Standing on a patch of rolling hillside overlooking the ocean, a person may feel like they have been transported to Ireland without a plane ticket.

The fresh, grassy slopes shimmer a brilliant green, which receives no competition from the grayish white sky, providing grazing land for the alpaca a docile cousin of the llama that produces a fine, luxurious fleece.

Husband and wife team Diane Pace and Bill Swartz have been raising alpacas on their Gold Beach ranch just north of the Rogue River since 1994.

Weve trapped a few of them, so you can see them up close, Pace says, opening the gate to a small fenced-in area. Pace is accompanied by Richard Gyuro. Gyuro bought his own herd and will be trying his hand at alpaca farming.

At first glance, it is easy to see why people may fall in love with the alpaca. They look like giant stuffed animals with big ears and deep brown eyes with long eyelashes, and emit a pleasant sound called humming. Their facial expressions look like theyre holding a mouth full of water and trying to smile at the same time.

The gentle animals are skittish around humans at first, but their curiosity gets the best of them if the person stands still. They have a remarkable herd mentality, moving close together, shoulder to shoulder, as if they were all just separate parts of one big creature.

Theyre very easy to take care of compared to other farm animals, Pace said. They dont challenge fences, and they have padded feet like a dog, so they dont tear up the terrain. They graze on the grass without tearing it up by the roots.

Alpaca fleece is used to make sweaters, hats, scarfs, stuffed animals, blankets and many other items that can usually be made from wool, but is considered warmer, lighter and stronger than wool.

Native to South America, the alpaca has been domesticated for more than 5,000 years. Its cashmere-like fleece was once used only by Incan royalty.

Their fleece was called the fiber of the Gods by the South Americans, said Pace.

Alpacas once lived high in the Andean Plateau, but now there are more than 30,000 in farms throughout North America.

Pace said because of their rugged natural terrain, the alpacas have developed very efficient digestive systems. They eat very little, because where they come from, there isnt that much food.

Pace and her husband have become specialized alpaca breeders, and are the nations leaders at breeding for colored offspring, she said.

In todays market, there is more of a demand for natural colors, said Pace. That didnt used to be the case. Years ago, there was more of a tendency to dye the fabrics. So the South Americans tried to breed just the white alpacas so the fabric can be easily dyed.

Each alpaca yields about 8 to 12 pounds of good fleece per year. The fleece is shorn in the summer.

Pace said recently, the South Americans have ceased importing alpacas out of the country. This should be good for our business in this county, as people will have to purchase the animals from American farmers, instead of importing them.

Gyuro said he is excited about his new business investment, and plans to eventually move his herd to Sams Valley.

When we investigated livestock, we wanted an animal that was gentle and didnt bite. We also wanted something that we didnt have to kill for economic gain. Alpacas are easy keepers, they dont eat a whole lot, and theyre easy on the land. The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association is doing a great job marketing on a national basis.

Pace agrees. Raising alpacas is the worlds greatest lifestyle investment.

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