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Letter from France Spring 2008

Andy Spillane

Shearing is an important and tense time for all alpaca owners and breeders, but somewhat more so for those in France. With only one French shearer available with too much work and fairly unreliable as to availability, we have to rely on bringing in shearers from the UK. Down here in the south we try to shear in the last week in April. This fits in well for the UK shearers as their season has not really started by this time. Normally this coincides with the start of warmer weather here as well. To make cost effective use of our shearer?s time and minimise transport and other costs, I organize a circuit for alpaca breeders in the south west and this is followed by a circuit in the north west organized by Robin Hodge. Planning normally starts in November, with France being such a vast country we need to keep road travel to a minimum where possible and this incurs considerable work in planning the itinerary. Inevitably new breeders appear out of the woodwork at the last minute demanding their animals be shorn. This causes significant disruption and very long days for the shearer if they are to be accommodated. Knowing alpacas need to be shorn annually and the temperatures experienced here one would think owners might like to plan ahead. Fortunately for all, Colin Ottery is an easy and patient man and we have so far managed to fit everyone in. We have a huge old oak tree in the small paddock next to our handling pens, and for the past four years we have used this for shade when shearing. We were due to shear on Monday and the spring rains conveniently stopped on the previous Tuesday allowing the ground to dry out. High temperatures were forecast and yet again I looked to the oak tree for shade. Checking the weather forecast on Friday morning I got a very nasty shock, all had changed with storms promised for Sunday night and torrential rain for Monday. Obviously we have barns, but if used for shearing we do not have enough cover for a herd of our size to keep dry overnight prior. Also their layout is not ideal for a fast flow rate. The idea of shearing in heavy rain appealed even less. One of our barns has a small side door into a large mating pen and I decided to build a simple car port type structure against this wall on Saturday afternoon. I drew up a simple spec and purchased the materials on Friday afternoon. After a rather nerve wracking drive home with 6 metre long beams poking out of the back window of my Espace I was ready to begin. Luckily I had managed to avoid knocking anyone off their bicycle as I turned corners en route. Gilles, our kind and ever helpful neighbour, agreed to help me build the frame on Saturday afternoon. It was to be the hottest day of the year so far at 27c and much hotter than that in full sun against a south facing wall. Nevertheless we completed and covered the 60 square metre frame in three hours. The cost of materials so far just over 200. Obviously we did not have time to cover it with solid roofing so used a heavy duty tarpaulin instead as a temporary measure. We brought all our females, geldings and youngsters up to the barn on Sunday afternoon, just in time as it happened. Sunday evening and night were wracked by heavy storms, one after another. Our friends arrived early Monday morning to help as steady rain set in for the day. With a short break for a barbeque at lunch time, I barbeque all year regardless of weather under a huge stoep, we completed all but the stud males that day. With the studs in overnight to dry we quickly finished shearing on the Tuesday morning amidst yet further torrential rain. Good thing too, that afternoon the tarpaulin tore free of our structure, ripping in half under the weight of water. The frame is undamaged and we will now properly roof it as a permanent shearing shed. I must say, I still preferred shearing under the oak tree, but it was better to be dry. One significant change this year to our shearing, Colin used a new type of blade. The Lister blade leaves just a little more fleece on the animal and to my eye this greatly improves the appearance of the shorn alpaca. More important perhaps is the added protection against cold and rain or, as in previous years, very strong and hot sun. At the end of his ten days shearing in the south west Colin joined me at the Alpagas et Lamas de France annual show at Saint-Paulien high in the mountains of the Auvergne. The show was held in a superb new facility on the edge of this delightful small town. Unfortunately due to its remoteness the entries were disappointing in terms of numbers, no foreign entries or from the northern half of France. The quality of the entries, however, was excellent. The other disappointing factor, and this applied equally to the show held by Alpaca Development at Vierzon, a very low turnout of the general public to see the show. The three previous ALF shows had been held in conjunction with a major rural event and there is no doubt this is vital to bring in the public, over 30,000 at the shows held at St Aulaye for example. This public exposure is so important for the development of our industry yet France seems slow to learn the lesson. Both alpaca and lama classes were judged by Nick Harrington Smith, so a full work schedule for him despite restricted numbers. He declared he was highly impressed by the quality of animals presented, both alpaca and llama. Nick proved very popular with his patient good humour and detailed reasoning and explanation of his decisions, the latter being vital to us all as we try to improve our herds for the future. An added feature to the show was a demonstration of both alpaca and llama shearing and teeth trimming by Colin, this process fascinating the public that attended. This year's shows have been a new experience for me. Previously I have organized shows and acted as ring steward. Despite our herd winning numerous classes and gaining a supreme championship and a couple of reserves I had never previously trained or handled an animal in the ring. This had always been our daughter?s speciality. Now with a suri herd of her own she was fully committed so it was up to me. My wife and I trained three young females and entered the Vierzon show. Nicky stayed home to look after the herd and I set off with some trepidation. Luckily it all passed off well and we gained best grey female with a pretty little alpaca called Dainty. Feeling somewhat more confident I set off for St Paulien with three of our stud males. I included an older mid brown male called Valdez, I have always felt his quality was underrated, but at 8 years old did not have any great expectations for him. Indeed he was lucky to still be entire, a shy animal he gave no sign of interest in mating until he was four and a half, we had more or less decided to castrate him despite his magnificent fleece. As Nick parted his fleece I noticed the surprise on his face but had no idea of what was to come. You can imagine my surprise and joy when he was made Reserve Supreme Champion behind the Lion's superb young white, Mondoo Alpagas de Sologne. It made the five hour drive each way over the high Massif Centrale all seem worthwhile. I must just mention the Supreme Champion Lama, Christian Clement's Onyx, a magnificent solid black male. As a final note, looking at the progeny classes it seems Gandalf is a wizard after all. The Results Supreme Champion Huacaya Alpaca Mondoo Alpagas de Sologne Reserve Valdez Beauvautrait Champion Huacayas White Mondoo Alpagas de Sologne reserve Saphira Alpagas de la Tille Fawn Tchicano Alpagas de Sologne reserve Stella Alpagas de la Tille Brown Valdez Beauvautrait reserve Saturne Alpagas de la Tille Black Vargus Beauvautrait reserve Bolivia Alpagas de Sologne Grey Fidas de la Grange Mynas reserve Folavoine de la Grange Mynas Huacaya Sire?s Progeny Gandalf Bozedown at Alpagas de la tille Supreme Champion Suri Alpaca Zena de Grande Fouilleze Reserve Yasmine de Grande Fouilleze Suri Sire?s Progeny Gandalf de Grand Fouilleze