Having travelled extensively on the altiplano of both Peru and Chile I fully support the view that there is no such thing as a 'Peruvian' or 'Chilean' style in alpacas. To stand at the point where Bolivia, Chile and Peru meet, or as near as one can get, is to appreciate that the borders are very porous. However it is in Peru where the majority of alpacas are bred and it is here that the really prestigious breeders carry out their activities - the bulk of them in the Cusco and Puno regions of the southeast at altitudes of between 4,000 and 5,000 metres.
As you travel in this region you find thousands of alpacas grazing alongside the tracks that criss-cross the district. Among them you will find llamas and huarizos, the cross between the two species, and occasionally at great height you will find the beautiful but wild vicuna. Always with the alpaca herds you will find, if you look closely, the 'shepherd' who is often a small child. A serious alpaca breeder will be shocked at the obvious lack of quality in the animals which have been allowed to breed without any planning or control. I asked my veterinary friend as to why these people continue to keep and breed llamas as they have no real value for their fleece and as they are rarely used as pack animals in the day of the Toyota pick-up. Her reply was illuminating as she described the ignorance of the people and their conservative ways. She is a great lover of the Quechua people, with whom she was brought up, but her frustration was evident in not being able to influence the majority of small-scale farmers in improving their herd qualities and eventually improving their own conditions which in most cases are very marginal. This is subsistence farming at its most basic.
Part of the problem has been brought about by the purchasers of the fibre not offering any financial incentive to encourage this improvement. Fleeces are collected by the big textile companies and then they do the grading of the fibre in great detail at their huge warehouses in Arequipa. The big breeders do their own deals with the textile companies because they can provide consistently better quality fibre across the whole clip and because they are dealing in huge amounts they are an important source of the 'baby alpaca' that is so precious in the making of fabulous quality garments.
Alpaca breeders will be familiar with two of the big names in Peru - Accoyo and Rural Alianza. The Accoyo herd of Julio Barreda is the result of years of special breeding by this giant in the alpaca world and his name is frequently quoted by those who have benefited from his breeding techniques over 50 odd years. Based in the mining town of Macusani, of which he was Alcalde (mayor) for many years, Barreda has continued to impress overseas purchasers with his plantel herd, that is his core breeding herd, and with the stock that he produces. Now well into his eighties his business is increasingly being managed by his daughter but he continues to oversee all the breeding and husbandry of his animals. His influence in the Peruvian alpaca industry has been enormous and now this has spread to many of the overseas industries as well. His 'type' or style of animal is easily recognisable and I have seen obvious products from his breeding even in Chile.
Rural Alianza is the largest breeder of alpacas in the world, with 43,000 animals, and is a huge agrarian company with interests also in pedigree beef and sheep. It employs thousands of campesinos (rural people) throughout the altiplano and its influence is massive. Its offices are in Ayaviri, which is the centre of the Peruvian agricultural world, but it has six principal breeding stations based in Macusani, in Nunoa and in Huarapino. At each station you will find different types of alpaca - suris are based in one, the Huacaya plantel herd in another. At other stations you will find the coloureds (black and brown) and the light fawns. The herds are strictly controlled and segregated thus ensuring that all alpacas are bred for purity in colour and type. This is particularly noticeable in the suris which exhibit 'true to type' fleece in larger proportion than I have seen elsewhere.
When selecting animals from Rural Alianza it is rare to find coloured hairs in the white fibre and very rare to find white animals with coloured spots. I have now looked at many hundreds, indeed probably thousands, of their animals and they are impressive. Density and fineness are present in the majority of them although getting all the qualities that we seek in any one animal is always going to cut down the numbers that we are prepared to purchase. The managers of their breeding programmes are fully aware of the qualities that are sought and it is always interesting during a selection when they reject an animal before we do as we examine the individual fleeces. However what is particularly refreshing is that once we have done our initial selection and are now doing our pre-screening inspections for purity of phenotype we rarely find faults such as five teats, poor conformation or luxatting patella - all serious physical defects that are rightly causes for rejection on screening for entry to our breeding registries.
