My husband Mike and I founded Fallowfield Alpacas in 1995. Despite a considerable amount of prior research, we had no clear breeding goals at the outset, other than knowing that we wanted the best animals that we could afford. This certainly proved to be the right approach to take, but the challenge was being able to recognise good alpacas from bad.
I decided early on that to maximise enjoyment out of our alpacas, I would need to learn as much as I could, starting with their welfare. I enrolled on a range of courses from Camelid Dynamics, Cameron Holt?s Fibre Workshop to Claire Whitehead?s Neonatal course at Bozedown. It was a fast learning curve. We now run our own courses at Fallowfield to teach new breeders the necessary husbandry skills. Mike and I feel strongly that potential alpaca owners should know what is involved in buying alpacas and how to look after them correctly, with back up as required.
My competitive streak quickly came to the fore when we took our alpacas to shows and we started winning rosettes but soon it was the broad sashes that I coveted and this could only be achieved by having the knowledge to understand and improve our breeding goals.
When the opportunity arose to attend Part One of the Judge Training Programme, I jumped at the opportunity, as a means of learning more about the desirable traits to look for in alpacas. Having passed the Part One exam, I saw no reason for not continuing my alpaca education and I enrolled for Part Two. These courses are challenging in a variety of ways particularly learning how to oral reason, intelligently, your judging decisions. I can remember trying to memorise alternatives to the word ?nice?. The exams on the final day are very demanding with much to do in a very short timeframe. Thankfully the effort was well worth it and I passed.
At this point I really thought that my judge training days were over. The qualifications and knowledge I had gained so far allowed me to act as an Inspection Steward at a variety of shows including the Nationals and the Westmorland Show and Chief Steward and Show Organiser at both The Border Union Show in Kelso and the Northumberland Show. Working as a Chief Steward teaches you a great deal about what is involved in showing alpacas from both the Judge?s and the breeders? perspectives. All this time, I was gaining knowledge and experience and increasing in confidence ? sufficient to allow me to trust my judgement when purchasing a first rate stud male, Houghton King.
Then, early in 2011, the opportunity arose to sit the new BAS Stage Two Judge Training Course. I quite surprised myself when I found myself even considering it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I really could do it and what?s more ? enjoy it. I always tell potential new breeders that they have to enjoy owning their alpacas otherwise there is no point in having them and I think the same applies to being an alpaca judge.
One of the downsides of all of these training courses is the cost involved, particularly when you live at the opposite end of the country. The first two parts of my training took place at Langaton Alpacas in Devon and the third at Bozedown Alpacas. For those who have not gone through the training process, it is easy to suggest that there should be other training venues throughout the country. However, I do think that it is a question of having sufficient top-quality Huacayas and Suris in one venue and not just being able to round up a quantity of alpacas irrespective of their quality. I succeeded in obtaining funding for some of my training through Business Link, which made a useful contribution.
I was conscious that the oral reasoning was particularly challenging and so prior to going to Bozedown, I paid particular attention to Liz Barlow?s technique at the Futurity last February making copious notes in my ?little black book?. You learn so much from listening carefully to experienced judges. Then it was down to work, studying and memorising the BAS Show Rules and Fleece Judging Manual. Despite the reassurance of my family and friends, I was seriously NERVOUS when the day came. There were six of us on the course ? four from the UK and two from Belgium. We very quickly developed a great camaraderie and there were frequent exclamations of ?I must be mad to be doing this?! Our tutors were Liz Barlow and Nick Harrington Smith, assisted by Mary-Jo Smith. This was a great line-up. Not only did we have the wealth of experience of Liz and Nick, but I found it extremely beneficial to get the feedback from Mary-Jo who had only fairly recently qualified as a judge herself and could therefore see things from both perspectives.
