Strolling with Alfie the alpaca

Magical – that was my reaction as I walked along a sun-dappled woodland path on the South Downs, leading a handsome young alpaca called Alfie.

This charming creature is one of three stud males who live at Adsdean, near Funtington, with owners Bruce and Peta Ives, and who are only too happy to set out for a stroll with visitors.

In all, there were 38 Dunreyth Alpacas for me to meet when I called in to see them, with another 12 babies, called crias, due to arrive any day.

Before setting out for our walk, Bruce and Peta took me to the field where the females and their youngsters, one just a day old, were grazing. I was able to stand just feet away from these lovely, gentle creatures. Several of them came even closer to inquisitively nuzzle my hand and say hello.

With their placid, biddable natures, the alpacas are completely at home in their lush green meadow, bordered by trees, and they look so much part of the Sussex landscape you tend to forget they originate from South America, primarily Peru.

The highlight of my visit, though, was going for a walk with Alfie, accompanied by Bruce and Peta with Baron, another of the stud males and a real character.

Alfie holds a very special place in Bruce and Peta's hearts as they started their herd in 2006 with two pregnant females and he was the first-born of the Dunreyth Alpacas.

The couple's dramatic change of lifestyle came about when they were both made redundant from their posts as nurses.

They did a great deal of research into alpacas before embarking on their new venture and it has proved as successful and personally satisfying as they had hoped.

Initially they concentrated on breeding, using the alpaca fleeces and taking their animals to meet the public at local shows, schools and residential homes, but knowing that walking with llamas was already well-established in various parts of the country, they began to wonder about introducing alpaca walks.

Although alpacas come from the same camel 'family' as llamas, no-one at that stage had attempted going down the same route with them – in fact Bruce and Peta were told it would be impossible.

However, they persevered and it quickly became clear their highly-intelligent animals – smaller, gentler and decidedly prettier than their llama cousins, were just as well suited to this particular activity.

The Ives believe there are still only two other places in Britain where alpaca walking is available and just 15 months after Alfie and Baron and several of the other Dunreyth herd began sharing their strolls, they now have many regular visitors from all over the south of England and even further afield.

Walking through the woods with Alfie trotting happily at my side, it was clear to see why people enjoy the experience so much and come back again and again.

It was wonderful to stroke the silky cream coat on his elegant neck and shoulders, and to see him respond to my voice and the woodland surroundings.

The alpacas have marvellous temperaments, an ideal combination of being placid and friendly, yet extremely intelligent, alert and interested in all that's going on around them.

These are not domesticated, tame pets, so it seems a real privilege they are so happy to let you enjoy their companionship for a couple of hours.

It's such an exhilarating yet relaxing experience, you don't want the walk to ever come to an end, yet as you part with your newfound friend as he returns to his field, you go away with a sense of having communed not just with nature, but with a very special animal.