Julia Corrigan Stuart
Until 2006 I was like most of the general public that you meet at the County and Craft shows who say ?Are they Llamas? Do they spit??
I had no inkling that I would ever have a herd of 60 alpacas when we decided to convert some derelict barns in the village of Ford, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire in 2005. We bought the barns, along with 18 acres of land and I spent two years converting them into our present home. It was whilst driving to and from the site, project managing, that I noticed some strange long-necked sheep, or so I thought at the time, on a bend in the road on my route. One day my curiosity finally got the better of me and I stopped to take a closer look and realised, showing my ignorance, that they were Llamas! I went home and told my husband Jamie about them and pointed them out the next time we passed. My curiosity was aroused and I started researching them on the web, only to find out that they were actually alpacas, not llamas and that they would not spit at you for the sake of it. To cut a long story short, once the barns were completed in 2007, the next phase was what would we do with the land? All around us were either traditional farms, with cows and sheep, or equestrian properties. I suggested alpacas to Jamie and I think he thought I was mad. I told him they were apparently great lawn mowers and easy to keep, but surprisingly that did not convince him and he told me I had to go and find out more about them. Hence, I found a local lady, who bred alpacas, namely Livanti Alpacas and booked an introductory course with the owner, Liz Barlow. The experience was amazing and extremely informative, being surrounded by so many fantastic alpacas, all different colours and sizes. Needless to say, I was seduced. I went home and said that it was alpacas or nothing. Jamie decided he had to check it out, so we arranged another visit and ended up buying 3 pregnant female huacayas there and then. These girls are still doing me proud to this day, producing cria that are doing extremely well on the show circuit and in the fleece shows - so thanks to Liz for helping me choose the right ones to start with.
Life with the alpacas went along brilliantly; I thought I had the most beautiful animals anyone could ever desire. I?d had some cria born and they were the bees-knees in my eyes, but me being me, likes to know everything I can about anything I am involved in, so decided to do the BAS Introductory course that was being held at Bozedown Alpacas in Whitchurch-on-Thames. Boy did I get a reality shock ? not only that I had never seen so many alpacas in one place, but that we were supposed to say what faults they had, as well as to delve into their fleece, as that was of utmost importance, but also the prices some of them would cost to buy. This experience was amazing and it made me realise that I needed to get serious about my breeding goals if I wanted to take my herd to the next level, to be able to compete seriously with the best in the industry, but not to have to pay huge amounts of money in the process ? it was all in the genes.
During 2012, Liz, who was by now my mentor and an extremely good friend, persuaded me to enter my first halter show ? only the biggest show around, The British Alpaca Futurity. I entered what I thought were my three best animals and when I turned up, felt like running away, as the quality of the animals in front of me was absolutely amazing. However, I decided that I might as well bite the bullet and participate as I was there, so nervously went in the ring, not knowing what to do. Luckily, Gary Naish was the ring steward and led me through the whole process ? thanks for that Gary, you gave me the confidence I needed to continue showing and actually to really enjoy the experience. Anyway, I was really chuffed by the end of the weekend as all of my animals had been awarded rosettes, with my fawn female,a home bred girl from one of my original three alpacas, getting a 2nd place in her class and was then in the line-up for the champion fawns ? I was obviously on the right track. Thus began the show ring and fleece show successes, where I met so many like-minded people and have made a lot of good friends ? you don?t see people sometimes from one year to the next, but it feels like it was only yesterday ? it is wonderful and my alpacas are doing me proud every time. I also take the opportunity to handle other herds? alpacas in the ring when they are short staffed and, recently, have managed to get my husband into the ring aswell.
