The Algarve’s west coast is not the Andes, nor does it soar 5,000 metres above sea level. But it is now home to a herd of animals which originated in those high plains of west-central South America; the alpaca. Matt and Sally Henman have created “Aljezur Alpacas” here on the Vale da Telha plateau.
And although their paddocks are capable of sustaining up to 100 alpacas, they intend to increase their current herd from eight to a maximum of 50 through a careful breeding programme in association with other pedigree farms including the nearest such breeder, based in Andalusia in Spain.
In fact, they have already had their first Aljezur-born cria (the name for baby alpacas, much like foals to horses) who now goes by the name of Dumbledore, so the project is already healthily under way.
Although alpaca meat is seen in some quarters to be healthy and flavourful, high in protein, Matt and Sally plan only to breed a stock with a 100 per cent pedigree bloodline to sell to other breeders, and to use the animals’ sumptuously soft fleece, or fibre, for commercial purposes.
Alpaca fibre is widely recognised as one of the most luxurious fibres in the world, and comes in 22 officially recognised colours and every shade in between. It is used for making designer clothes as well as knitted and woven items similar to, but much superior to, wool; items that include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, socks, coats and even bedding.
Aljezur’s alpacas are already very much at home in the Henman family’s paddocks to the east of Sector E in Vale da Telha, out towards the top of the hill leading up from Aljezur, despite their forebears being ideally suited to life 16,000ft above sea level!
Matt and Sally moved here from Edinburgh where Sally was in the Travel and Tourism Industry and Matt was working in Insurance and Pensions. They felt that their three children, Selina (now 13), Aiden (11) and 6 year-old Jamie would have a better lifestyle and quality of life growing up in rural Portugal than growing up in the UK.
The couple have long been intrigued by the possibilities and prospects of alpaca farming and breeding and, as they already owned a property in Vale da Telha, they felt this would be the perfect area to follow the dream.
The Henmans had been visiting Portugal for almost 20 years, mainly around the Almancil area, but found the southern Algarve increasingly noisy and uncomfortably busy to consider making their home there.
Once they visited the West Coast and the Costa Vicentina, they fell in love with the peace and tranquillity of this vast but undeveloped area, and its possibilities, which prompted them to buy a villa on Vale da Telha.
From that anchor-point they began working towards bringing their dream to fruition, firstly by buying 18 acres of land not far from Quinta da Lago Silencioso, with trees, pastures and a stream running along the edge of the property.
They then applied for—and got!—planning permission to build a new house and a storage building on the land. They lived in their older property for two years before finally their habitation licence came though and they officially moved into their new “estate” in July 2013.
By that time they had already been acquiring pedigree alpacas in Suffolk, where they were kept in livery with their breeder.
And when it came to shipping them over to their new home outside Aljezur in the summer of 2013, the “Aljezur Alpacas” totalled seven animals, one of them (named Elektra), already pregnant.
Right at the outset, in 2010, the Henman children had the privilege of naming each alpaca as it came into the family.
They decided to name them after cartoon characters or some of their literary favourites, beginning with the letter “A”, the initial then changing from ‘B’, to ‘C’, etc., each year. This meant the new cria’s name would begin with the letter “D”…and so little Dumbledore was the first of the Aljezur Alpacas to actually be born in Aljezur.
There are other Alpaca farms in Portugal but Matt and Sally decided from the outset that the Aljezur Alpaca bloodline would be 100 per cent pedigree. This means that their breeding programme would have to be scrupulously monitored and, once new blood needs to be introduced to the herd, they will be working with the nearest pedigree stock in Andalusia, in Spain
They decided to work towards creating a herd with a maximum of around 50 alpacas to make handling the stock easier and more efficient. All of the veterinary needs, inoculations, vaccinations etc are handled by Matt and Sally themselves as there are no vets sufficiently qualified in this region.
The long-term aim is to breed and sell the stock to other breeders across Europe. Alpaca fleece is highly marketable and Matt and Sally will be looking for ways to best utilise the shearings, with the Middle East a major market for alpaca wool.
For example they displayed the sumptuously soft fleece from their alpacas recently at Fatacil, and a lady who makes soft toys using sheep wool is now interested in replacing that with the much softer and more tactile wool from the alpacas.
Eventually the Henman’s hope that Aljezur Alpacas will benefit the area by playing a key role in attracting more visitors to the area which is already attracting a great deal of media interest across Europe with the opening of the Rota Vicentina and a growing awareness of the natural beauty of the coastline.
Sally intends to build on her experiences of marketing in the tourism trade to promote the business and the attractions of the region, explaining:
“We want to build up people’s awareness of the desirability of alpaca fleeces and wool and to develop the product.
“At the moment people have to import the high-quality fleece of pedigree alpacas. We have it in the garage.”
Sally has also been in discussions with schools in the area to develop a relationship that would benefit the pupils.
The International School already plans to take some of the fleeces from the Aljezur Alpacas and develop a weaving project as part of their curriculum. And as the farm is located on the Costa Vicentina national park and along the route of the Rota Vicentina, with its accent on eco-tourism and sustainable green industries the Henmans hope the Park authorities, looking at “weird and wonderful” projects, will incorporate Aljezur Alpacas into its tourism programme.
Looking further ahead Matt and Sally are exploring the potential of Alpaca Trekking as the animals will happily submit themselves to a lead.
And even their by-products are sellable!
Alpaca manure is dry, formed in small pellets and is virtually odourless but is a highly efficient fertiliser. It can be placed directly onto plants or you can run water through a bag of the manure and use the water to feed the plants.
Sally claims this is every bit as good as more commercially available products like Baby Bio, and they now have a customer base of local people calling in to buy the bags, which are filled by the Henman children.
Matt laughed: “The kids get their pocket money this way.”
The Henman project is still in its early stages. But already the family has 18 ducks, to provide them with fresh eggs (“once they start laying,” Sally said a little ruefully) and a pair of pigs for breeding which will eventually produce all the pork and ham they need, as well as piglets to sell on to other breeders. Find out more about Alpacas HERE.
They also own two donkeys and are currently establishing a boarding kennels for dogs which they say will have plenty of room for the pets to be comfortable, and good quality dog walks to give the boarders plenty of daily exercise, vital for their wellbeing.
Aljezur Alpacas and all its associated parts, is pretty much self-sufficient with the Henmans producing their own electricity from an expanse of solar panels, backed up in the winter by a generator, and all their water comes from their own borehole.
“It’s hard work, but so rewarding,” Sally said.
“It’s wonderful for the children to grow up in an environment like this and for Matt and myself to have a real sense of accomplishment and achievement as we see it all beginning to take shape.
“It is giving us all that we wanted and no-one can ask for more than that.”
To find out more you can visit www.amovate.com, or contact Matt and Sally at: