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News article  2004-10-29 - City's alpacas go international

A pioneering alpaca rearing enterprise in Sheffield's Mayfield Valley is in line for an international award. Owner Elaine Sharpe 'almost dropped to the floor' when she heard the news. She tells Penny Baddeley why…

A pioneering farming enterprise in Sheffield has won a national business award from Junior Chamber International and is now the UK's hope in the international round of the competition. Mayfield Alpacas clinched the annual Best Business Plan accolade and has now been put forward as Britain's entry in the Best in the World contest.

Business owner Elaine Sharp said: "I almost dropped to the floor when I heard the news."

Mayfield Alpacas was set up in 2001 as a hobby for Elaine who wanted distraction from health problems after overcoming breast cancer.

The business venture became so compelling that Elaine and husband Nigel Sharp re-mortgaged their house to pay for 42 acres of farmland at Ringinglow and their original stock of just four alpacas soon increased ten-fold.

Three years on Elaine can boast a top quality breeding herd of pure Peruvian alpacas and a business plan which could launch a new cottage industry in Sheffield, increase tourism and brighten up the city's image.

Tracy Viner, president of Sheffield Junior Chamber of Commerce, said: "The fact that Mayfield Alpacas has been put forward to represent the UK in this competition raises the city's profile both nationally and internationally.

"It is a wonderful, new innovative business and could [bring many new] jobs to the city"

[The] national membership director of Junior Chamber International UK, added: "Mayfield Alpacas has illustrated that viable, sustainable agricultural businesses can exist in the semi rural areas of the city and its impact and success helps dispel that image of Sheffield as solely an old industrial city."

The unusual enterprise, based at Quicksaw Farm, off Fulwood Lane, Ringinglow, is centred on the breeding and selling of premium quality alpacas. A single female can command a price of up to £5000 as alpacas are still uncommon in the UK and importation costs are proportionally higher due to quarantine bills.

Customers include new and existing farmers who are looking to diversify, or fellow breeder who wish to increase their herd with high quality genetic stock.

At present the national herd numbers between 6,000 to 10,000 but it is estimated that it needs to increase ten fold before the UK could begin to develop a sustainable fleece industry like those in South America, Australia and New Zealand.

In such countries the alpaca is farmed for the quality of its fleece which is highly durable and highly thermal yet finer than cashmere and more lustrous. Elaine said: "The reason we don't see alpaca garments in Marks and Spencer is because the price of the fleece is so high at the moment." [This should change as the] herd grows, creating a more commercially viable market for alpaca garments.

However, Elaine believes there already exists a niche market for garments made from the fleeces of the Mayfield Valley herd.

She said: "I've always wanted to process my own fleece, taking it from the raw state and making it into garments."

Members of the Hallamshire Weavers and Spinners Association have produced the first local alpaca garments and they should be on the shelves of the upmarket Sharrowvale Road retail outlet, Hemp, by Christmas.

The planned visitors centre will provide information on the 'alpaca experience' – the history of the animal and the emergence of the alpaca industry in the UK. A linked shop will sell light refreshments and locally produced Mayfield Alpaca garments, such as scarves, hats, mittens, gloves and socks.

Historically at least one Yorkshire business person has made a fortune – and recreated a town – on the back of a highly successful trade in alpaca. The model mill town of Saltaire was created from the profits of alpaca products made in the local mills of Bradford in the 19th century.

Could Elaine turn out to be Sheffield's 21st century equivalent?

This article originally appeared in the Sheffield Telegraph.