Debbie with the curious Hughie
New life in the country
Debbie and Paul Rippon moved to Northumberland from Northamptonshire and realised their dream of owning alpacas.
You never quite know where life is going to take you.
A few years ago Debbie Rippon worked as a commercial manager at an insurance brokers in Northamptonshire.
Alpacas are native to South America
Now she breeds alpacas in Northumberland and sells hats, scarves and other garments she makes with their fleece.
It's a world away from her previous life - and it all started with a night in front of the telly.
"We saw a Michael Palin programme on television and he was going through South America," Debbie recalls. "I saw the alpacas on a farm and I thought 'they're gorgeous'.
"It made me look into it, it's just one of those things that you do. I've always liked animals and wanted to do something with them."
Just "looking into it" quickly developed into a real desire - shared by her husband Paul - to own alpacas.
Debbie, 36, had only ever worked in an office environment; Paul worked in finance (he still does, for Northern Rock) and both had been brought up in Nottingham, in the city.
But the lack of experience didn't deter them.
Four years of research, several house moves and a husbandry course later, the couple welcomed their first three alpacas to the paddock by their new house in High Angerton.
That was February 2007. Now, less than two years later, they have 33 and Debbie looks like a natural with the herd.
"Most of it to be honest is hands on experience," she says about getting to grips with the animals.
"Everybody's really helpful. All the other breeders are really keen to get other people involved so everyone's happy to help you along. If you've got an issue there's always someone you can ring."
The local farmers have been helpful too. Debbie even had a go at lambing with one before their first alpaca gave birth.
Debbie models one of her knitted hats
Waste not, want not
Debbie and Paul wanted Barnacre Alpacas, as they've called it, to be a business, not just a hobby. So Debbie has learned to spin and weave so she can make the most of the sought-after alpaca fleece.
She knits the fibre, which is akin to cashmere, into clothes that she sells at craft fairs and online.
Nothing gets wasted.
The leg fleece, which isn't high enough quality to knit with, becomes felted earrings.
Even the manure goes to good use. Most of it is taken away by people to use on their allotments and gardens but Debbie and Paul have even turned some of it into bricks to burn on the fire. Apparently it doesn't smell!
What's in a name?
All the Barnacre alpacas have names and Debbie says they have distinct personalities too.
The girls crowd round for some food
"I've got a couple in particular that get really miserable if it rains constantly for a week or two. One of the older girls, Duchess, she gets really fed up when it rains too much."
How on earth can you tell when an alpaca is fed up?
"You can tell!" Debbie laughs.
"You can really tell if one's a bit off colour. Duchess will sit there and she'll just stare at you as if to say 'Are you going to do something?' where as normally you go in, she sees you and she'll come running because you might have some food.
"You do get to know your animals and they hide illness very well so you have to get to know them."
The good life
Debbie says that, naturally, she was initially apprehensive about the big change in lifestyle. How would she feel being home alone all day? Would she cope giving the alpacas their injections? What if, after spending all this money on them, she couldn't sell anything?
The animals are good-natured
But, two years in, the couple's new life in the country seems to be working out.
Debbie's obviously enjoying the "good life" and Paul, who still works for Northern Rock, has benefited too. Debbie says spending time with the alpacas helps him to unwind.
"In the summer Paul always does the feed at night with me. The stress, it all just goes, and the alpacas are just so calming… I think after having a stressful day at work it's quite nice to get back and get greeted by a load of noses!"
Next year there will be even more noses to greet him as at least ten of the Barnacre alpacas are pregnant again.
Debbie's aim is to increase the herd to around 50 in the future (though that will require another house move for more land) and to produce an average of 20 young a year, some of which will be sold on.
A trip to South America to see the alpacas in their native environment is also on the wish list, as is a visit to Australia to see the alpaca herds there.
Michael Palin has a lot to answer for!
last updated: 10/11/2008 at 15:18
Alpacas are one of the camelid species and closely related to llamas.
They are native to South America.
They were domesticated from the wild six to seven thousand years ago.
They are a herd animal and become stressed if kept alone.
They provide good protection from foxes.
There are 22 recognised fleece colours.
They are generally gentle and can be easily harness trained.