Dr Jim Watts is a biologist who has spent most of his working life studying fibre-producing animals – merino sheep, angora goats and alpacas. All these animals have similar characteristics in the skin and it has been his life time work to improve the ability of these animals to generate higher yields of finer fibres.
His work has lead him to create the SRS® system for improvement in fibre and with this he now has a vast number of clients in Australia, South Africa and in the Americas, breeders of all three types of animal. His pioneering work with the merino has produced some of the highest yields of fine merino wool in Australia and his band of supporters continues to grow.
For the past 10 years he has worked with Janie Hicks of Coolaroo Alpacas in NSW to research his techniques on the alpaca with such success that he now has many Australian alpaca breeders, including some very prestigious names, working along his principles and techniques.
Having attended one of his workshops five years ago Michael Brooke and John Gaye of Alpacas of Wessex decided the time had come to invite him over to cast his eye over their stock and to make a presentation to their clients and colleagues in the alpaca breeding business in order that the British Alpaca Enterprise could benefit by his experience and knowledge.
Although his style of delivery is relaxed and his complicated scientific facts are not easy to impart he made simple work of putting across his message to the assembled company. And his message is very radical. It requires you to cast aside many of your preconceptions and take on board a totally new look at fibre and the fleece of an alpaca.
Forget most of what you have learnt to date about fleece and understand from biological scientific facts how fibre is grown on an alpaca so that you can maximise the annual yield while, at the same time, ensuring increasing fineness.
To appreciate fully how to improve the fibre in an alpaca it is necessary to understand how it is created in the skin from the moment that it starts to develop during the gestation period of the embryo and influence that development. This is not rocket science, but it is science and based on biological fact – not on supposition or just experience gained from other breeders. As such it has only been available since 1986 when research into skin follicular development made some remarkable discoveries in what went on under the skin and how this influenced the growth of fibre throughout the life of the animal.
This is information that was never available to South American breeders over the generations that they have been working on their breeding programmes – if it had what might have been possible? But it is available in 2006 and consequently we can look critically at what are the current perceptions of how to breed up fibre quality and take a totally fresh appraisal based on science rather than conjecture.
We know from archaeology that the ancients produced alpaca fibre of exquisite quality, much finer than today. Somehow we have to get back to their standards of fineness if alpaca fibre is to get the reputation for handle and comfort that is its full potential. Already much has been shown through current breeding practices that the choice of a good male can heavily influence the qualities of the offspring; but have we used all the knowledge that is available to us in the selection of that male? Certainly it is the message from Jim Watts that current criteria for selection is more influenced by the show ring than by anything else and that the qualities that the judges are looking for are not always the most desirable for the improvement in density and fineness that is possible. In other words we must break away from current perceptions and involve scientific analysis in objective selection.
An alpaca, like all sentient creatures, has a genetic programme which drives it throughout its development and throughout its entire life. If the genes tell it to grow five legs then that is what it will do. When it comes to fibre the alpaca will be pre-programmed to produce fibre at a certain diameter and density according to how the follicles develop during the embryo stage. This, in the offspring from a mother, can only be influenced by the selection of the right male. Thus with an alpaca that is programmed to produce fibre of 21 microns that is what it will produce throughout its life. It will not ‘blow out’ if it is fed better nutrition although of course it will produce finer fibre if left on poor quality nutrition as it will not reach its full genetic potential. This of course explains why so many alpacas, selected on the alti-plano for their fine fibre, fail to retain that fineness when landed on these shores and fed properly. Environment will have no influence on the genetic programme but will of course ensure that the alpaca reaches its full genetic potential, even if that means growing 35 micron fibres.
So to influence that programme we must find males who have the right sort of genetic quality. A male that has more follicular density per square millimetre and thus produces more density in its fibre and at a greater length and consequently is what Jim Watts calls an ‘Advanced Fleece’.
An Advanced Fleece has deep bold crimp, is grown in bundles of pencil thin staples and has really good length. Each fibre is properly organised so that when you pull them apart they divide easily without having to use any force; the crimp has a high amplitude (ie deep and bold) and, because the fibre growth is faster than with the average fleece, the minute scales on each fibre are flatter and further apart thus making it feel even more silky and luxurious.
This is the type of fleece, the production of which could take alpaca fibre back to the sort of qualities that were available prior to the Spanish Conquest of Peru and which have not been available since. Jim Watts is quite clear that alpaca fibre has all the potential to be better than any other ‘noble fibre’ available in the 21st century. The Advanced Fleece may not have the qualities that are recognised in the judging ring but the final result could bring alpaca fibre back into the very top end of the quality textile market, which is the ultimate goal of any sensible alpaca breeding programme.
Meanwhile there is a great deal of entrenched opinion through which he has to cut in order to take this forward. Opinion not just amongst long established breeders but also amongst the fibre processors and textile manufacturers. The SRS® programme has managed to convince many otherwise conservative breeders of merino sheep, such that he now has XXXXXXXXXX sheep breeder clients in Australia, which is a very significant proportion of the overall population. He has convinced a growing number of influential alpaca breeders in Australia of the wisdom of his work; will it work with European breeders?
Over 40 breeders from around Europe attended the Alpacas of Wessex workshop and thus have been exposed to the science behind the SRS® breeding programme. Judging by their reaction there is much enthusiasm to adopt his radical approach in taking their herds forward to the highest levels possible.