Having spent twenty years working and living on the small Caribbean island of St Martin, Anya and Frank Walkington knew the time had come to relocate somewhere else. “It was a great place with a great lifestyle,” shares Frank, “but the education system was lacking and with three young children we knew a change was needed.”
Visiting New Zealand on the recommendation of friends, it took Frank and Anya less than two weeks to make the decision that this small island, “underneath the rest of the globe” was the place for them. Purchasing 24 acres in Wainui, Auckland, due to its proximity to the international airport, they settled into their new life. “We went along to the local A&P Show and came across some alpacas,” explains Anya. “We thought they were a bit more exciting than cattle so bought five.”
Attracted to alpacas due to their gentle nature, quirky personalities and large eyes, the couple expanded their knowledge around genetics and fibre and became involved with the NZ Alpaca Association. With their herd growing to 55 they realised another move was on the cards. “We were aware that the climate in the South Island was better suited to alpacas and with the kids starting to move on with their own lives we made another impulse decision,” laughs Anya. “It was a dreary rainy day in Auckland and we browsed farms for sale online. We were instantly attracted to the first one we saw.” A large bare block of land in Wainui, Banks Peninsula. “Two weeks later we were viewing the property in person and made an offer.”
What happened next is adeptly described by Frank as a ‘baptism of fire’. Six weeks after their arrival, while they rented next door until their home was built, the Canterbury earthquakes struck. However out of the devastation came a ray of light – cruise ships. With the closure of the Lyttelton Port the diversion of cruise ships to Akaroa saw an opening in the market for tourism, right across Banks Peninsula. “We knew the cruise ship market from our time in the Caribbean,” explains Frank, “and with experience in retail and hospitality, dived in.”
Utilising the fleece from their alpacas, Anya worked with local and Christchurch knitters to produce a small range of clothing and set up a basic shop. Which, alongside the offering of a farm tour complete with intimate encounters with alpacas, saw them launch Shamarra Alpacas onto the tourism market.
“From the first ship we got twenty people,” shares Frank. “And then nothing. But we plugged away at it and slowly word of mouth spread.”
As tourist numbers increased the shop had to diversify in order to keep up with the commercial demands. The couple are now processing three tonne of fibre a year to make their beautiful clothing, blankets and accessories, all of which are sourced from New Zealand and Australia.
“We are very picky with our fleeces,” explains Anya. “Alpaca fibre is one of the most beautiful natural fibres in the world and it has taken us years of dedicated breeding to produce alpaca fleece of the right quality. Every fleece we produce and source is tested to ensure we only use premium low micron alpaca in our knitwear. This results in a finished item that is soft, luxurious and eminently wearable.”
“We don’t shy away from challenges. It is our aim to continue to improve the quality, and the awareness of alpaca fibre with the ultimate goal of producing a cashmere equivalent when it comes to fineness and consistency,” she continues.
Valued for its beauty and warm silky softness, alpaca fibre comes in a unique range of twenty-two natural colours, is environmentally friendly, sustainable and hypoallergenic. With quality cashmere typically ranging from 13-15 microns, it is easy to understand Anya and Frank’s drive to have alpaca fibre regarded with the same esteem.
With genetics and breeding at the heart of their operation, the growth of the herd is essential and one which is managed with extreme care and detail. “Today we have over 160 alpacas and every female has the opportunity to breed,” explains Anya. “We are breeding for fibre, which means we are looking for traits, in males and females, that will progress the alpaca fibre industry.”
Testament to their passion for genetics is the export of Shamarra progeny to Europe, UK and Australia and their numerous ribbons and awards gained at A&P Shows across the country.
For Frank, one of the most attractive attributes of alpaca farming is the low-environmental footprint, in fact, they are regarded by many as one of the ‘greenest’ animals on the planet. “Internationally the awareness around the sustainable benefits of their fibre and its range of natural colours is growing,” he explains, “as is the understanding of the impact these animals have on our planet. While the husbandry side of farming can be intense, they require very little in animal health maintenance and their soft padded feet mean they leave the pasture unpugged.”
Adding to the advantages is the consolidation of faeces in one or two spots in the paddock and their quirky ability to only deliver their cria [baby] during daylight hours. “It is very unusual for them to be born at night or during bad weather,” laughs Anya.
Alpaca farming is still relatively small in New Zealand, with alpacas first introduced around 1865, our local market only really established itself about thirty-five years ago. “We certainly had the neighbours raising their eyebrows when we first moved here,” shares Frank with a smile. “Banks Peninsula is a very traditional sheep farming region but now they are hugely supportive and really interested in what we are doing.”
With the largest alpaca herd in New Zealand sitting at around 700 animals, Frank and Anya are quick to point out they are middle-of-the-road when it comes to size. Yet they are anything but middle-of-the-road when it comes to their passion and offering. Guaranteed to put New Zealand alpaca farming on the map they are a dynamic duo well worth discovering and their beautiful alpacas, well worth meeting!
[ WORDS Lucinda Diack, IMAGES Charlie Jackson ]