In the highlands of canton Valais, alpacas framed by snowy peaks have replaced the familiar Swiss scene of cows grazing in green pastures.This content was published on March 18, 2002 - 10:46
Above the village of Termen, the alpacas have found a new home, thousands of miles from their native South America. And they have drawn attention from designers and potential buyers as far away as the United States, and Italy, because of the fine quality of their wool.
They belong to the camel family and are smaller than their closest relative, the Llama. They have long necks, kind faces and big black eyes and have captured the imagination of their owner Josef Kuonen.
"These animals are everything," he muses. "They are charming, intelligent and quiet. You can learn a lot from these animals. They have a special social life and they have a special kindness and expression of warmth."
Kuonen has been breeding Alpacas and harvesting their highly prized wool for more than 14 years.
It all started in 1988 when he imported four animals. He soon realised that if he wanted to make a go of it as a breeder, he would need top quality animals.
Following a number of trips to Peru and Chile Kuonen found the stock he was looking for and brought them to Switzerland in 1995 and 1998.
"All the animals here are from Peru," he says. "Most of them came from very high up in the mountains from between 4,500 to 5,500 metres above sea level."
Raising Alpacas is Kuonen's hobby. From nine-to-five he is the economic development officer for the Brig-Raron area. It was, however, his day job, which inspired him to introduce Alpacas to the region.
Kuonen believes that it's impossible for Swiss farmers to compete with their Italian, French and American counterparts and that the future of Swiss farming lies in diversified niche markets.
"I'm always talking [to the farmers] about innovative, creative products and telling them they need to be entrepreneurs, but nothing happens," he explains. So taking the bit between his teeth, Kuonen decided to set an example and prove that a different type of farming could be successful.
The high altitude dwelling Alpacas were a natural choice for the Swiss alpine environment and they have taken to their new home with gusto.
Every year many of the herd's 200 or so females give birth, making sure that the 17 males are kept busy during the mating season.
Suris and Huacayas
Kuonen breeds two types of Alpaga - the Suri and the Huacaya. The Suri has finer hair and its wool was once the preserve of South American royalty. The Huacaya on the other hand has thicker curlier hair, but once it's spun it too has the fine quality of cashmere and is very warm.
The Alpacas are shaved annually in May and their wool fetches very handsome prices.
In its raw state buyers pay up to SFr80 ($47) per kilo compared with SFr1.20 per kilo for sheep's wool. The Alpaca wool increases to a staggering SFr200 ($117) per kilo if it is washed and cut.
The lower grade wool is used for gloves, scarves and socks, whereas the higher-grade yarn is used to make fine knitwear and luxurious winter cloth.
For this reason, the Valasian herd has attracted the attention of top Italian designers.
"I had contact with Giorgio Armani and his people in Milan," Kuonen proudly says. "Then we had contact with Gucci and another less well-known designer, Adeloni. He too came from Milan and...I think he fell in love with the animals. He says he'll come back."
But Kuonen's Alpacas are also attracting praise from across the Atlantic.
Earlier this year, a United States judge with an in-depth knowledge of Europe's Alpaca herds declared that one of Kuonen's animals was the best example of its breed.
"He said Nero and Laura were very beautiful, " he enthuses. "But Madelaine was the best example in terms of her hair 's fibre and build."
Kuonen proudly added that the judge also said he had the best herd in the Europe, seeing off competition from the likes of Finland, Holland and Germany.
Tempting American offer
Recently it was also reported that an American offered Kuonen hundreds of thousands of francs for his black Suri male called Nero.
Kuonen says the rumours are true but declined to say how much he was offered, instead he modestly chuckles that it was "lots of francs".
Although Kuonen could earn his living from his lucrative hobby, he doesn't want it to become a full-time business.
He says he simply that he couldn't part with the likes of Julie and Juanita, even if the offers are tempting. Instead he is happy to see them everyday and enjoy their curious, affectionate personalities.
by Sally Mules
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