That first BAS inaugural meeting should have warned me about the parallel universe I was about to step into. It took place in Twyford Zoo and I suppose there were about 35 people there. It was a break away group from the Camelid Society that wanted a more dynamic organisation that would recognise the commercial aspects of alpacas and their product.
On the dais was the first committee made up from people who were well established alpaca owners of many years with the doyenne of the alpaca community, Pat Bentley, in the chair. The first drama of the Society took place within the first couple of hours of its creation when one member of the fledgling committee decided after a flaming row, most of which seemed to be in a code alien to those new to the game, to flounce out with all her papers under her arm. We all looked at each other and wondered what on earth that was all about. Within five minutes the door crept open and the disgruntled ex-member quietly slipped back in. There had been a very heavy snow fall outside and she was a passenger of another member and she had no access to the car. The meeting proceeded without further explosions and eventually the BAS was set in place ? but what a start.
It all started for me when back in 1996 I answered the phone. ?John, I have just bought a new property with 50 acres and am looking for something to do with the land ? you know rather more about this sort of thing. What do you think?? The caller was an old friend and ex-military colleague (and one time boss) Sir John Wilsey. I had done my training at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester and then gone on to be a land agent. I replied: ?I know rather more about working 5,000 acres than 50 but I will give it some thought?.
Shortly after, I went off to the Royal Show and duly investigated all the various alternative enterprises that were on offer. Lavender, ostriches, mohair goats, and worms were all well represented amongst many other things. I picked up all the literature and asked a few questions, the answers to which convinced me that these were not what my old friend was looking for. I also met the Australian Kelvin Maude, of Arunvale Alpacas, who was there with some of his newly arrived animals. I spent quite some time with him and all the answers he gave me were ringing the right bells. Not least he was not pushing a get-rich-quick scheme that some of the others seemed to be doing.
I returned with all the bumf and an offer to my friend that if he decided to go into alpacas I would join him. The result was Blackmore Vale Alpacas. Between us we owned 12 female alpacas. I believe we were about Arunvale?s second client.
In that first year we sold over 100 alpacas to new clients. Needless to say each and every one had to be brought over from Arunvale and I quickly got to know all the various routes to Gay Street Farm, Pulborough.
In those early days nearly all of those who bought alpacas were focused on making the industry commercially viable. There were no shows to worry about and we could focus on learning about the animals and their product; particularly the latter as there was a general consensus that we were in the business of pioneering a new commercial fibre production business. At the same time we realised we could not achieve this on our own. Over the first couple of years we quietly did our research and as a result of this we set out to put in place a fibre co-operative.
To demonstrate the strength of the enthusiasm for this we gathered together a meeting of about 90 like-minded members of the BAS at the little village hall of Ripple near Tewkesbury. This became the inaugural meeting of the first British Alpaca Fibre Co-operative with capital of about £350,000. The membership included nearly every member of the BAS. It was in 1997 that we obtained an invite to show off our animals at the Royal Bath and West Show for the first time. We were given a wonderful site with our own agricultural barn on one of the most prestigious sites in the show ground. Expansion of the industry was well under way.
In 1998 we decided to import our first stud male. Snowtex had originated in Texas but during his long and very successful career he had made his way up to Alberta from where we were allowed to import, without too much hassle, both him and his son. He arrived at Heathrow in a crate marked ?Danger ? this animal kicks!? Although his qualities might not put him in the front row of any show today, in those days he was an absolute star. He provided an uplift of quality for not only our own but also all our clients? Chilean animals that was very evident to us all. He had paid for himself within the first year. To this day his off-spring are all obvious by their very accurate kicking skills.
Meanwhile the BAS was getting itself into some form of order. It was not pretty and we did not look forward to AGMs with any enthusiasm. Good people stood for the board and left very disillusioned by the experience. At the Fibre Co-op there was a great deal of enthusiasm, albeit enthusiasm and optimism that were to prove to be somewhat unrealistic. We were too often told that what we had was of a quality that should really enthuse those delightful people in Italy who worked with the very top fashion houses and that top stores in London would be fighting to retail our finished products. All we needed was the right product and the ?break?. At this stage I was working part-time as the administrative officer for the Co-op providing the linkage between the board and the membership while we had a chief executive who dealt with the production side. He had been recruited from the textile trade and was the only person who really had any idea about textiles, fashion and the rag trade in general. It proved to be rather less experience and knowledge than we originally thought.
