Why you should care
Because they’re woolly, adorable and love to go for walks.
When you think of alpacas — the Peruvian equivalent of sheep — you probably don’t think of jolly old England. But a small farm on the U.K.’s Norfolk coast is giving tourists the opportunity to get up close and personal with the woolly creatures.
Ian Curtis operates alpaca trekking tours — the first of its kind in England — for thousands of visitors to Wells-Next-the-Sea each year. “I didn’t know anything about them beforehand, but I thought I’d give it a go,” he says of his “rescue babies”: 13 alpacas with Peruvian names like Pancho, Macchu and Paco. The camel-related creatures are the unwanted males of breeders from around the country, some of whom escaped the butcher’s block by being adopted by Curtis. Farming them has become increasingly popular in Britain and other parts of Europe since the 1980s. Curtis brought his adoptees here to this idyllic, 2,100-strong seaside town — famed for colorful beach huts and salt marshes — where he’s been offering coastal walks alongside the leaf-chewing alpacas for six years. Groups walk from the edge of town and onto one of the earliest finished sections of the England Coast Path — a definable walking route around the entire English coastline, spanning 2,800 miles. A two-hour family trek costs roughly $50, and visitors are welcome year-round.
Moving at the animal’s pace “means you are more aware of your surroundings.”
My daughters, ages 7 and 10, grumped about not being able to ride the alpacas like horses but quickly cheered up when they came into view. Asking all the appropriate parental questions, I quickly gleaned that they don’t carry fleas (but do have nonthreatening mites under the skin) or bite. We then set off for a 90-minute walk along the salt marshes in the sunshine, with Pancho and me leading the group, gracefully jutting their heads forward with each step and bleating.
Just don’t expect a quick pace. The alpacas, which look vaguely like Harry Potter’s Buckbeak, tend to amble. And the hardest part? Keeping the long, strong-necked trekkers from halting to munch on every leaf and blade of grass along the narrow, overgrown paths. But slowing things down is a good thing, according to Norwich native James Patterson, who enjoyed his tour in August 2015. Moving at the animal’s pace “means you are more aware of your surroundings,” he explains, and is “an excellent way to soak up the scenery.” Not everyone sees it as harmless fun, however. Mimi Bekhechi, director of PETA UK, says these gentle giants “would rather be living their lives than being pulled about by tourists.”
Still, our hairy companions seemed content enough. Until it came to treat time. When my youngest was feeding some of the animals, a grumpy alpaca named Alfonso spat at her. “Now you don’t get any,” she told him, wagging her finger and turning to feed an apple slice to the next in line. Still, flying saliva aside, walking with alpacas is a great opportunity to enjoy nature and take in some fresh sea air while getting a little exercise.