Last Sunday I collected a waistcoat made from my own pet. From the same source came a hat, gloves, scarf, and a teddy bear wearing a little waistcoat of its own, though (saucily) no trousers.
A lady called Chan Brown, from Chesterfield, has organised this for me. I keep llamas, and she spins. She belongs to a group who call themselves the Spinsters and are sometimes to be found on a summer Sunday demonstrating their craft down at Cromford Mill, Joseph Arkwright’s magnificent and until recently neglected first mill, on the Derbyshire Derwent near Matlock Bath. The mill and its surroundings, which are beautifully situated, are being restored by a dedicated band of volunteers; there are things to see, refreshments to be taken and shops to browse in.
Cromford is the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and sacred or satanic ground (depending on your viewpoint): the beginning of the end of cottage industries. But I was too tactful to point this out to the Spinsters as I paid Chan for my beautiful chestnut-coloured waistcoat, my white bear, and my fawn and white gloves, scarf and hat, all in the softest llama wool from my own herd.
Ah, the joy of camelids. When some years ago I last wrote for The Spectator about my South American pets, our deft editor contrived to place my column right next to a full-page advertisement for a purveyor of elegant clothes, featuring a smart lady leading a handsome llama down a fashionable London street.
The scene raised many questions (What was a woman like that doing with a llama? Was it hers? Why was she taking it for a walk in the city? Where did it actually live? Did she have a pooper-scooper to clear up the droppings from the pavement?) but it illustrated my article even more neatly than the editor realised, for the model (the llama, not the lady) was a close relative of my stud llama, Knapp; in fact he was Knapp’s uncle. The resemblance is striking: both are large beasts of noble proportions with a long white coat and haughty aspect. Both have a natural dignity of bearing. You can tell they come from a clan born to command.
My own member of the clan, Knapp, has two wives: Llesley (born on my father Leslie’s birthday) and Imp. Camelids have marked and distinct personalities: Llesley, who is stocky and of white, grey and fawn colouring, is bossy, relaxed and greedy; Imp, his second wife — smaller, more deer-like and mostly chestnut-coloured — is slightly nervy and prone to cross moods. For some years now both wives have settled into a pattern of mating in mid-summer, and giving birth to the one offspring llamas usually produce in the early summer of the following year.
Knapp stays serene, grazing separately from his wives while keeping an eye on them and their young, and displaying a good nature born of the confidence that he is a llama whose uncle has appeared in The Spectator.
I have two fields by my house in the Derbyshire Peak District. The top field, which my animals prefer, has views over the valley and a ten-acre wood behind, now covered in bluebells. Here they can retreat in the heat of the summer; happily llamas do not eat bluebells, though if hungry enough they will eat almost everything else, including thistles. The lower field bores them but includes a barn where they can shelter (having no lanolin in their coats, camelids can be soaked by driving rain) and where my chickens sleep. I do now believe the theory that llamas protect other creatures from foxes: my two hens, Dawn and Polly, lived safely all winter and spring while the llamas were in the lower field; but two nights after I moved them away Dawn was taken by a fox.
Now Polly, who survives her, has her camelid protection squad back with her in the lower field. The reason must be explained delicately. Both Imp and Llesley have offspring with them. Last May Llesley gave birth to a boy, and a few weeks later Imp gave birth to a girl. I named them Xevi and Isabel, after a Catalan brother and sister I know. These half-siblings are now in late adolescence and I am afraid to say that Xevi was developing an unhealthy interest in his half-sister. Camelids have a fine disregard of human taboos and in Peru llama incest is common. We British impose higher standards, so until I can find homes for the two youngsters, Xevi and Isabel, I have had to divide the herd: Knapp, Imp (who is pregnant again) and their daughter Isa are in the top field, while Llesley (who is also pregnant) and her son Xevi are in the lower field.
They hate this. I thought they would get used to it but, though the youngsters do not seem to care and though Imp is quite pleased to have Knapp to herself and her bossy rival wife removed, Knapp and Llesley are pining for each other. For hours he stands in the only part of the upper field from which he can see her in the lower field, and hums. She stands in the only part of the lower field where she can see him, and hums. The hum (the only noise llamas make) is a sort of vocalised sigh. They don’t even look at each other directly; each looks off into the middle distance, humming.
It’s getting on my nerves, all this romantic humming from field to field all day, and I am impatient to move the two offspring to new homes. My friend Mara, who helps me look after them and belongs to the British Camelids Society, has placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Camelids Chronicle (why has this admirable publication never appeared on Have I Got News For You?), but we think we already have a home for Isabel in Scotland.
Xevi is a problem because owners often want males castrated, but Xevi is an absolutely magnificent young man, almost all white, majestically fluffy, and rapidly assuming his father’s proportions and bearing. He deserves to be a stud and I shall do my best to see that his furry little white testicles are not severed.
Not on my watch, anyway. I have told him that one day, if he takes care of himself, he may renew the honour once bestowed upon his great-uncle, and walk the pavements of the Metropolis in the company of a beautiful human lady wearing elegant clothes, and appear in The Spectator.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of