Prototype shawls, scarves, rugs were produced and were received with massive disinterest by the retail trade and massive disappointment by the members. For the millennium a special millennium rug was produced and pedalled with great enthusiasm by certain board members who used their very best persuasive powers to encourage sales to their clients and friends. I recall well how much that rug shed its fibres and I wonder if any of those rugs are still being used ? other than in the dog?s bed.
It was in 1999 that John Wilsey decided that our business was beginning to take up just too much of his time. He was the chairman of a large company and in addition he wanted to write a book, something that needed time and concentration. Meanwhile I wanted to continue to grow the business and to capitalise on all the work we had achieved over the previous three years. Thus it was that I sought out another old friend and recent client, Michael Brooke, who lived just over the hill from the Blackmore Vale herd and together we set up Alpacas of Wesssex.
By now we were attending many shows with our animals on a trade stand and also we had experienced our very first alpaca show class event - the first BAS National show at Purston Farm at which Blackmore Vale Alpacas had won the very first Supreme Champion Huacaya with Diana.
We had hoped for more success with the Fibre Co-op but it was not happening. However we were convinced that the product was all-important to the future success of not only our business but also of the industry. But how best to capitalise on this and to ensure that we could demonstrate to the public and to our clients exactly why we were not just breeding alpacas to sell on or to show off?
The result of our deliberations was a parallel business - Casa Alpaca, a shop in Bath selling finished product from Peru, which also involved our client Warren Breach and later Andrew Lakeman. Thus began my foray into the fashion industry and into retail. An experience which gave me a huge insight into the fragility of the whole retail business and a fascinating chance to work with the main manufacturers of alpaca garments in Peru and Bolivia. Twice a year this bachelor flew out to Lima and on to Arequipa, Cusco and La Paz to select and purchase lady?s clothes that would sell at a reasonable price in Bath. We found a delightful little shop on Pulteney Bridge which we fitted out appropriately. Soon we had some really enthusiastic and regular clients and I got to know the road from my home in Dorset to Bath extremely well.
The learning curve was high and trying to find people to advise us was not easy. The supply line from South America was very unpredictable. I quickly appreciated that to stock our shop for the new autumn/winter season we needed to have the goods available in the UK by July. To achieve this I needed to have selected and made my order by about the previous September. Not easy as I had no idea about the success of our previous lines until much later in the year. In addition we had to pay our suppliers at least 50% up front on the order so that they ?could buy in the fibre?. This was not good for our cash flow and I was sure the big retailers were not invited to do this when they made their orders. I also had to purchase each and every sample I brought home for others to comment on as I knew only too well my limitations on lady?s fashion. This long time frame was made worse by the Peruvian Factor, which readers with good memories may remember from a previous article of many years ago, part of which is a total inability by Peruvians to stick to a time frame of any sort.
So for the next few years I concentrated both on the shop business and the business and marketing side of the alpacas while Michael looked after the animals. He masterminded all the husbandry, the shows and supervised the various staff we took on, mostly from the Antipodes, who then resided in my house ? thus providing a valuable communication link between myself and the farm. We employed the absolute minimum of staff in the shop which meant that I spent about two days a week in Bath; a city I still love although I did get really rather bored with the view from our shop window, despite it being one of the finest in the city.
The first Fibre Co-op was proved to have been too optimistic and thus was born the second incarnation of that organisation. I stayed on to provide continuity and this time found myself on the Board. By now we had plenty of experience, much more knowledge but considerably less money to play with. We were much more realistic about our potential prospects and stuck to more basic products, introducing John Arbon to the wonderful world of alpaca fibre. Sadly the cash shortage and lack of support by breeders proved too much and this entity only lasted a couple of years.
