From its South American origins some 6,000 years ago to its future as the producer of one of the most luxurious, rare and sought-after natural fibres in the world today, the suri alpaca is an intriguing animal.
The suri is a member of the alpaca family, which in turn belongs to the camelid family – which also includes the llama, camel, vicuña and guanaco.
Like all alpacas the suri originates from South America – in particular from Peru, Chile and Bolivia – where they have been domesticated for 6,000 years and bred specifically for their fibre for some 3,000 years. This culminated with the fifteenth century Incas, whose highly sophisticated civilisation was totally geared to the production of fine fibre and exquisite textiles. Tragically, with the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century, up to 90% of Incan alpaca herds were annihilated and literally thousands of years of genetic improvement was lost.
The Incas held the suri in such high regard that its exquisite fleece was reserved only for use in the production of cloth to be used by royalty.
Most people in Australia today would probably recognise an “alpaca”, but almost certainly this would be the much more commonly seen huacaya, with its rounded, teddy bear looks and fleece which is similar in style to that of a sheep.
The rare and exotic suri represents only about 10% of our national alpaca herd, with a total of around 10,000 suris in Australia, and is distinguished by its unique and exquisite fleece, which hangs in silken tassels from a central parting down the backline. This gives the suri a particular elegance and grace, and your first sight of a group of suris in full flight is not to be forgotten.
The fibre produced by the suri is what marks it apart from other fleece producing animals. Top quality suri has a unique lustre, combined with a slippery, cool handle, which when processed into cloth or yarn makes it immediately apparent why the Incas referred to this as the Fibre of the Gods.
Cloth woven from suri is often brushed to emphasise the sheen and beautiful drape of the fabric. When processed into yarn for knitwear, suri is usually blended with a small amount of wool, mohair or silk.
The very small quantity of suri fibre being produced in Australia and the rest of the world each year not only ensures it will always remain a top-end niche market product, but also offers up opportunities for both new breeders and entrepreneurs interested in processing this very special natural fibre.
Easy though it is to fall for the suri simply because of their good looks, it must be remembered that these are primarily a fibre-producing animal, operating at the very top end of the luxury fashion market.
Like all alpacas, the suri can have a fleece ranging in colour from white through shades of fawn, brown and grey, to black. However, looking to the commercial future of the suri as a fibre-producing animal, white will always be in highest demand, due to its ability to be dyed – white fleece is also far superior in its qualities of lustre, fineness and lock structure when compared to coloured fleece.
In addition to their fleece production qualities, there are many other reasons to consider owning suris:
The first question to ask yourself is: “why am I considering suris and what do I want them to do for me?”
If you want attractive lawnmowers that will keep the foxes away from the chooks and provide some fleece and garden fertiliser into the bargain, then you are probably best off buying a couple of wethers (castrated males). These are inexpensive, readily available and low maintenance. You will need to get at least two as alpacas are herd animals and will pine if kept alone.
If you want to breed suris then you will need to plan things a little more – before buying your first animals do your research and select a focus for your breeding programme:
New suri owners are often baffled, not surprisingly, by the myriad terms used to describe an animal’s breeding: words such as “First Cross or F1”, “Back Cross One or BC1”, “homozygous”, “heterozygous” and so on. You will need a basic grasp of these terms, not least to help understand the wide range of prices for different suris, even for those bred by the same stud. Take the time to read our section on “Suri Genetics” to understand more fully what these terms mean.
In summary, as suris can be produced as a result of cross-breeding a suri with a huacaya (usually it is the sire which is the suri and the dam a huacaya), there are plenty of “cross bred suris” available. These may be First Crosses (F1s), the result of that initial crossing between a suri and a huacaya, or Back Crosses, where the First Cross has been mated back to another suri. With each generation of back-crossing the amount of “suri blood” in the animal increases, until by the fourth generation, or Back Cross Three, it is generally considered that the animal is “Pure Suri”. In general, cross-bred suris will be much less expensive than pure-bred animals and offer an excellent entry level option for the new suri breeder.
There is no right or wrong way to allocate your budget when buying your first animals, but your purchasing decisions should be carefully linked to your reasons for getting suris.
If you want to advance your breeding programme quickly and be able to win ribbons at shows, you will need to buy superior breeding stock and may only be able to buy a couple of top quality females with your budget.
If you want to spend some time “breeding up” and learning more about suris as you go, then you may elect to buy ten cheaper (generally cross-bred) suris for the same budget, and after a few generations of careful mating decisions you will be producing your own high quality breeding stock.
Finding a breeder you can relate to and whose judgement you trust is invaluable – all of us in the suri industry today started off with little or no knowledge – and many of us were lucky enough to find a mentor prepared to guide us in the early stages.
Do your research, find a mentor, attend a new breeders’ workshop, and enjoy your entrance to the fascinating world of the suri.
Please feel free to contact us, or better still pay us a visit, and we will be happy to answer all your suri questions!