British alpaca judge Paul Cullen, star of Swedish TV, no it?s not what you think, not a pole dance in sight, just the first ever Swedish Alpaca Show?here is his report, the first of four on life as an alpaca judge.
I am sitting here in my hotel room, in Malmo, Sweden, having just finished judging the first ever Swedish National Alpaca Show with a blank computer screen in front of me, why did I agree to write a series of articles covering a year in the life of an alpaca judge?.
We need to pick a start point of my ?Alpaca Judging Year? and I suppose that really began when I re-certified my Judge?s Ticket at the back end of 2006. Judges have to be ?re-certified? every two years in order to maintain their British Alpaca Society qualification. This procedure, likened by many judges as similar to a modern version of being hung drawn and quartered, is just about as difficult as it gets and makes you wonder why on earth you wanted to be an alpaca judge in the first place..
Be warned any of you aspiring judges out there, if you think that getting through level 2 and 3 to get qualified in the first place is hard work, it is nothing to having to spend a day in the company of your peers, whilst at the same time being under the hawk-like gaze of Amanda VandenBosch as she puts you through your paces in judging classes of alpacas and fleeces that she has already evaluated. You just know that you are going to get romanced by the ?wrong? one and place it first in the class.
The whole experience is over sensitised by knowing that as a judge you are expected to know what you doing, and it is much harder to keep your nerves under control when you have already have your judge?s ticket and you know that if you fail this course, all you can do is lose it.
Then you have the torture of making your oral reasoning in front of both Amanda and all the other experienced judges who, unlike the audience at an actual show, have also had the opportunity to judge the class. You know that the others are going to get their oral reasoning absolutely perfect but because of the huge amount of nerves in this environment, you come across as giving some meaningless drivel on why you placed them as you did. And if this is not enough to drive you over the edge, somebody with a perverse sense of humour is video recording everything you say and do, so that everybody can have a good laugh over lunch.
But I again managed a pass mark to renew my ticket, and that set me up to fulfil the promise I had made over a year earlier, to judge the first ever Swedish National Alpaca Show in Malmo Sweden in February 2007.
I don?t know about other judges, but I always get nervous before any show and the day I stop getting nervous is the day that I should pack it in, as it probably means that I?m getting complacent.
So there I was, feeling the responsibility of being the first judge to assess alpacas under show conditions in Sweden, as well as the show organisers promoting little old me as being an ?expert?, as we started the halter classes in a huge indoor hall of the Malmo Exhibition Centre. On the positive side, once the show starts and the alpacas are in the ring the nerves disappear and you concentrate on assessing the alpacas in front of you, using your training and experience to try and place them in the correct order. All the judges I know have
their particular method of how they sort out each class, I can only share with you some of how I do it and what works for me.
There is no doubt that sometimes a particular alpaca will catch the eye when it first walks in the ring, some alpacas have a definite presence and are just shouting ?look at me ? I?m the best?. Judges always pick up on the way alpacas present themselves and only occasionally are they disappointed, but it does happen more often than you may think when assessing the fleece characteristics.
It is important for me to follow the same examination routine with every alpaca I assess in the line up. I can then easily keep the positive traits, together with any negative ones in my mind, as I work my way through the alpacas. Using exactly the same examination routine with every alpaca every time means I can concentrate on what I am seeing in relation to what I have seen before.
One of the most important things for any handler to understand is that they must not move their position in the line up once they have come into the show ring.
In the show ring, judges remember the alpaca, not the handler. I know it may seem strange but I don?t actually see, or relate to, any handler, even if I know them personally, when we are in the ring. I may ask a handler questions about the alpaca, such as, how old is she, is she pregnant, but what I am really concentrating on remembering is the alpaca details, and where it was in the sequence of others, and in which order I looked at it. This is why, when I am judging, you may see me stand back occasionally and look back at the alpacas in the line, by doing this I am clarifying my placing of the alpacas, and making sure that I have a clear understanding of which alpaca stands over which, and why, thus far.
The Swedish show was, as always, a fascinating and interesting experience. Sweden is only just starting its alpaca show circuit and can be compared to where the UK was a number of years ago. I did not know what quality of alpacas I would find in the show ring, and it was very satisfying to discover that not only is the overall quality of the alpacas I have seen far better than I envisaged, I would firmly predict that a number of individual alpacas here in Sweden could give many UK entries a run for their money when competing for the top ribbons.
The alpaca world has learnt many lessons over the last eleven years or so, selection and screening of imported alpacas into any given country has progressed a long way since those early days in 1996 when the first major import came into the UK.
The education of actual and potential alpaca owners has also improved enormously, aided by the good work done by the BAS training programme in the UK, and far from being inexperienced, as the Swedes would have you believe, they know a great deal about what makes a quality alpaca, and have a very clear vision of where they want their industry to be in the immediate and long term future.
The Swedish show has been a huge success. The alpacas have been extensively covered by Swedish television and radio and the national newspapers have been full of positive articles. The organisers of the show did a fantastic job in organising the show and I am certainly proud to have been involved in such an event.
I would also like to use this article to pass on my thanks to all the people I met in Sweden and for the warm hospitality that was extended to me throughout my visit. I met a lot of alpaca owners, some more experienced than others, but all who have that desire to learn and understand their animals in the best way they can. Everywhere I have been I have been greeted with genuine warmth and kindness, and I will leave Sweden tomorrow with fond memories of my first visit here.