Alpacas of Wessex had now invested in a number of stud males. After the success of Snowtex Michael and I had decided to head out to the state of Oregon for a weekend. It seemed really rather strange to be flying to the west coast of the USA just for two days but we had been advised that if we wanted to limit our choice we should head off to meet Greg Mecklem in Portland. The result of this foray was the arrival of Crusader, Samurai and Sunrise to add to our stud services.
Foot and Mouth was a real tester for all those in farming, no less for those in alpacas. It was our first experience of serious movement restrictions and, although we were lucky in that we were not directly affected, it was not an easy year. In addition we had just taken on our first member of staff. Thank goodness we had Snowtex and that we were lucky in not being close to an affected area.
Not content to stand still we decided to expand our gene pool by bringing in some Australian genetics. Thus started our long association with various Ozzie breeders - Janie Hicks of Coolaroo in NSW and Benoit and Philippa Ernst of Coricancha in Vic to name but two. Thus we acquired Fernando, Mateus, Julius and eventually Cosmos who actually was born in Wiltshire.
2002 saw the return of shows and now we were lugging, alongside our animals, lots of clothes around with us to up to 14 agricultural shows. This was not easy but we were well supported by our various partners and their wives. Just to complicate matters further we often had to attend show classes at the same shows. Michael and Susan and our various Antipodeans over the years (Henry, Tim, the gorgeous Alex, Ed, Phil, Jamie and the Zimbo Garth) all wore the white coat and I either manned the tent or the microphone.
I really cannot recall when this microphone business started at shows but once I was invited to commentate it seemed that I could not avoid it. I have always enjoyed public speaking but this was ridiculous. I find watching show classes hardly better than watching paint dry so this allowed me to occupy my mind and get over my very low boredom threshold. The challenge was to interest the visiting public while not boring the pants off those poor sods in the ring who had to listen to me wittering on for two or more days. I had one or two subsidiary challenges ? to cure the judges of their awful formulaic diatribes as they gave their oral reasoning (mostly successfully) and to bring the odd smile to the breeders as they stood for hours waiting their turn in the ring. Well-tried methods that were employed to raise a smile included long rambling stories concerning the Peruvian peasants and not least getting one mispronunciation of ?Langaaaaaton Alpacas? into each day?s commentary.
We had now imported males and females from Canada, Chile, the USA and Australia. It was only logical to have a punt on an import from Peru. I had established a very close relationship with a Kiwi working and living in Chile, Geoff Scott, going back to those early days when we were honoured guests at the Royal Bath and West Show (and before other breeders queered the pitch by offering to pay!). Geoff had established many excellent contacts throughout the altiplano, he was a highly experienced farmer of all types of livestock back in NZ and not least he had owned and bred alpacas for many years before moving across to South America. Best of all he was a mate whom I trusted in a part of the world where lived many sharks.
A number of memorable trips to Peru followed; some readers will recall some previous articles in which I wrote about the sometimes hilarious experiences we had out there. The wonderful Monyka Portacarrero was our Peruvian vet, interpreter and general fixer, Tim Hey provided the hang-over affect that Geoff and I should have had (his was brought on by altitude not whisky) and the ever versatile Oli Forge came for the experience and to keep our paperwork in order. On our first trip we also had a client in tow, the less said about that the better. We fought through the Peruvian Factor (see above) time and time again, we survived numerous near misses on the roads and tracks, we experienced one of the worst hotels in the world (and I have seen some!), we worked through the occasional food poisoning in unfortunate places and yet, as with most of my Army career, only the fun aspects remain firmly in my mind. Would I do it again? Yes, at the drop of a hat. We went to one of the most beautiful places in the world, which has not yet been sullied in any way by tourism, and experienced and saw things that are just not in the Lonely Planet guide.
Eventually we selected about 130 alpacas for ourselves and our clients. These then, after much expensive quarantine in Peru, had to fly to Switzerland where they stayed with the fantastic Emily Brown whose property is just above Lausanne. Each month, for six months, I would fly out there with Tim to carry out various husbandry matters and Emily was the most brilliant of hosts. I learnt about Swiss wines and was introduced to the local equivalent of a shabeen (the Irish illegal drinking dens) about which my lips are sealed or my mind too addled to remember. Eventually the alpacas were regarded as Swiss citizens and they could be put into formal quarantine to be brought into the EU and to Clouds Park, Wiltshire. As always, Richard Beale was there to facilitate, to smooth the path through bureaucracy and to calm shattered nerves.