However the big two are not alone in having serious and successful breeding programmes. I have visited and got to know a number of the smaller breeders with only two or three thousand animals and have been impressed with the way they are going about their business. Again careful segregation by type and colour is vital in the control of the breeding and increasingly we find enthusiasm for keeping records. When dealing with these inspiring breeders I would not consider for a second offering advice on their business which has often been in their families for many, many generations. However they are very aware that the gringos are breeding successfully through the careful keeping of records as well as through the careful selection of their machos. The ambitious ones are now keeping records and indeed at the latest Alpaca Fiesta the top prizes were computers and they now possess programs which are constructed specifically for breeding records.
One such breeder is the Tijera family. I sat in Guillermo Tijera's house in Marangani, about half way between Cusco and Juliaca, and saw his gleaming new computer sitting alongside the various cups and ribbons he took away from the latest Alpaca Fiesta in Arequipa having had a very successful time in the show ring. I had been put in touch with this family by Dr Julio Sumar and both their animals and the individuals involved were outstandingly impressive. Their two farms are about two hours away from Marangani at great altitude and reached via a terrible track. However the journey is so worthwhile as their herd of 3,000 animals is outstanding and the surrounding scenery is as an impressive a backdrop as you will find anywhere on the altiplano - which is in itself one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Guillermo's sister, Alejandrino, described to me some of what they were trying to do to make their business even more successful. As part of their plan they want to install electricity to their two altiplano farms by the purchase of a generator. Not only will this make living at nearly 5,000 metres rather more comfortable it will allow them to shear their animals with modern clippers and provide them with better facilities to manage their herds. They are keen to improve the track to the farms and have approached the government for support in this venture. However as is so often the case they are frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm from the other villages on the route, who would benefit enormously by this improvement in their communications, and who are not prepared to help out in any way.
The Tijera family has been described to me as one of the leading breeders of the future in Peru. Everything of what I have seen would support that view.
So what makes buying Peruvian alpacas special? Nothing at all unless you know the breeder and have seen just what quality they are producing. Over the years we have purchased alpacas from the USA and from Australia and we still put great faith in having selected our machos for their strong genetics proven over many progeny from their parents and grandparents. But the foundation animals all came from Peru.
What we chose to do was to take animals whose genetic strengths had been proven through the diligent recording of the qualities of their progeny over several years rather than take the greater risk on animals whose only proven strength was in their excellent phenotypical characteristics. When you purchase Peruvian animals direct then you must accept that there will be some absolute top quality animals whose genetic strengths may turn out not to be quite so predictable.
The Australian alpaca industry has been able to improve in leaps and bounds through the skill in selection of Peruvian animals by leading breeders such as Roger Haldane, many of whose animals have gone on to be major influences on the Australian industry while a few have quietly been rather less successful. I am told that a recent selection and arrival of Peruvian machos in Australia is going to see another leapfrog in quality in that industry. In two or three years' time we will see whether those predictions have been correct
There is no reason why the European industry should not also benefit from a similar injection from the fount of the alpaca business. However selection has to be skilled with access to breeders' plantel herds, not just to purchase plantel animals but also in order to see the quality of the machos and hembras (females) from which the selected animals are coming. To gain that access is not always easy and Peruvian breeders will not make that available to purchasers for whom they do not have high regard. Surprisingly to gain that regard requires ruthless selection of alpacas and open communication as to why animals have been rejected. Now that the Americans have closed their registry for further imports of alpacas they have not only done serious damage to the economy of the altiplano they have also closed their genetic base to further injections from the widest selection of animals in the world. It allows the European industries to benefit from a wider choice of animals and gives us the opportunity to access quality that should improve our chances of being leaders in quality alpacas of the future.