At the end of 2012, it was decided that the BAS National Show was to be held at Bury Farm, near Leighton Buzzard ,my neck of the woods, so I decided to offer my services as I was a local. You can imagine the shock/horror when I saw the allocation of tasks sheet with my name beside National Fleece Show. I didn?t know anything about fleeces, let alone how to organise and run one. Panic set in, until again Liz said ?You can do it? It?s amazing how much confidence she had in me back then. Determined not to fail, I found out everything I needed to do and then waited for the fleeces to arrive. I must admit I think I pushed the postman, local courier services and, not forgetting Jamie and my boys John and Jack, to the edge, with hundreds of boxes and bags being delivered, but I think they have since forgiven me. After sorting through, checking the colours, weighing the fleeces and making sure they were all in the right classes, I set them out in our newly built agricultural barn, ready for judging. The morning of the fleece show arrived; with it the helpers and the judge. I was petrified. I gave everyone their duties and the day began ? I think they thought I was a Sergent Major. At the end of a very long day, with judging completed and the champions chosen, all I felt was utter relief. And to cap it all, the judge, Nick Harrington-Smith paid me the greatest compliment I had ever received: he said it was the best organised fleece show he had judged in a long time ? he was probably only being kind, but I took it at face value and was extremely chuffed. The only thing left was to get all the fleeces up to Bury Farm for display at the Halter Show. I thought I had finished, but then remembered I had been asked to train two of my alpacas to do an agility race against camels and ponies at the Gala Dinner. Do I have mug written on my forehead or something? Anyway, I attempted to train two alpacas post haste, how to jump jumps and go round poles etc and got two young handlers to work with them and to take them around the course at the dinner. The evening arrived and everything appeared to be going well, the entertainment was fantastic. There was an interval so I decided to check that my handlers were all ready to do the race but found that they were suffering from an acute case of stage fright ? they wanted me to go in with them. Note, I was wearing a little black dress, had had a few drinks and was not prepared for this at all. On went the white coat and luckily, as the weather was awful, I had brought some flat boots with me. To cut a long story short, I ended up running twice up and down the massive arena behind my alpacas to make sure that they did the course, much to the amusement of the audience. The only way I lived this down was the fact that we actually won the race.
Back on the farm, life went on with births going well and good genetics coming through from my breeding decisions. I also attended the BAS Advanced Course, as well as helping out when handlers were needed for other courses, always craving more knowledge about these wonderful animals ? needless to say I was becoming obsessed.
However my husband felt that my hobby was getting a bit out of hand as we now had about 40 alpacas, so it was time to try and make some money to keep him sweet. I decided to have a website created, thus CS Alpacas became a business rather than a hobby, offering high quality alpacas with very good genetics for sale, alongside alpaca experiences and walks, agistment services and turning my hand to knitting with alpaca yarn that I had had processed by the East Anglia Mill, to make gloves etc to sell to the public. I got a trade stand at the Bucks County Show and rocked up with six yearlings and my goods. To my delight, I found that people loved what they saw and were, more importantly, extremely interested in everything alpaca related. They booked up walks and experiences for the future and also purchased alpaca products. Since then, I have been to many craft fayres and have also gained a stand at the Herts County Show. All of the above: the courses, shows and fayres, has given me the confidence to pass on the correct information about alpacas, knowing that it is the quality of the alpaca that is important, its fibre and whether it is fit for purpose, not for it to be seen as just a cute teddy bear or eco-friendly lawn mower.
In September 2013, I attended the Classic Auction event held at Bozedown Alpacas, run by Mary-Jo Smith and Nick Harrington-Smith of the Alpaca Stud. This was the most amazing weekend, seeing the best of the best, attending fantastic seminars and then being able to bid at the auction to acquire some of their amazing genetics to put into my herd. I had made a decision earlier in the year that I would like to expand into suris. I was extremely fortunate and came away with two pregnant suris, one with cria at foot and a lovely white female huacaya.
Into 2014 and I was asked to host the National Fleece Show yet again. This time I was not worried, as I had learned so much about fleece from the last show and all the other courses I had attended about alpacas, as well as having as much hands on experience as I could get. So, with my merry band of helpers, who I could not do without, we all had a great time and the show was again a success. I have also taken over the Heart of England Alpaca Group Autumn Fleece show and hope that it will be just as successful as the previous shows.
What with all the above, birthing and mating seasons, walks and joining the BAS welfare committee, time flew by. Life was good, but I still felt I had more to learn about alpacas to make my herd an even greater success, so decided to attend the BAS Judges Stage One course, primarily to become more knowledgeable about alpacas, rather than to become a judge. I am extremely happy, though slightly surprised, to say that I passed. I am now booked on the Judges Stage Two course in October?
Recently I attended the 2014 Classic Auction event for my second time and was just as successful, purchasing a pregnant huacaya with cria at foot and a pregnant suri.
Work never ends on the farm, what with obtaining more land to house the alpacas, fencing, continual upkeep of paddocks and most importantly, making sure my alpacas are happy, healthy and halter trained. I am constantly assessing them to decide on the correct matings for each individual alpaca for the following year. I also have to factor in the public to this busy schedule. Imparting the correct information to potential buyers or those who want to learn more by the experience days, or just to walk an alpaca, is of utmost importance. This means that when my alpacas move to their new homes, their new owners have the knowledge and confidence required, to look after them properly, knowing I always provide aftercare if needed.
It?s amazing to realise how far I have come in such a relatively short space of time, from not knowing the difference between llamas and alpacas, to realising the importance of genetics in creating a very successful alpaca business. I still have more to learn, this industry evolves all the time and I can?t wait to see what 2015 brings.