Rural: Where the wool-gathering begins

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Diversification is the name of the game, but will it pay off? Three humming, exotically woolly arrivals startle the denizens of a peaceful farmyard.

I give three clues to their identity:

1. Their names are Shadrach, Meshak and Abed-nego.

2. One is cream-coloured, one chocolate sprinkled with ginger, one dark grey with a white face, black hat and white tips to his ears.

3. When alarmed, they communicate their nervousness by means of a gentle, melodious humming.

You guessed, of course: they are alpacas, smaller cousins of llamas, and the newest recruits to our menagerie. Their arrival in our farmyard caused quite a stir. During their three-hour journey from Sussex they had had the sense to fold their legs and sit on the floor of the horse- box, but when we let down the ramp they came bounding out, to the horror of the long-term residents.

Not only to us humans, but to animals and birds also, it was immediately clear that these furry creatures were an exotic species. Sheep glowered; horses snorted; a hen trailing eight chicks put in a full-blown screech- up, flying off on to a fence and cackling at the top of her voice. So strident were her warnings of danger that the chicks disappeared into a bed of nettles, and we had difficulty recovering them before nightfall.

The three alpacas - all wethers, or neutered males, about nine months old - stuck together in a tight bunch, tails together, facing outwards in different directions, as they sized up their new surroundings. They also gave off a curious humming sound that denotes anxiety.

By morning they were fairly well settled, and we were fascinated to see that their behaviour, conformation and movements were all subtly different from those of more familiar animals. Their bodies could be those of sheep, but their long legs and necks betray the fact that they are camelids - and indeed their feet, though two-toed at the front, like a sheep's, have a camel-like pad at the back.

They graze energetically, with quick, thrusting movements of the lower jaw, and canter with a springy, loping action. They seem to enjoy communal rolling, and although they occasionally spar up to each other, spitting and laying back their ears as they try to put in an under-belly nip, their chief characteristic seems to be gentleness. Because they are so graceful and entertaining to watch, they are fearful time-wasters.

We got them from a farm near Billingshurst, where Kelvin Maude, an Australian, manages a herd of 700. Together with two brothers, Alan and Peter Hamilton, he runs a company that has pioneered the export of animals from Chile.

When we hove up, prospective purchasers, Kelvin assured us that alpacas are "amazingly adaptable animals". Originally lowland grazers, they were slaughtered by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century to make way for sheep and cattle, and the survivors were taken on by peasant farmers living high in the Andes. There the animals adapted to thin air, poor grazing and extremes of heat and cold.

When, early in the Nineties, the new company proposed to export consignments to Australia, sceptics claimed the alpacas would never survive the sudden descent to sea level, followed by life in a much hotter climate. Experience proved them wrong: there are now nearly 2,000 of them flourishing in Australia.

For years plans to bring alpacas here were blocked by the British authorities' refusal to accept that Chile had adequate control of foot-and-mouth disease. But eventually objections were overcome and in December 1994 Kelvin went out to Chile "to put together UK 1" - that is, to assemble the first consignment for Britain.

He found them on the altiplano, in the northern tip of Chile, close to the borders of Peru and Bolivia, at altitudes of between 14,000 and 16,000 feet. Three hundred beasts went into open-air quarantine at Putre, the highest town in Chile, where they spent four months. Next they were moved down to Arica on the Pacific coast, for another two months' quarantine at sea level, during which they went through numerous tests. Then they were loaded into big wooden crates and flown by cargo plane via Teneriffe to Manchester.

Travelling with them, Kelvin was delighted to see how calm they remained during the 15-hour flight. All 300 survived and went to Cumbria for a final, three-month spell of quarantine, before they arrived in Sussex at the end of January 1996.

UK2, a second batch, also of 300, joined them in November last year. This consignment included many pregnant females, and I now realise that our three youngsters, though born in England, must have made the 6,000- mile journey from Chile in the womb - a fact that seems to render them all the more remarkable.

The aim of the UK enterprise is to breed selectively and to create a market for alpaca fibre, or wool, which is beautifully soft and light, and after processing can command pounds 50-pounds 60 a kilo. Already the British Alpaca Society has 110 members, and a committee has begun to look into forming a co-operative to pool and sell fibre.

With so few animals in the country as yet, prices are astronomical: about pounds 7,000 for a pregnant female. Wethers cost barely a tenth as much - but even so, it is going to be a big moment, next June, when we shear for the first time, and my wife starts spinning the wool to make fabulous jerseys.

We could not resist naming our three after the biblical trio who defied King Nebuchadnezzar and survived the fiery furnace unscathed. But in the alpacas' defence I must point out that they do not wear asbestos underwear, as in the scurrilous Bible song. Rather, their woolly trousers extend right down to their ankles, giving them a look both stylish and faintly absurd.

Arunvale Alpacas, Gay St Farm, Pulborough, W Sussex RH20 2HL (01798 812218)