"Alpaca walking can be a therapeutic experience," Paul Shrimpton said to me, as I approached the mound of fluff in the distance, "they are naturally very calm and gentle animals. Well, unless you are trying to cut their toe nails."

Paul and Kathryn Shrimpton have brought a flavour of Peru to Hexham through their business Alpaca Encounters, where they invite members of the public to meet, feed and walk with these unusual creatures.

As I stepped into the paddock, dozens of big, conker-like eyes stared inquisitively at me.

The first alpaca I met was the champion stud Mountbatten, whose prestigious bloodline and light fawn curls had won him various trophies at national and local competitions.

He had a swagger in his walk and a sparkle in his eye, but fame hadn’t quite gone to his head, and he was quite happy to let me stroke his famous fleece.

Then there was Burgow, a young alpaca, or cria as they are known in the alpaca world, who was a bit of a loner, preferring the quieter life (and untrampled grass) alone at the edge of the paddock.

Mischief-makers Ingris and Merlin never left each others' sides, and seemed to have a bet over how many photos they could squeeze themselves into.

Herd matriarch Truffle was busy keeping everyone in line (including me), her top priority being protector of the cria - she likes to keep a close eye on anything suspicious or new in the pen.

The greying Happy, named after her kind eyes and joyful expression, was the oldest alpaca on the farm at 14.

Although long retired from the breeding game, Happy still has a strong maternal urge, and you can often spot her lying longingly by the fence of the stud’s paddock, in the hope that she’ll get another chance at motherhood.

"They all have individual characters," Paul said, "and our job is to know every one of them inside out.

"If an alpaca is acting differently than usual, then it could be a sign of ill health, so we have to understand each animal the best we can."

Illness and death cannot always be prevented however, as Kathryn and Paul sadly found out earlier this year.

Heartbreak hit the herd when new mother Nordic sadly passed away from untreatable liver cancer, leaving her baby daughter Scandi orphaned at only a few months old.

"It's the worse part of the job," said Kathryn, "and after 16 years of keeping alpacas, it never gets any easier.

"Both myself and Paul have grieved over Nordic, and her loss was felt amongst the herd too.

"On the positive side, Scandi is a little fighter, and she's doing really well. Some of the more maternal alpacas have taken her under their wing, so she's got a family still."

For Kathryn and Paul, the business will always come second to their herd's welfare, and their top priority is making sure that each alpaca is happy and healthy.

"We have, and always will, adapt our businesses to fit the needs of our animals," said Paul, "We know that alpacas are not particularly active creatures by nature, and don’t enjoy being trekked for hours. That's why we offer activities which are tailored to their comfort, in their natural environment."

Alpacas first became a part of Paul and Kathryn's lives in 2002, when they stumbled across the creatures at the Northumberland County Show.

"It was love at first sight for me," Kathryn confessed. "I didn't even know what an alpaca was until that moment, but as soon as I saw one, I knew I had to have one.

"The biggest question was what would we do with them. Was it possible to run a business through them, and if so, what business?"

It took the couple four "long" years of heavy research and planning before they decided to take the leap and start their own wool and breeding business, which they called Nero Black Alpaca, after their herd's unusual black fleece.

"We decided to go for huacaya black alpacas because we saw a niche in the market." said Paul, "There are two different types of alpaca, the haucayas, who have the soft fleece ideal for wool, and the suri, whose fleece have a dreadlock texture.

"The black colouring was both me and Kathryn's personal favourite, but it also was unusual, and therefore good for setting us apart in breeding and show competitions," he added.

The allure of the black alpaca even has a place in Peruvian history, I was informed by Paul.

He explained that Alpacas were once treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation, with their fleeces often being used in clothing by royalty.

The Incas had a preference for the light fleeced alpacas however, because they could easily dye their fleece, so black alpacas were gradually bred out over time, making them the rarity they are today.

Although the Shrimptons now keep more than fifty alpacas of different colours, from fawn to brown, beige and black, and each alpaca is christened with a name, which reflects its character and often its fleece colour.

"We try and come up with fun names," said Paul. "We started naming the herd with references to the colour black, such as Black Velvet and Black Bettie, but when we began breeding different coloured fleeces we had to go by character.

"Mountbatten, one of our most popular breeding studs, was given a highly sophisticated name to reflect his great genetics.

"The Chancer was named after his greedy endeavours to steal milk from every mother in the pen.

"Some of our most recent cria were named Inglis, Cunningam and Dolon after the builders who worked on our log cabin."

So here I was, standing in a pen surrounded by The Chancer and Black Velvet (not as mafia-like as it sounds, I promise), being curiously sniffed by alpacas one after the other.

Mountbatten was at the forefront of the action (of course), and was Paul and Kathryn's first choice to be my companion for the walk, as his showmanship background made him relaxed on the reins.

Together, Mountbatten and I took a leisurely stroll around the paddock, stopping as often as he liked to admire the beautiful Northumberland countryside surrounding the Shrimpton's lodge and for a neck rubs.

Seeing all the fun we were having, other alpacas began to follow Mountbatten's lead, and I gained a few tag alongs, eager to join us on our walk.

By the end of my time walking and talking with Mountbatten, I really was quite reluctant to give his reins back to Kathryn and Paul.