Our shop in Bath was not doing as well as we had hoped. So we were now selling a whole range of quality country clothing from the Musto range in addition to what was a more limited range of alpaca garments. This resolved the problem of spring and summer clothing, for which alpaca garments are not really well suited. And after some serious analysis we decided that it was more important to make the shop ?wash its face? rather than stick to the original idea of ?affordable alpaca clothing?. Thus for about 18 months we became the ?Musto Shop? in Bath. Eventually we had to accept the inevitable. Our shop was really too small, in the wrong place and we lacked the cash and expertise to really make it work. It was now becoming an unnecessary distraction and in grave danger of losing money ? the decision to close was taken and I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. I will always regard that political put down ?He could not run a whelk store? with considerable disdain. Running any retail operation requires considerable skill and I doubt any of our politicians are capable of that sort of business acumen.
Meanwhile back at the Ranch, Tim had moved out from my house to go and live with Tracey and his Tasmanian father Bob had moved in. Bob and his wife, Diane, had been visitors the previous year and now Bob had come back for a couple of months to spend some quality time with his son and to help me with various jobs around the house. Tim?s departure to Wimborne did not go down well with his father. However my house was the better for all his work. Tim was now, with our blessing, beginning to set up his own herd. He had decided to specialise solely in black alpacas. As we only had two black animals, and they were both males, this was not a problem. We allowed Tim?s females to have access to them and as we were not going to be breeding black animals to sell on there was no conflict of interest.
One year later Tim decided that he was now ready to go his own way and set himself up in his own business. For about the first time since 2001 we had no colonial accents on the farm. We now had Dick, who had moved back from Israel where he had been a Kibbutz manager and territorial army sergeant major without losing his original Cornish accent after 35 years, and Louise, who was really our very first true local person having been brought up on a dairy farm just outside Shaftesbury. Also at this time we had the really knowledgeable and brilliant stockman Tina, (accompanied by her three collies) who was really well known locally as an outstanding shepherd. Tragically she went on to contract a terminal cancer.
Alpacas of Wessex by now was exporting animals all over Europe. By 2006 we could say that we had clients in every western European country apart from Denmark and Austria. In the UK we had a substantial client list, which stretched throughout the country, and we felt that we were now well established as one of the leading alpaca farms in Europe. Although we were not as large as some others we had some of the more famous stud males in the UK and we were invited to be part of the Futurity Group, which in 2006 put in place a new type of alpaca stand-alone show.
The British Alpaca Futurity was designed on a blueprint from the USA. The point of the event was to showcase the best of British breeding by only allowing alpacas to be shown that were born in Britain. All exhibiting alpacas had to be the offspring of a UK based male that had been nominated by his owner to be eligible. For the first time substantial cash prizes were to be available to the winners of each class and each colour championship. But the most prestigious prize of the event was to go to the stud males, both Huacaya and Suri, that had fathered the most prize winners. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the whole concept was that six of the country?s best-known breeders, some of whom had at times perhaps been rather ?over-competitive? with each other, were working together for the benefit of the whole community. This co-operation has continued from that day.
The first Futurity was held in November 2006 at Newbury show ground, inside the main grandstand building. Chas Brooke contributed his considerable event management expertise and, together with various administrative contributions from most of the six original sponsors, it was a rip roaring success. Needless to say, this being the alpaca industry, there were detractors. Perhaps it was because certain individuals were not invited to be the originating sponsors, perhaps it was a concern that it would compete with other BAS shows, perhaps it was just the usual antagonism to a new idea, but sadly a small group of embittered breeders took against it. This did not detract one iota from the bulk of the industry taking part and having an outstanding stand-alone show with lots of fun and entertainment thrown in on top. Not least it actually made sufficient profit to be able to send substantial funds to both the Quechua Benefit charity in Peru and to the British Camelids research fund. Most importantly the pens were full to overloaded and visitors came from all over the world.
