ROVER, take heed there's a new pet therapy animal in the mix that's every bit as cute and cuddly as those grinning golden retrievers.

And they've got novelty on their side.

Alpacas, the fuzzy, docile domesticated member of the camelid family, have been proving companionable to children and adults as therapy animals in a new initiative launched this week by Cumbria County Council.

With the idyllic Lingholm Estate, near Keswick - famously the childhood holiday home of Beatrix Potter - as the backdrop, foster carers and their children participated in an off-the-wall excursion with alpacas in tow.

Andy Hobday, a team manager in Fostering and Adoption at the county council, was instrumental in setting up the partnership between the council's Fostering Service and the team at Alpacaly Ever After at Setmurthy, near Bassenthwaite, Terry Barlow and Emma Smalley.

He got the idea of a 'Walking with Alpaca' initiative, after doing an alpaca walk on his birthday.

"Walking with these magical animals is truly relaxing as they are so gentle and calming. The whole experience is very soothing for a troubled soul, and could be a very therapeutic activity for foster families with children of all ages."

"We are confident many of our families will benefit tremendously, emotionally and physically from the experience of interacting with these wonderful alpacas," added Andy.

With alpacas Big Wullie, Grizzly, Boo, Stevie Wonder, and the youngest alpaca in the group, Theo, the families' walk ended with a paddle in Lake Derwentwater.

Tanya Pears and her husband Colin have been fostering for the county council for three-and-a-half years. The couple, who live near Whitehaven, have seen about 20 children pass through their home, ranging from four weeks old to 16.

Parents to daughter Phoenix, 13, and son, Kieran, seven, they offer placements of up to two years for individual children or sibling groups. More recently they signed up to an emergency scheme, caring for children as soon as they go into care until a longer-term solution is lined up.

Tanya, 49, said: "It's been an incredible experience - very relaxing and the environment is superb. It's been wonderful to see the reactions of the children as they interact with these lovely animals. We've thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience."

Foster carers, Rob and Christine Mason from Penrith attended the event with a brother and sister, aged nine and 13, they have been looking after since being approved nearly two years ago.

Christine said: "It was absolutely fabulous. We are already planning to come back again and can't wait to spend more time with the alpacas."

Emma Smalley said: "The foster carers work so hard with the children, and the council wanted to thank them with this initiative."