Career change in France: Alpacas really feel like family

Sophie Hargreaves tells The Connexion how she went from housing to husbandry

New directions: Housing manager to alpaca farmer. Will and Sophie with their alpacas

My husband Will, 39, and I moved to France in December 2020, just before the Brexit cut off.

We had only made the decision to move in August, after Will was made redundant from his job, selling wine and spirits to bars and restaurants, due to Covid.

While my job as a housing officer was fulfilling, I fancied a change.

Reframe redundancy as an opportunity

We tried to reframe his redundancy as an opportunity, a chance to follow a dream.

We had always talked about having some sort of farm and leading an outdoor life – although it had seemed like a fantasy rather than something we would really do.

However, having read some articles on alpaca farming and the popularity of these gorgeous, quirky animals, we started to wonder whether this could be the right direction for us.

As property prices in the UK were soaring, we knew we would need to go further afield to afford the kind of land we needed.

We soon found a place in Deux-Sèvres that ticked all the boxes, and put in an offer in December 2020.

As we had little experience with animals, we started by taking a two-day course with the British Alpaca Society in September 2020.

There we learned how to ensure high animal welfare standards.

For more practical experience, we did some placements on British alpaca farms in December 2020.

It was eye-opening and we built close relationships with some of the farmers. As everyone knew we were moving to France, they didn’t see us as competition!

Once we moved, we sourced our first alpacas from a farm in Limousin in February 2021. We started off with five, two of which were pregnant.

Since then, we have bred a couple of our girls, but we do not plan to build too big a herd. It’s nicer to keep things small and really get to know the animals.

Registering the business was a bit of a challenge, but the officials working in the tax office and the chambre d’agriculture were incredibly patient and helpful. We found working with them face-to-face was much easier.

Life is very different

Life is very different than it was working for the housing association.

My job is certainly varied – I work on the farm, making fertilisers, and we also produce wool from the alpacas.

We have a little shop where we sell souvenirs that we make or buy in, and have accommodation for farm stays.

In order to make things work, we have had to diversify.

I do all our marketing and it is my job to come up with fresh ideas for the business. We have recently started an ‘adopt an alpaca’ package where you sponsor an alpaca and receive a certificate and other small gifts, as well as seasonal newsletters.

Working for yourself means working harder than you ever have.

There is a lot of responsibility and it can be tiring, but what I love is that it is on our own time, our own terms.

Health benefits

Before moving to France, I was on daily painkillers for a lower back injury. Since moving here, I can manage the pain with more natural methods.

I can move about more freely and if an activity causes pain, I just get on with something else. I also feel that anxiety and stress in the UK took a toll on my mental and physical health, which is now much better than it used to be.

In winter, I always anticipate being able to have a break, but it is actually the period we get our maintenance done.

We also do Christmas markets with some of our produce and have just introduced winter stays – it really is non-stop.

French improving

Our French is gradually improving. We had a smattering when we moved over, but most of our clients are French so we have had to learn on the job to survive.

This means we can talk about alpacas for hours, but our small talk in French still needs work.

When I look back on my time in the UK, I recognise the huge contrast with my new life.

My work there could be very fulfilling, but nothing beats the joy of spending time with my alpacas.

We know them so well and have built up their trust. Each has a unique character and we have become a little family.

In fact, most of the management of the farm relates to managing people when they visit, rather than the animals themselves!

I saw my old boss recently during a trip back to England and he said: “You look so happy!

But also, very tired.” That just about sums it up for me. It’s a seven-day-a-week job running the farm and keeping everything moving, but it is satisfying work.

Ultimately, our business is about delivering happiness to people – and we have that in spades.

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