The second Futurity due in November 2007 had to be postponed due to Bluetongue restrictions until February 2008. Newbury racecourse was extremely accommodating and actually this was the better month for showing as there was now rather more fleece on the animals to be judged. The only downside was that all the alpacas being shown for the first time had to be halter trained in the depths of winter. Not much pleasure for their owners. This show was even more successful than the first and as a result we all realised that actually we had outgrown Newbury Racecourse for subsequent years. The result was that the 2009 Futurity was moved to Stoneleigh Park (home of the Royal Show) where the show took over the building that we all knew as the Food Hall at the Royal. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Going back to 2007; in February Michael announced that he wished to retire at the age of 70 which was due to hit him in November of that year. This announcement made me sit up and think. Did I really want to continue with alpacas or should I use the opportunity to sell up and move on to new things? Looking back over my working life I realised that until 1996 I had never spent more than 2 years without a change in my role and I had now been in the same role for 12 years. I decided it was time to move on and find a new challenge. We quietly approached a few other breeders and after some months we received an offer that was satisfactory to us and on 27th February 2008 we handed over all the assets of the business to Di Davies and her partners and I started on my sabbatical year by disappearing for two months to Australia and New Zealand.
However this was not to terminate my connection with alpacas completely. A year before, and somewhat unwillingly, I had stood for the Board of the BAS ? something I had avoided like the plague for 10 years. I however had felt, perhaps somewhat immodestly, that having worked full time in every aspect of the alpaca industry I probably had more to contribute than most. Now after my first year as a board member, but having sold the business, I felt that I was beginning to come to grips with the rather arcane workings of the Society and I owed it to the industry to put something of my in-depth experience back into it. Most importantly I believed that much change was needed to the BAS to ensure that the alpaca industry was governed by a society that was going forward. It needed radical reviews of its procedures and not least it needed to become more pro-active in its role if we were to stand alongside the more advanced organisations elsewhere.
That final year was a real eye-opener. Over the years I had made so many friends throughout the industry ? some were clients, some were my competitors and others were just breeders whom I had got to know from shows and other activities. They were all hugely supportive of the Board even when discussing various issues with which we disagreed. However what shocked me were the few who felt it their duty to accuse the Board and others of nefarious activities and putting in place policies that were aimed at lining their own pockets. There seemed to me to be a deep distrust of those who volunteered their services to help govern the industry. Not least I was amazed at the vitriolic unpleasantness of some of the correspondence with which we had to deal.
We all know that politics in government can be thoroughly unscrupulous and nasty, but to see it at close quarters in a small breed society run by unpaid volunteers is not edifying. I became increasingly frustrated that our valuable meeting time was being side tracked by these few individuals pursuing their own interests and little time was left for proper discussion about the future direction of the Society. So, although I felt that I was leaving before many of the policies that I felt were vital to the long-term improvement of the Society had been put in place, I decided it was time to move on.
My final act was to attend the AGM. I felt it rather added symmetry to this article which started with the inaugural meeting of the Society and the introduction of politics even at the early stage. The 2009 AGM was even more bizarrely political and once again it became absolutely clear to me that much of what was being said was in a sort of political code which was way above the heads of many in the audience.
So 13 years of my life have been spent full time on one aspect of alpacas or another. It has often been challenging, not least during times of disease crisis throughout the agricultural community; it has provided plenty of excuse to travel, sometimes to places that I would never otherwise have seen; it has usually been great fun and on the whole I come away thinking that the industry has a great future. During the bad times I worry that there is not enough focus on the future of the product and that too much emphasis is placed on competition, marketing and shows. It has often been a roller-coaster ride and my one big regret has been that, despite the huge amount of effort and money put into developing a structure for the processing and marketing of the fibre and its product, none of the three entities that were the Fibre Co-op have been successful.
I shall be watching the alpaca industry with great interest over the next few years and I sincerely look forward to seeing it take off with great success. The alpacas, the delightful people of the altiplano and, not least, so many good, hard-working British breeders who have put so much money and effort into developing the industry ? they all deserve it.