Instagram-able experiences are an important part of any area's visitor offer. And with 40,000 alpacas in the UK, alpaca walking is clearly a booming business for smallholdings.
Helen Steel joins a group at one of Medway's newest destinations to find out why walking with alpacas has become such a popular way to spend a day.
It's a lovely sunny day, and as I pull into the driveway of Lower Bush Farm, it's hard to believe I'm less than five minutes from a busy main road near Strood. That's the beauty of Medway - so much beautiful open space wrapped around its urban areas.
Nestled within the North Downs in Cuxton, Lower Bush Alpacas is a new and fast-growing experience destination, yet there is a lovely rustic simplicity about the set up.
'Alpacapreneurs' Jon and Jemeela Savage launched their new venture in late 2019 at a farm that was Jon's childhood home. Their young son Harry had fallen in love with alpacas when they visited a petting zoo the previous year. Fast forward 12 months they had five alpacas of their own, and were setting out on this exciting new adventure.
Once the alpacas were ready, they launched Walking Experiences at the start of 2020, only for their activities to be halted by the coronavirus pandemic. But they are back open, and have a packed bookings diary of visitors enjoying safe, socially-distanced outdoor fun.
I'm greeted by Jon, who takes me over and introduces me to "the boys", who have since grown in number. They are a handsome bunch - a mix of sizes, colours and personalities. Alpacas are small members of the camelidae family and are native to South America.
And it is immediately clear how well cared for they are. Jon explains the various qualifications and courses they have completed to be able to give their four-legged family the best and gentlest of care.
Five of the oldest and most experienced alpacas are then readied for action. Some are more eager than others. I'm told some are a bit grumpy in the mornings, but they are OK once they've had a bite to eat. I think a lot of us can relate to that.
Benjen, Sir Davos, Marsden, Sunset Sky and Aubree (aka Aubree Strawberry) line up patiently, ready to meet their walking buddies for the day.
The visitors today are mostly adults - couples and groups of friends - plus one family with an excited little girl enjoying a 4th birthday treat. Jon issues a safety and animal handling briefing before the guests are taken over to be paired off with their alpaca. They then bond over a few treats before the walk begins.
Each alpaca walk lasts around 45 minutes through open fields and/or woodland, stopping intermittently for the animals to rest, graze and pose obligingly for selfies. Our walk took us up and around fields, through woodland and past a breathtaking expanse (2,000 acres to be precise) of recently-planted vineyards. Jon talks about the long-term ambition to link up with the vineyard to offer alpaca-themed vineyard tours, and vice versa.
As we walk, Jon talks passionately about his animals, his farm and his other ambitions for the future expansion of the farm and its offer to visitors, including more land, a shop and experiences like husbandry days.
The pace of the whole experience is slow and serene. Alpacas can be a bit skittish and don't like fast, sudden movements, and they don't walk especially fast. It is a bit like taking small children for a walk - they need a bit of encouragement to keep moving and want to stop regularly for snacks - though thankfully without the whinging!
When we return to the farm, there's a chance for the walkers to feed the younger alpacas who are waiting excitedly for their friends to return. It's then time to say goodbye. It was clear from the cuddles - and even the little kiss I saw Aubree Strawberry give the little girl - that they are affectionate characters once they trust you.
The walking experience isn't the only activity offered at Lower Bush. That afternoon there was a corporate group booked in for a Meet the Alpacas experience. You can also picnic with the alpacas.
But an important focus for Jon and Jemeela is on the wellbeing benefits the alpacas can offer. Jemeela is a trained clinical psychologist and runs mindfulness sessions and courses for people in the paddock, surrounded by the alpacas. The couple also have ambitions to build a treatment room on-site to allow Jemeela to offer a wider range of treatments on site.
So what is it that makes alpacas so special? Jon reflects: "They are just magical to me. They all have different personalities. They are gentle, calm and cute. People just want to cuddle them."
Lower Bush Alpacas; Bush Road, Lower Bush, Cuxton, ME2 1HF
The Alpaca Walking Experience is £25 for one person with one alpaca, or £30 for two people sharing one alpaca. One additional guest can accompany on the walk for £10 but cannot lead the alpaca.
Children under 8 cannot lead the alpaca but can hold the end of the lead rope. Age 8- 11 can lead the alpaca with an adult holding the tail end of the lead rope. Age 12- 16 can lead their own alpaca solely accompanied by an adult.
For details of the other experiences and for booking visit the Lower Bush Alpacas website.
Lower Bush Alpacas is one of two alpaca experiences in Medway. Capstone Farm Alpacas also offers treks and Meet the Alpaca experiences. For details email [email protected], call 07935 706660 or see their Facebook page.