By: Taylor Jurd
Photo: Contributed to Western Magazine
Photo Caption: Protective duties: Debra O'Neill and her Signature Alpacas have helped protect 500 ewes at the family property 'Carlowrie', Condobolin.
Growing up as a New Zealand sheep farmer’s daughter, Debra O’Neill never imagined becoming involved in agriculture in Australia, but after meeting her husband whose lifelong dream was to farm, it was inevitable she would become involved in the industry.
In 2001 the O’Neill family moved to Condobolin just as the millennium drought had begun.
The O’Neill’s had a flock of western division ewes, but found that they were being attacked by foxes.
“The foxes were even working in packs … we’d never heard of anything like that happening before,” Debra said.
“We were losing up to 10 lambs a night even though they had been baiting heavily before and during lambing.
“We thought at this rate we’ll be going out of business.”
They knew their sheep needed some other form of protection and decided to bring some alpacas in to help protect them.
So in mid-2002 Carlos and Juan arrived on their property ‘Carlowrie’.
With the property being 3000 acres with 400 and 500 acre paddocks, Debra soon realised that two alpacas just wouldn’t be enough, so Pedro and Pepe joined the alpaca team, and that is how their relationship with alpacas began.
From humble beginnings with four protective alpacas, Signature Alpacas now currently have 200 stud animals and still use herd guardians on the property protecting 500 ewes.
“It really does pay off, especially with twin and triplet lambs,” Debra said.
“In the beginning I thought I wouldn’t mind breeding herd guards, but that quickly turned to breeding stud quality animals.”
Debra loves the alpacas and has formed very close bonds with them.
“They’re very intelligent animals … and they’ve each got their own personality,” she said.
Signature Alpacas has grown from selling alpacas, to selling their fleece and a range of other products, including yarn, throws, socks and scarves as well as supplying the meat market.
“We get a couple of bales of wool off them (the alpacas) every year,” Debra said.
The white fleece comes back to Carlowrie for it to be dyed in-house and then sold to local knitters and customers in Canada. The fleece is spun locally at Adagio Alpaca Mills in Orange and some of Signature Alpacas fleece was also also taken to Italy for the commissioning of the spinning machines.
Debra said although Signature Alpacas is by no means a large business, she said it was lovely working in a niche market and having her products sold locally and around the world. The aim is to continue to improve the fleece and keep up with the ever changing market trends.
Read the original and view the photos here.