Nick Harrington Smith, The Alpaca Stud
As another summer passes us by, and the latest foot and mouth scare hopefully passes into the annals of history, planning for the future continues. Whilst shut down, and with time on farm to ponder the way forward, it must have struck more than just the writer that the challenges to the alpaca industry are great. It is the considered opinion of more than a few that we have potentially a great industry, however we are not realising that potential, and the burning question is why.
If you talk to breeders countrywide, you get a feeling of uncertainty, sales are patchy, and where sales are made, the reality is that quality is rarely linked to price. The cynics might be forgiven for thinking the advertising of the latest import, export or fashion is steering this industry. Look at our breed society magazine, see the number of adverts extolling the virtues of Australian or imported alpacas, some of these from UK breeders. Look at the number of antipodean breeders at our shows this year, and you might begin to think that our industry is under siege. If so, you are not alone. If you spoke with any of those foreign breeders visiting you will know that they are ?eyeing? up the UK market as a great place to market their alpacas, indeed gossip has it that our breed society cannot keep up with the number of requests for screening.
This is not unreasonable in a free market, and is only to be expected as the world alpaca market develops, however it does bring with it some grave challenges to the indigenous breeders. In other words, those who have to work within the marketplace on a long-term basis, and by that very virtue stand behind their own actions.
Some might ask why that should be a problem and in general it is not, if the UK based breeders have had the chance to establish their businesses on a sound footing but many breeders are new and need that initial stability. The problem UK breeders will always have is trying to create market presence in the face of imports which always have a well funded and well orchestrated marketing campaign. The phrases such as ?best genetics ever sourced?, ?an elite importation?, ?the finest alpacas ever exported from***? will be but a few you will have all heard or seen in the marketing efforts of the importers. Now, just hold those thoughts for a while.
All the exporters/importers tend to be either a bigger breeder in their country of origin, chasing profitability, or just plain wealthy individuals, often not needing to make an alpaca business profitable, but measuring success just by winning in the show ring. Immediately you can see that there are therefore two yardsticks, profitability and success or winning. Again not a problem on the surface but of course profitability is the key to long-term development, and both new and or established breeders are the foundation of such long-term industry development.
If however, you accept the precept that irrespective of all else we as a bloodstock industry require many more people to become a part of our industry, we clearly must accept that a guiding principle should be the creation of a strong domestic market for all to participate in. To do this we must acknowledge those factors that may make the creation of just such a market difficult.
In order to understand how all of the above impacts on the industry as a whole we all need to be clear as to who should, to coin a phrase, ?carry the clout? in our industry. Is it the larger commercial breeders or is it the smaller breeder? Perhaps it is wiser and more productive to focus on the individual rather than the size, and there can be no doubt that the important players are those who have a long-term commitment to the alpaca industry in the UK. Identifying such people is very difficult however; it is easier to identify those that are most unlikely to fit the bill.
Such individuals cannot in general be foreign breeders, who are only exporting those alpacas that their own countryman see as expendable, or culls within their own national herd. After all, if they are of such high quality why would they let them go, unless of course foreigners are paying inflated prices, or heaven forbid, they just aren?t as good as they are purported to be, and that is why they haven?t sold at home!
It should also not be those that just view the whole UK industry as a ?bit of fun? and who have no need, or more importantly desire, to make our industry self supporting and therefore a commercial success.
It is most certainly not the individual who is only importing or who bases a large part of his business on importing. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with importing as a business, but it is inevitable the business model used in such instances has little in common with the aspirations of most home based breeders.
This is not to say all importers or imports are bad, however the goal of importers may differ widely and it must be remembered that some individuals import wisely and selectively with the objective of enhancing their business. Large imports tend to rely on volume, such large groups are difficult to put together whilst keeping the quality uniformly high, and at the same time keeping to a budget that means marketing is made easier by being able to offer alpacas at seemingly attractive prices.
Now of course all of this is complicated by the fact that you have imports from South America and then the likes of Australia, New Zealand and North America. Firstly dealing with imports from Australia and New Zealand, these at present tend to be smaller in number, and rely heavily on the fact that they are supposedly better than those alpacas already in Europe. Alpacas imported from North America tend to be promoted on pedigree, but again are very limited in number, partly because of numbers to select from in Canada, but mainly once you get into alpacas from the USA the prices for quality stock are way in excess of achievable prices in the UK, even allowing for the current exchange rate. The big numbers tend to have come from South America, either Chile or Peru. Peru is now almost impossible to deal with because of the size of import needed to be economically attractive, given there is only one possible import route available at present. This just leaves Chile as a source of any significant number of alpacas. This is by far the easiest and quickest route into Europe; however, the major challenge with this source is having confidence in the breeding and pedigree of stock, even if one is to ignore the fact that many alpacas are smuggled from Peru to Chile on a regular basis. Perhaps this should be an additional concern given the recent FMD outbreak here in the UK. Of course, all imports have one thing in common; no one mentions the welfare issues, and the problems that can ensue following an import, such as breeding and or general health problems. That said it must be recognised that alpacas do travel well, but such problems can be very real.
Now you may think by now that all of the above is leading towards an argument for registry closure and there can be little doubt that the case can be made. However, that debate should and can only be had by ALL alpaca breeders in the UK, and a decision made by ALL breed society members. Perhaps it is high time the BAS board faced up to this issue and instigated the debate.
To make such changes as registry closure will take time, time we probably cannot afford so we need to take steps in the short-term to energise our domestic market, and put hard cash in the pockets of those breeders who wish to sell alpacas as a business. Only such activity will give confidence to existing and potential breeders alike.
There is one very simple step that could be taken and almost overnight make a difference, THINK AND BUY British alpacas. Whilst every magazine expounds in its advertising the virtues of ?foreign? stock those self same magazines carry articles from industry experts and international alpaca judges extolling the virtues of those alpacas we already have in this country. Most breeders will have stood at the ringside and heard Judges tell the assembled throng that what we have is as good as anywhere else in the world. These are facts, some British judges have judged internationally, and are in a good position to comment, believe them. Add to this that many people cannot be bothered to show, and will have excellent alpacas in their paddocks and you can begin to have faith in our own industry.
The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence, and all importers, if pushed, would have to admit that not every alpaca from Australia, New Zealand or wherever is necessarily even ordinary, and that not every alpaca they have brought into the UK brings anything with it that cannot be bought here already. Ask yourself, why if all the imports are so good is it that so many actually lose in the show ring.
Not withstanding all of this, the most important lesson is to remember that irrespective of where an alpaca has come from, if it?s good it?s good, trite but true. If you want to be sure of what you are buying, make sure you have the knowledge to buy wisely, if you don?t have it, be trained. Whilst the rule of Caveat Emptor is oft quoted it is usually by the unscrupulous. We are much too small as an emerging industry to think that we can get away with allowing such an attitude, and we have a responsibility to make sure that we all behave with integrity.
Now to the killer blow! Most alpaca breeders are old enough to remember when the countries balance of payments was an important factor in its economic well-being. We need to think of our industry in such a way, and recognise that every dollar or pound that is spent on alpacas outside of these shores is money that will never circulate within our own industry. Simply put it goes to a breeder who has no interest in our long-term stability. Spend your money here and you will be encouraging not only existing breeders, but also more new breeders because you have become part of a vibrant marketplace that is plain for all to see.
We have shortly an event in the British Alpaca Futurity that promotes all that is best in this country. Support this event and you are truly beginning to understand and promote ?Best of British?. Look at the show results on the Continent and we could even be forgiven for thinking ?Best of Europe?, hmm, an export market perchance!