Our regular column from Roger Clarke, an alpaca farmer from Tyrone in Northern Ireland, will chart the goings-on on the farm throughout the year. We’ll hear all about the exploits of Roger’s herd of alpacas.
While the alpaca industry in Ireland is still in its infancy, I am delighted to say that we are very much gathering momentum and this year has been one of great reflection and debate in terms of establishing a vision for the continued development of the national herd and for the industry as a whole.
For Elaine and I, one of the key approaches to our practice is that of education and learning. The way I look at it is; ‘how can you work towards improving your herd, if you don’t know what ‘good’ is and what to aim for?’
Realising this early on, over the years we have immersed ourselves in a wide range of educational courses and learning opportunities, which cumulated in me completing my Level 2 judge training and becoming Ireland’s first apprentice judge.
The road to my apprenticeship has been a very long and active one. It has given me the experience and opportunity to get my hands on and appraise a huge number and wide range of animals and has enabled me to benchmark our quality with that of the rest of the UK and Ireland.
So…where are we headed and why?
Over the past number of years, Elaine and I have both agreed that our definite focus will remain that of ‘quality over quantity’. So, the first move we made was to assess what we felt we needed to add to our herd.
Now, this in itself was no mean feat as each and every animal has its place and purpose. But, in the end we were very sure that a significant investment in a new herd-sire would help push our herd closer to the ideal.
Having had the privilege of getting to know lots of different herds and having had the idea of a potential new stud in the back of my mind, it didn’t take long before we had established a wish list and eventually made our choice; Popham Kane of Amberly.
Adding to the herd
With a lineage second to none, Kane is a male who, we had both watched with interest as he made his mark on the UK show circuit. As a junior he won champion white male at the British Alpaca Society’s National show, which is a huge accolade, and as time went on, his show successes went from strength to strength.
Despite his successes, one thing a breeder must never be tempted to do is chase show winners! Instead, an animal must prove itself by presenting reliability and consistency in terms of maintaining their good qualities. At two years old, this is something we had seen Kane do.
In layman’s terms, Kane’s fleece is simply stunning. It is extremely fine, dense and bright and it was the ratio of fineness to density in particular, that attracted us to him first. As well as this, his fleece is highly organised. Now…what does that mean I hear you ask and why would it matter? A highly-organised fleece is one that shows very little differentiation from one point on the body to the other. The importance of this for any fibre animal is that the fleece is uniform and so you are going to have greater uniformity coming through in the finished yarn. In short, this boy is packing A LOT of fibre and the hope would be that as he begins to sire offspring (I’ll get on to that part in a minute), the fibre yield of our entire herd should be on the rise!
As I mentioned, we didn’t purchase Kane until he was approaching two year’s old. This gave us a chance to see how his second fleece (after shearing), grew back and to assess his qualities. As well as this however, being too young to work, he wasn’t a proven herd sire and so this was another area that he would have to prove himself in.
Over to you, stud
Over the summer, we had the task of getting Kane to begin his duties as a stud and to say that he took to it like a duck to water is an understatement! He needed no encouragement whatsoever and took to the job straight away! This isn’t always the case with first time males and so, ‘the boy did good!’
The thing with alpacas is that they don’t come into a very obvious estrous cycle like most other mammals. In fact, they are induced ovulators, which basically means that it is the act of mating itself that induces the female to ovulate. This means that it isn’t possible to use artificial insemination and as a consequence, stud males hold a valued position in any herd.
Having done his job and having scanned all of our females, Kane has managed to impregnate all of those that he covered. But, with an 11.5-month gestation, we now have to sit and wait in anticipation for the summer births!
Sorting the fleeces for shows
In the meantime, there are still plenty of jobs to be getting on with, one of which being the sorting and skirting of fleeces for showing and for processing.
This year, the Alpaca Association of Ireland is planning to host the first ever ‘All Ireland’ alpaca fleece show as part of the Tullamore Agricultural show, a venture that we will have a hand in organising. This offers breeders the unique opportunity to have their animal’s fleeces appraised without having to travel them to a show, and should make for a spectacular event.
We always try to enter at least one of the UK fleece shows on an annual basis for the reasons mentioned above. The beauty of it is, once the fleece has been prepared, it can be entered into multiple shows and then sent on for processing.
Last year we also entered some finished yarn and some of Elaine’s hand knitted and woven pieces into the UK National show, taking two first places. This year we will also be entering some of our fleeces and will be sure to let you know how we do!
The process of skirting isn’t my favourite job on the farm and it can definitely turn out to be a time consuming affair. So, as a self-confessed procrastinator and ‘avoider’ of the less favourable tasks, it is one of those jobs that you just need to get on and do.
Let’s just say I’ve taken the first step and erected the skirting table…watch this space as the processing begins!