Fancy going trekking with alpacas in Suffolk?

Jo Ridge and her alpacas

Jo Ridge and her alpacas - Credit: Charlotte Bond

In Suffolk farming is a natural way of life. Across the county you'll happen upon fields of pigs snuffling in the ground, cows and sheep grazing, horses nibbling at hay. 

But did you know in one corner of Suffolk, there’s an alpaca farm?  

Opened in 2012 by Jo Bridge, Hilly Ridge Farm in Wattisham started off as a hobby, but quickly developed into a successful business attracting people from across the country.  

Jo runs regular alpaca treks as well as therapy animal sessions

Jo runs regular alpaca treks as well as therapy animal sessions - Credit: Charlotte Bond

But why alpacas?  

“Originally I was into horses, and have always loved them. I was actually part of the mounted unit within Essex Police, and used to work as an instructor,” she explains.  

Jo and her family made the move to Suffolk in 2010, relocating to the farm, and it was there that she developed an interest in the woolly creatures.  

“I found my hobby became my job, so I started to look for something different. Pigs make a mess, and goats escape and think it’s funny to do so, so we thought we’d give alpacas a go. We initially got them to keep the grass down on our farm, and we started off with three. But that soon increased and we decided to see what more we could do with them.” 

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Inspired by her newest farm residents, Jo began going on courses and eventually turned her newfound passion into a job. 

Jo opened Hilly Ridge in 2012

Jo opened Hilly Ridge in 2012 - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Retiring from the police force in September 2021, she now spends all of her time running alpaca treks and animal therapy workshops. She also is a British Alpaca Society-approved judge and travels around the world judging competitions.  

A typical day involves Jo waking up very early to tend to her four-legged friends.  

“I love what I do, especially compared to my last job which was quite stressful. Every morning, I come out of my back door and cross the bridge that goes across to the barn, and realise how lucky I am. The alpacas are kept in a barn during the winter, so they’re kept nice and dry, and so I can keep an eye on them.  

“When I open the barn door, they’re humming and so pleased to see me. Once they’re fed, they go out into the field and we clean the barns out. It’s like a playpen overnight, so we have to sort the hay out and tidy everything up. If we’ve got a trek on, we get the alpacas and farm ready. We choose which ones we want to trek that day, then we start greeting people upon arrival.” 

Jo gets all sorts of visitors to her farm, and for her, every day is unique.   

Alpacas make great therapy animals thanks to their calm and friendly nature

Alpacas make great therapy animals thanks to their calm and friendly nature - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“You never know who’s going to walk through the door - we get all sorts of different age groups. When people arrive, they usually don’t know anything about alpacas, but when they leave everyone has a favourite one and they know so much about them. We try to make it as magical as possible, filled with smiles and memories.” 

Think Disneyland, but with alpacas.  

“After lockdown especially, it’s been great. We get families and groups, as well as people who come here to use the alpacas as therapy animals. We work with a lot of people who’ve been bereft, and children and adults who have educational and learning difficulties.” 

Jo also notes how great they are at bringing people out of their shells, and helping build confidence. 

“We recently had a young autistic lad visit us, and as we were putting the alpacas back in the pen, we saw his mum was in tears. We asked was what wrong and she said ‘it’s amazing, he doesn’t ever speak but he’s engaging with the animals so much, and I haven’t seen him like that in years, so thank you’. 

“It’s great to see people interact with the animals so well, and flourish.” 

Jo sources her alpacas from the UK and abroad

Jo sources her alpacas from the UK and abroad - Credit: Charlotte Bond

What is it about alpacas in particular that make them such great therapy animals?  

“They’ve got the deepest black eyes and they hum gently. They've also got the softest fleece and don’t mind people stroking them. If somebody is in a wheelchair or bedridden, they’ll lean down and want to nuzzle them on the head. They just have this natural ability that allows them to engage and connect with people.” 

Jo, who breeds her own alpacas as well as sourcing them both domestically and abroad, explains the rigorous training that an alpaca has to undergo in order to become trek and therapy-ready.  

“Our boys do a 16-week programme to make them calm and relaxed around people – but not every alpaca can do it. If we find out halfway through they’re not enjoying it, that’s fine, and they can carry on grazing in the field.” 

Jo says around five per cent of her alpacas who successfully make it through trek training go on to become therapy animals.  

“They’re the ones who really want to engage with people – they'll give kisses and they really enjoy engaging with people. These alpacas also go on to do extra training, where they’ll go into care homes and residential homes visiting bedridden people. They’ll also do obstacle courses, too.” 

One of Jo's alpacas

One of Jo's alpacas - Credit: Charlotte Bond

And just recently, Jo has teamed up with West Suffolk College, where she and the therapy alpacas have been working alongside teenagers and young adults with autism and anxiety.  

“We also work with another project called Inspire who help get young adults into work placements by building their confidence and skills in the workplace.” 

And the results speak for themselves.  

“For instance, one student had a personality disorder – she didn’t speak and really didn’t want to be at the farm. But in the end, she was chatting to the animals, giving us high fives and helping out with jobs. She really came out of her shell.” 

Currently, Jo has a group of 15 students who come every Friday who have been given their own patch of the farm to work on, as they learn both farm and life skills. 

The select group of students oversee the area of woodland, cutting down trees, replanting news ones, cutting grass building fences, and looking after alpacas.  

“For example, some of the adults would have difficulty even banging a nail into a piece of wood when they join us, but they then achieve so much by the time they’ve finished after learning new skills.” 

One of Jo’s former pupils did such a great job has now has a job at the farm.  

Things on the farm are going great for Jo and her fluffy cohort – but she shows no signs of stopping just yet, and has big plans for the summer and beyond.  

“Babergh Mid-Suffolk Council was very supportive after lockdown, it gave us a grant which will enable to carry on with the therapy work we do, as well hopefully increase tourism to the area. Without the grant, we probably would’ve had to shut down.” 

Jo is looking to bring on more staff, as well as engage with local B&Bs to provide accommodation for people who come from further afield and also bring more tourism to Suffolk.  

“We also want to build a glamping area, and maybe offer refreshments like afternoon tea with the alpacas.” 

To find out more about Jo and the alpacas, visit hillyridgealpacas.co.uk 

Five fun facts all about alpacas 

  • Native to South America, alpacas are domesticated versions of vicuñas. They are related to llamas, but are noticeably smaller than their woolly cousins.  

  • They’re the smallest member of the camel family, and average height at the shoulder is three feet.  

  • Alpacas are herbivores and mostly eat grass but sometimes tuck into wood, bark and stems. 

  • A baby alpaca is called a cria, and weighs between 18 and 20lbs when it is born.  

  • 99% of the world’s alpacas still live in South America.