After a classroom session, our first view of alpacas was of a group that displayed clearly obvious conformational faults ? if only it were going to be that easy. We went on to practise judging groups of four suris and four huacayas and then progressed to six suris and six huacayas. To the uninitiated, the move up from four to six animals might seem infinitesimal, but to us trainees it was another world. The challenge was to not only observe the differences between the animals, but to retain the information when stepping away and then remembering the main points in one?s oral reasoning. As you can imagine, when asked to give our placings, you automatically assumed that you had got it wrong if you had a completely different running order to the others. Fortunately, this was not always the case. Even the seemingly innocuous task of correctly holding the microphone proved challenging on occasions, as we were often seen and videoed waving the said implement around in the air when seeking inspiration. The final exam of Stage Two consists of a written test, huacaya and suri fleeces to be judged and huacaya and suri halter classes. By the time you complete all the sections, you feel absolutely drained as you are working under strict time constraints, with total concentration.
A short time later, I got the news to hear that I had passed Stage Two ? fantastic.
The next stage of training is to carry out 50 alpaca assessments ? 25 huacaya and 25 suri - to help with the oral reasoning and then we have to do at least six judging apprenticeships before we are able to sit our final certification exam. It is excellent working with a variety of judges as they all have different techniques and ways of working. Both halter and fleece shows need to be included in the apprenticeships. Inevitably there are occasions when if you hadn?t been working as an apprentice judge, you would have been showing your own alpacas or fleeces, but that?s life. I have had three apprenticeships so far, but my intention is to complete as many as possible before Certification Day next November. As trainee judges, we are trying to accrue the same amount of knowledge as those who have been judging for up to 15 years, so it is a steep hill to climb. As breeders, we are so used to seeing the BAS judges work totally professionally, paying great attention to detail and giving clear, concise reasoning. These skills are hard earned.
My first experience as an apprentice judge was in July 2011 at the Border Union Show in Kelso. It was lovely to be back at this Show as the alpacas are hugely popular there. It is also possibly the only composite alpaca show in the UK. I am very grateful to Rob Bettinson who was the show judge for all his help, good humour and patience and to the organisers of the show for allowing me to be involved. Having judged the fleeces on the Friday, we then judged the alpacas on the Saturday. Rob would get me to give him my placings, which we would then discuss and I was sometimes allowed to take the microphone and reason some of the classes. Although I was initially nervous, I got a huge buzz from doing it and was very appreciative of all the encouragement received.
My second outing was at the Yorkshire Alpaca Show in October 2011, under the tutelage of Tim Hey. Needless to say, I was anxious to do well and felt a complete idiot when, in one of the early classes, I was sent flying across the ring by a nervous alpaca. So much for the cool, calm, professional look. Having dusted myself down, I continued with the job in hand. It was only halfway during the afternoon that I realised that my acrobatics had resulted in a snapped tendon on one finger. Not an occupational hazard I had actually envisaged. I enjoyed working with Tim, who spent so much time teaching me how to improve my technique and presentation skills and appreciated the goodwill and the patience of the show organisers and breeders alike.
My last apprenticeship to date was in November 2011 at the Scottish National Fleece Show. There were 149 fleeces to be judged, mainly huacaya. Rob Bettinson was the judge with his wife Shirley as his ?companion animal? as she is affectionately termed, when not in apprentice judging mode herself. Once again he endeavoured to pass on his knowledge that he has acquired over many years. This was my first experience of judging a quantity of fleeces at one event and was a lesson to me on the levels of concentration and stamina required as we would start at 8.30 in the morning and not finish until about 6.30 pm. We were well looked after by the show organisers and grateful to have been given high tables to work on thus avoiding any backache. Although it is tiring, dirty work, seeing the different qualities in so many fleeces was illuminating.
In my opinion, there are not many negative aspects of training to be an alpaca judge. It is a time-consuming, unpaid role that carries huge responsibility and is both physically and mentally demanding. However the pluses far outweigh the minuses. Through your training, you acquire a thorough knowledge of the positive and negative traits of alpacas, the show rules and the fleece judging manual, all of which are a huge help with your own breeding aspirations. As judges, you get the opportunity to inspect high quality alpacas and meet new people from home and abroad and you have the satisfaction of putting something back into the industry that continues to develop and gives us so much pleasure.
In short, would I recommend training to be an alpaca judge ? definitely YES!