As we know them today, llamas (as well as the closely related alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos) are native to the Andes Mountains regions of South American. However, these camelids (in the same taxonomic family as camels, Camelidae) actually originated in North America – fossils have been found dating back to 40 million years before the present. Possibly, some of these ancestral camelids migrated to South America to escape the Ice Ages. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated by the Incas many thousands of years ago – llamas and alpacas were domesticated in South America before horses were domesticated in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia! Specifically, llamas were bred for transporting goods, for meat and hides, and for fiber which was used for mainly utilitarian purpose and “common” apparel. Alpacas were bred for fiber and meat. Most likely, the wild guanaco was the ancestor of llamas and alpacas. Llamas began to be imported (back!) to North America in the late 1800’s mainly for display in zoos. Commercial herds were began simultaneously by William Randolph Hearst in California, and Roland Lindemann in New York. After Hearst died in 1956, Lindemann obtained the Hearst llamas and sent them to New York. Other breeders became involved and active since. In the 1970’s, llama breeding peaked in the U.S., with most llamas used for packing and fiber and showing, with breeding stock valued at 10’s of thousands of dollars. At the present time, llamas have become fairly common and only top breeding and show stock command those prices. Alpacas still are very popular and expensive, valued for their fiber and as lawn ornaments.
At Blue Oak Canyon Ranch, we are no longer breeding llamas - the sheep keep us busy enough - and we are down to three old-lady llamas. We use llamas mainly for fiber – most of ours have fine and soft fiber, and we have black (shading to gray) and brown. Their fiber is very nice – generally soft and fine (some llamas are double-coated, with long guard hairs over the finer, softer fibers). The fiber does not have crimp but is straight or wavy. Their fiber does not have lanolin, but because llamas like to roll on the ground, almost always have dust and VM (vegetation matter) in it. This makes it challenging to market the fiber but we use it a lot. We also have used llamas to guard our sheep. Llamas keep coyotes away – llamas do not like canines and will try to trample a dog or coyote that gets into the pasture. They are very useful as guard animals for sheep, goats, and alpacas. Llamas typically live 15 to 20 years, and graze, browse, and eat hay – just like the sheep. They don’t eat much more than the sheep, in spite of being much larger animals. Like any camelid, they sometime “spit” (actually regurgitation) at each other in disputes over food or space, but they do not spit at people as a general rule – unless they have been spoiled, in which case they will treat a person like they would another llama. As a rule, llamas are intelligent and curious, friendly but do not like to be handled any more than is necessary for nail trimming, shearing, and packing. They are territorial and have a strong herd instinct. The territoriality and the herd instinct are what make them good guard animals.