An event has occurred which is not necessarily to my llama, Knapp’s, advantage. The tale, though it falls short of tragedy, is melancholy to relate. Knapp, now approaching what are, from a camelid time-perspective, his middle years (he’s about 11) has always done what he’s supposed to do well. Almost too well. He’s a stud. He comes from a fashionable llama ranch in the home counties. His uncle has featured in a fashion advertisement in The Spectator, being led through the streets of Notting Hill. His own portrait, standing proudly beside his rather crumpled-looking owner, has appeared in Country Life.
He’s big, for a llama: strongly built, with a coat that is long, thick and creamy-white, touched with the occasional caramel streak. His eyelashes are as luxuriant and fetching as Andy Burnham’s. He carries himself with an air of Monarch of the Glen; his head and physiognomy are of a noble aspect. Undoubtedly Knapp possesses the kingly qualities.
And, perhaps because of his relaxed air of command, this llama is exceptionally good-natured. You never see him flatten his ears back — a sign of affront or ill-humour in llamas. He has never once spat; and he is easy to catch and lead, and unafraid of human touch. He resents, it is true, his scarlet head-collar, and tries to pull it off — but I like that in him: I wouldn’t care for a head-collar either.
And Knapp’s behaviour towards his wives is (in every respect but one) unfailingly chivalrous. He lets them dip their snouts into the corn bucket first, and when they spit at him to keep him away from food, he withdraws with dignity, and stands a little way off while they feed. He never takes food from his children.
Nor does he hang about or boss llama mothers and their offspring around. Knapp’s habit is to graze some 50 yards away from the women and children — but always keeping them within sight. While maintaining his distance he has an eye out for their safety at all times. On occasions when we’ve put him in a separate field he reacts with pain and agitation, stations himself at the point in the fence from which he can see them best, and stares across at them all day, vexed that he cannot be on hand to guard them. He is never happy until reunited, though the wives show little pleasure when he does come back.
I hinted, however, at a fly in the ointment. Sex. A breeding male, Knapp has embraced this role with an excess of zeal. Frankly, he has been a bit of a sex pest, and inclined (as we say in the North Midlands) to bother his wife, or wives. When (and only when) love is in the air, he becomes aggressive, even dangerous. And with him, love is often in the air.
A short lesson in camelid sex. It happens lying down. But the lady does not wish (or appear to wish) to lie down. The gentleman therefore has to knock her down, which he does by chasing her around the field until, cornered, she is pushed to her knees as he throws his whole weight upon her. Once flattened, she submits, and he lies down on top of her.
Then the grunting, and growling, and tooth-grinding, and gasping starts — all on the male’s part. It goes on for about half an hour — or it does with Knapp. His stamina surpasses many of us human males. But the lady shows little sign of liking any of this, and stays very still and silent, her eyes fixed on the heavens with a sort of ‘Oh do get on with it’ expression. She lies back and thinks of Bolivia.
One Sunday morning, when this extraordinary show of humping and dribbling and growling was in full swing just over the fence from our kitchen, I thought to phone a BBC friend in London and share the audible, if not the visible part of the experience. My friend answered the phone at once. ‘Listen!’ I said, ‘llama sex’ — and held my mobile phone aloft over the fence. After 30 seconds of dreadful noises I brought back the phone: ‘What do you think?’
‘Can I call you back?’ he said, rather tersely. Ten minutes later, he did. ‘I was with David Miliband,’ he said. ‘He’s about to be interviewed on our programme. I don’t think the Foreign Secretary would have been all that amused.’ Actually, I think he would have been highly amused.
Since then, Knapp has become, if anything, even more of a sex pest. My llama Llesley, worn down by childbirth, fell ill and died. Knapp’s other wife, Imp, now middle-aged, has been looking increasingly ragged and fraught, and Knapp has been eyeing their latest daughter, Vera, in an inappropriate way. Their friend Gussie has also been subject to his attentions.
The last straw came when what can only be called a rape ended up with three llamas in a heap, Knapp and Imp’s daughter Vera having got caught and pinned against some railings. Vera’s leg was badly gashed and a muscle torn; and it has required a good deal of expensive veterinary attention to nurse her back to health. Young llamas, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly hard to sell, the market being almost saturated.
So we bit the bullet. The vet from Bakewell seemed confident, though Knapp took a lot of anaesthetising before the operation, and then a long time to bring round. It happened four weeks ago and he made a quick recovery. But we’ve been keeping him away from the girls. ‘The hormones stay in the system long after the testicles have been removed,’ the vet told us. Apparently he would stay randy for quite some time.
But this weekend, with the grass at last beginning to grow in the big field where the girls were, and our hay stocks depleted, we decided to open the gates of Knapp’s small enclosure. He came roaring out like a charging bull, running straight at the fence behind which the lady llamas were standing, then diverting, rushing back and forth, and finally finding the way in. It was seconds, literally seconds, before he was on top of Imp. Vera and Gussie looked on in horror. I looked away, feeling that to tarry was prurient, and returned to my gardening chores.
Ten minutes later, anxious to check that nobody had got hurt, I looked up across the field. Everything had changed. The scene was poignant. Knapp was standing, still, alone, in the wood above the field, staring bleakly into space. The three female llamas were down in the field, huddled close, their ears flattened back in disapproval, as though sharing some wounding observations.
I walked closer. Knapp was now looking towards his wife, Imp. His eyes said it all. ‘I’m terribly sorry, darling. This has never happened to me before.’
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.