Since Nidderdale Llamas was established as a farm diversification more than a decade ago, it has solidified its presence as a top visitor attraction in Yorkshire, as rated by Tripadvisor. With around 3,500 customers a year, the business – run by former housing manager Suzanne Benson and her family – is no stranger to the limelight, having been featured on celebrity vet Julian Norton’s The Yorkshire Vet.
The business, near Pateley Bridge, is not just about trekking with llamas and alpacas. It includes other related enterprises such as a shop, third-party events (including weddings), a llama and alpaca adoption scheme and a members’ club. Having started with five llamas and one alpaca, the herd now stands at 87 llamas, one guanaco and 14 alpacas, with six crias due this year. With its diverse services, Nidderdale Llamas’ success did not come without bumps on the long trek.
Having had an established flock of breeding ewes since the early 1990s, husband and wife James and Suzanne Benson purchased the 60-acre Kiln Farm in 2002 to develop their suckler herd. While James grew up on a dairy farm, Suzanne’s background had been firmly hoofed in the equine side of things.
At the time, the couple kept a few llamas on the farm alongside farmstock, and it was a challenging time. As well as bringing up their three young children, James was recovering from life-changing surgery. Parallel to this, lambing and other farm duties required attention, as did Suzanne’s full-time job as a housing manager in Leeds.
Since acquiring the farm, Suzanne had always wanted to leave her job in Leeds to spend more time on it. During the period up to 2007, Suzanne became increasingly intrigued by the llamas’ behaviour and gentle nature, which ultimately led her to explore diversifying into a llama trekking venture. Suzanne says: “Developing my initial business idea took around two years of research before finally taking the plunge. I was motivated by a need to work from home, my passion for llamas and a desire to develop a top-quality experience for visitors to our scenic farm. Closer to home, I also wanted to provide a better quality of life for my family and to support James in his recovery.”
As with any diversification project, Suzanne had to overcome several challenges. The most pressing issues concerned the trekking routes, and training young and packing llamas to trek. Help with the training was provided through emails and phone calls with a colleague in Northampton who had a trekking centre, because there was no one nearer to share their knowledge.
Identifying and establishing the viability of different trekking routes was more time consuming, particularly as it involved identifying everyone who owned the rights of way and seeking their permission to access them.
Reflecting on this, Suzanne says: “We had a mixed reception from landowners, particularly since it was a relatively new concept for the area, so it was a time-consuming ‘selling’ job. Thankfully, we had helpful advice and support from the Nidderdale AONB as well as county council rangers to work through the various options in developing the tracks.” Prior to opening its doors to the public in 2009, Suzanne was still working full-time, and she and James worked long hours to set up their trekking centre with fit-for-purpose visitor facilities. They also established networks within the local community by sourcing local catering and other services to support their new business. Financially, the first five years were challenging, as most of the income was ploughed back into the business to maintain and develop it further.
For Suzanne, animal and visitor welfare comes first. Her dedicated team works hard to achieve this, and it was only in the fifth year that the business found itself in the black. Both traditional and social media - thanks to the quirky and humorous nature of the llamas and alpacas – significantly contributed to the growth of the businesses. Suzanne adds:
Our turnover increased in 2017 after Julian Norton became our vet, and with the TV cameras following his work with the llamas on our farm, our bookings almost doubled
The pandemic has had a crippling impact on Nidderdale Llamas. The business’ income abruptly stopped, but it still had animals to feed and vet bills to pay, in addition to supporting staff and covering other overhead costs.
Suzanne says: “We are eternally grateful for the furlough support during the pandemic, as it enabled us to retain our team of specialised staff. Llamas and alpacas require specialist and individual feeding and it takes around six hours to feed all of them.”
To ensure business continuity during the various lockdowns and restarts, Suzanne and her team worked hard to make the venue as safe as possible by reducing visitor numbers, sanitising equipment and leading ropes after use, providing individual pre-packed ‘takeaway’ foods, and more.
The stop-start nature was disruptive financially and operationally, but Nidderdale Llamas had its most successful month in August 2021 following the last lockdown. Suzanne hopes that this year will see a more stable environment for her business.
Suzanne's top tips
Offering advice for any fellow members considering a similar venture, Suzanne says: “Making an income from people paying you to lead your animals may seem attractive, but it isn’t that straightforward.
“Always do thorough research on the feasibility of doing it in your area, and consider your time and capital investment against the limited initial return before you even start.
“You must have a passion for llamas and alpacas, along with good customer service skills, if you want to succeed. These are not ‘difficult’ animals to manage, however they are ‘different’ to other farm stock and have specialised requirements. Their welfare is paramount.
“I strongly recommend researching and learning about these animals from similar businesses before making an investment in acquiring them.”