Walking with Surrey Hills llamas

PUBLISHED: 11:57 12 October 2010 | UPDATED: 11:26 17 July 2014

Omar the llama

Omar the llama

An unusual alternative to taking the dog out, llama walking is an increasingly popular pastime suitable for people of varying ages and fitness levels. ALEC KINGHAM spent a few hours being led astray by these cloven-hoofed creatures on the North Downs Way

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine 2008

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Walking with llamas is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think about what to do on a crisp winter's morning. But standing atop the forested ridge of the North Downs Way, admiring the verdant scenery with my shaggy consort Omar, a gentle, inquisitive three-year-old llama, I couldn't think of a better way to spend the day.

Llamas are long-necked goat-like creatures that resemble a cross between a sheep and a camel, with feathery eyelashes, big brown eyes, puckered mouth and long, swivelling banana-shaped ears that lend them a somewhat bemused expression.

Julie and Colin Stonely, of Surrey Hills Llamas, spend most of their working hours hiking with these hirsute camelids (the animals cannot be ridden as their backbones are not strong enough to bear the weight of a human) having forsaken high-powered jobs in the City to establish their llama trekking venture.

"We started four years ago," Julie reveals. "In May 2003, I took Colin on a long llama trek in Dorset, which we loved. Colin said, 'We live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we could do this,' and within six weeks of going on the trek we'd left our jobs, bought a trailer and hired a field for keeping llamas."

Before selecting suitable terrain to traverse, the couple gained a thorough knowledge in practical llama-keeping, selecting animals with calm temperaments that adapt easily to different people.

"Throughout the summer of 2003, we spent every day getting them to know and trust us," says Julie. "They weren't used to harnesses, but now they come to us. With horses you have to push the bridle onto its face, but with our llamas you just hold it and they put their heads in."

A walk on the wild side...
The Stonelys own eight male llamas of varying age and size, with distinguishing names such as Running Cloud, Napoleon and Fidel Castro. Contrary to popular opinion, llamas seldom spit, and even then it's usually intended to express dissatisfaction with a rival llama, and rarely directed towards people. They enjoy it if you stroke their necks; during our walk, passing squads of schoolchildren take great delight in petting the exotic animals, which revel in the unexpected attention.

As sizeable as a donkey (and sometimes as stubborn!), with a dense dual-layered fleece and cloven pointed toes, llamas possess an elongated neck to seek out succulent leaves and ivy, which seems to take up most of their waking hours. In fact, with three stomachs to fill, llamas eat up to 17 hours a day, as a result of evolving in the peaks of the Andes where the plants on which they feed have limited nutritional value.

"They can't handle high protein food," Julie explains, "it gives them serious illness if it is too rich in nutrients."

At home in the hills...
Originally domesticated from the guanaco, these intelligent, sociable animals have accompanied the indigenous Inca peoples of South America as pack animals and a vital source of wool and meat for around 4,000 years.

Despite hailing from the Andes mountain range on the west coast of South America, which encompasses Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile and is an average height of 4,000 metres above sea level, they're well adapted to Britain's cold and damp climate.

Their splayed cloven hooves with soft padded heels and pointed toenails are ideal for retaining balance on steep, rocky terrain, including the chalky and often flint-strewn paths of the Surrey Hills. The animals skip their way up the winding trails, darting from one leafy snack to the next, and on the downward return journey frequently bolt their leads in eager pursuit of a tempting patch of foliage ahead.

On the hoof...
Surrey Hills Llamas start their daily treks around 11am, and walks are usually tailored to suit the customers' fitness levels, lasting up to four or five hours, including rests and sightseeing.

Walking Omar the llama is a pleasure; he is a cooperative and friendly companion, and we strike up a camaraderie from the moment we meet (though grooming him no doubt helped initiate the friendship - I'm sure if someone combed my hair before we embarked on a hike together I'd warm to them quicker!).

A few of the other llamas, particularly the boisterous younger ones, were more independent-minded, especially when it came to grazing on hedgerows. To discourage their tendency to savour every edible plot of greenery within reach, you soon develop a knack of tugging their lead once their mouths are full, which keeps them on the path - at least until they've finished chewing anyway...

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