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News article  2008-04-07 - Bringing good karma to an alpaca farmer

IT'S fair to say that more than a few heads have been turned by the growing herd of alpacas grazing contentedly in a field in Ringinglow. Cars have been known to reverse back along Fulwood Lane just to get a better look at the bizarrely attractive animals who inhabit Quicksaw Farm.

Food for thought: Elaine Sharpe credits alpacas with helping her get through a difficult time of coping with cancer But that's just the way farm owner Elaine Sharp likes it because, in her eyes, alpacas are something to be admired.

"My fascination actually began with llamas when I was just four years old," said Elaine, who remortgaged her house to buy the 42 acres of land where her Mayfield Alpacas site now stands.

"It was while looking into purchasing my first llama that I came across alpacas and fell in love with them too."

Elaine credits the curious creatures, who originate from Peru, with getting her through a very hard time in her life.

The 44-year-old bought the first of her creatures just after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997.

"I wanted something to get me through it, so my husband Nigel and I started looking into getting a llama, then we encountered the alpacas," said Elaine, who lives in the Mayfield valley.

"A few weeks later, I arrived home with one of each."

Just over 10 years later, Elaine now has 86 alpacas and two llamas, and her herd is expecting up to 30 new babies this summer.

On the farm "An alpaca's gestation period is about 11-and-a-half months," said Elaine.

"They are at their most fertile again about two weeks after giving birth so females can pretty much spend their entire lives pregnant.

"I don't really want that for my girls so I try to give them a year's break in between pregnancies."

Mayfield Alpacas is open to the public free of charge and is a popular destination for walkers.

It is also home to a cafe and visitor centre which has now reopened following a four-month refurbishment.

In the back of the cafe is a shop selling alpaca-wool clothing and merchandise such as books, cards and accessories.

"I have a new centre manager in place and we now have a full menu up and running," said Elaine, who also owns the Norfolk Arms hotel next door to the farm.

"We do full breakfasts that are very popular with walkers and offer meals, snacks and speciality coffees throughout the day.

"When I first bought that patch of land in 2001, never in a million years did I think we would be welcoming visitors through the door every day."

At the time, the site was completely bare. Nothing - not even planning permission - was in place, so they built up their empire from scratch.

"We constructed all the barns ourselves, under the strict guidance of Sheffield Council's planning rules," said Elaine.

"We had to install everything. You name, we have done it."

And all this with Elaine still battling cancer and Nigel holding down a full-time job as an engineer.

"It's true our lives are busy with the farm, the hotel and Nigel's engineering firm," said Elaine, who had her last breast cancer surgery in 2003.

"Anyone who has had cancer knows it can return but I don't let it worry me - you have to push on."

Elaine makes most of her money to maintain the business by selling her alpacas to breeders - the alpaca fleece trade is a booming one.

"There are very few alpacas in the Uk - maybe 10 or 15,000," explained Elaine.

"In other countries, like Australia, there are hundreds of thousands so they can easily meet the demand for fleece.

"It's harder here and, as a result, it's a very viable business."

But there are some alpacas Elaine would never sell - including her original herd member, George.

"George was my first alpaca and he really is leader of the pack," said Elaine. "Nobody messes with George."

Elaine refers to her alpaca farm as "her baby" so it's no wonder she gets upset when one of the herd is injured.

Just recently, she suffered the trauma of losing an alpaca after a savage attack by a dog.

"All the evidence points to a stray dog having carried out the attack," said Elaine.

"The alpaca, Blossom, was due to give birth in six weeks but we found her covered in blood and badly injured.

"We had hoped she could recover but the bite left her paralysed, so we had to have her put down.

"It was horrendous. It is the first time anything like this has happened but to me and it emphasises the importance of keeping dogs under control."

Alpaca care has become a way of life for Elaine and she actually credits cancer for helping her build the farm into a success story.

"I can honestly say that if I had never got cancer, I wouldn't be doing what I am now," said Elaine.

"Cancer helped me to achieve an ambition so, in a way, I owe a lot to the disease.

"I've always said you only get one chance at life - there is no dress rehearsal - so you can't let a little thing like cancer get in your way."

Article by Amy Burns in the Sheffield Star, 07 April 2008