Our new 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.
Set in the heart of the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, we are Roger and Elaine Clarke of Amberly Alpacas. Established in 2006, we are now one of the most experienced and genetically advanced alpaca herds in Ireland. It is my pleasure to be able to share our alpaca life with you to give you a flavour of the madness and mayhem as it presents itself here on Amberly Alpaca Farm.
Let’s start at the beginning; it’s always a good place to start! 2006 was an incredibly important year for Elaine and I. Not only was it the year we got married and moved into our new home, it was also the year we met our first alpacas, and like so many before us, lost our hearts (or as some would say our heads) to these utterly enchanting animals.
In these early years, alpacas were not very common in Ireland. But after much deliberation and numerous visits to one of the few breeders we’d been able to find, we made our first purchase of three female huacayas. And so ‘Amberly Alpacas’ was born.
Thinking about it now, it seems like a lifetime ago and to reflect on the animals themselves, they were very far removed from the quality that stands in our herd today. Despite all of this, we loved our three girls. They were happy and healthy and provided that ‘hands on’ experience that helped us pave our way.
As time went on and as our confidence grew, Elaine and I decided that the time was right to breed from our girls. A simple decision in theory, but one that would prove extremely difficult to fulfil. As we researched our options, the problem was clear. With the limited number of alpacas on the island, it was evident that most of the animals stemmed from the same bloodlines. This left breeding options limited and choice almost void.
In the end, we found a herd sire and as a result we enjoyed the arrival of our first cria the following year. This gave us immense satisfaction and invaluable experience for the years ahead. Similarly, and although we didn’t realise it at the time, our search for a herd sire also provided us with the opportunity to meet other Irish breeders and to forge friendships that we still hold dear today.
Following our experiences in those early days, one thing was always very clear. For us, alpacas were now a deep-rooted passion and an actual ‘lifestyle’ that we loved and enjoyed. We couldn’t imagine ourselves without them and had an ever-growing preoccupation to further develop our herd and expertise.
With this realisation however, there followed some difficult decision-making. If we were to develop our herd, as we’d like, we were going to need to make a significant investment and acquire genetics that were capable of fulfilling our need and desire to advance our herd.
As a consequence, our mission became increasingly clear. We needed to select a foundation herd of high quality animals; those that were healthy, had proven reproductive capability, carried advanced, reliable genetics and would contribute to and help deliver our future goals.
In truth, the quest for our dream herd quickly developed into an obsession. We immersed ourselves in the science and researched the genetics until we were blue in the face. Despite this however, it was not until we began to make contact with and visit breeders in the UK, that we really began to learn.
Visiting farms, going to shows, attending conferences and training courses gave us the opportunity to get a real flavour of what was available in the market at that time. This helped us to compare animals not only in terms of their phenotype (physical appearance) and accompanying fleece characteristics but also in relation to their genotype and associated genetic capability.
As time went on, our search started to narrow and after what seemed like an eternity, we began to assemble our foundation herd. This group of individual animals were composed entirely of coloured huacayas and had been carefully selected to include some of the best genetics available in the UK from Peru, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
The arrival of our new herd marked the beginning of something very special and brought with it new friendships, new opportunities and of course a new level of obsession! For Elaine, this obsession took the form of fibre, and for me it was and still is, all about genetics.
As our herd developed, so too did our knowledge and understanding of the components necessary for achieving success. We quickly learned that a sound herd management plan was an essential part of the effective and efficient running of our herd and that a focus on breeding for quality rather than quantity would enable us to achieve our goal of producing happy, healthy alpacas with advanced fleece characteristics, correct conformation and of course a people-friendly temperament.
We spent a lot of time assessing our animals and planning their matings. And we continued to introduce new genetics, all in the quest of sustaining an ongoing level of advancement overall.
When I consider our position today, it is amazing to think how far we’ve come. Not only have we developed our herd but we’ve also made significant progress as individuals and strive to act as ambassadors for the alpaca industry in Ireland and beyond.
Although Ireland’s alpaca industry is still in its infancy, we have seen clear and continued development in terms of the quality of the animals appearing on our shores and on the emphasis placed on producing high quality fibre.
Elaine and I are active members of the British and Irish Alpaca Societies (BAS and AAI), with Elaine serving on the BAS Fibre Committee, the BAS Welfare Committee and the BAS Suri Focus Group and one of the founder herds of the Northern Ireland Alpaca Group (NIAG).
These groups offer a sound forum for breeders and keepers to work collaboratively and to share information and elements of good practice as well as providing the opportunity to facilitate the running of various events, geared towards the promotion of this industry as a whole.
For the industry to progress, Elaine and I genuinely believe that collegiality and education need to play a very significant role. We have both completed our BAS foundation stage assessment courses and I have gone on to complete the advanced stage, as well as my Level 1 and 2 Judging Courses. I am thrilled to say that I am now an apprentice judge; the first and only in Ireland (that’ll be for another article!). Courses like these are invaluable, not only to us as breeders, but also in being able to disseminate information and knowledge to others both within and beyond our regional groups.
At this point, it is very difficult to say where we will go from here. Our alpacas are an intrinsic part of our lives. They have become a deep-rooted passion and offer a lifestyle which is an exciting alternative to our day jobs, as a school principal and chiropractor. We are ever grateful to all of those who have helped and supported us along the way. For us, our investment in alpacas has been a genuine investment in happiness and we hope you enjoy sharing in our ‘madness and mayhem’ though our contributions here on Olann and.