in the fresh air, volunteers work at the garden on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, from 1pm until early evening.

Anyone can join in with planting, weeding, excavating unexplored corners or simply enjoying outdoor exercise. With fine views over to Stannington, over Hillsborough and out to Wharncliffe, it’s a scenic spot. Groups from Sheffield’s universities regularly help with larger tasks, creating paths and helping to dig out new growing beds.

Children from local schools come along to learn about crops and wildlife. Holly Hagg’s concealed camera has filmed a resident male pheasant and a couple of females, a fox, a predatory heron fishing in the pond, even a mole, as well as tracking the alpacas’ movements when no-one is around.

* Visit Holly Hagg or call 07779 067718.

Hardy creatures from South America

* Alpacas are mammals originating from South America

* They are from a group of animals called Camelids: they are one of the smaller breeds of the family that includes camels, llamas, alpacas, guanaco and vicuna.

* Camelids usually have slender necks and fairly long legs. They have two toes and toenails with padded feet which feel like the bottom of a dog’s paw.

* They are hardy creatures, capable of living outdoors in all weathers, and can live to 20 years old.

* Alpacas only have a bottom row of teeth. Instead of top teeth they have a hard gum palate. They cut grass or leaves off very neatly, before swallowing.

* They feed gently, taking nutritional pellets from the flat of your hand, and do not bite.

* Alpacas do not usually flee from predators, but form together in a pack and advance on intruders. Some farmers keep alpacas to protect sheep.