It was in1995 that I first discovered alpacas and like most people I immediately fell in love with this enchanting animal. It didn’t take long to make the decision to enter the industry and start to breed alpacas. I now breed both huacayas and suris in Tasmania, Australia, and have always had a passion for the fibre they produce. As I found myself getting my hands on every alpaca I could to asses their fibre qualities, I realised that this was a skill I wanted to develop further. I already had experience as a wool classer in New South Wales and so moving into the assessment of alpaca fibre was a natural progression. In 1999 I attended an Australian Alpaca Association judges’ workshop that included a combination of a written exam and a mock show where you were asked to judge classes of huacaya and suri and give your oral reasons. Fleece classes were also presented and judged. This weekend was run under the scrutiny of some of Australia’s most experienced and senior judges. Then came the next two weeks of waiting for a letter or phone call, did I pass? It was with great pleasure that I was informed that I had been accepted as an AAA apprentice judge. I have consequently gone on to become a fully qualified AAA judge and have had the privilege of judging alpacas throughout Australia and New Zealand.
This leads me to the question, how subjective is the judging process? Winners rarely ask the question, but I have no doubt that some losers have been tempted to. My answer would be that it is no more subjective than in a court of law, where the judges may be eccentric but where the law itself usually wins through. Alpaca judges are all different characters but the rules of judging keep our decisions within certain parameters. It would be unusual for two judges to disagree over whether a particular animal had good conformation or not, whether a fleece was lacking in lustre or not and so on. However, in the last analysis, where two animals are being considered for a ribbon and there seems little to choose between them, it is possible that some sort of personal preference may decide the issue. This is what gives you individuality as a judge, your likes and dislikes.
The crucial point to keep in mind is that the alpaca is bred for its fleece and the judging process is used to determine which animals, in the judge’s opinion, have the best fleeces according to criteria required by manufacturers. Whilst this may seem obvious, it needs emphasizing. In the U.K, as in Australia, the U.S.A. and Europe, indeed everywhere alpacas are raised other than in South America, the industry is still in its infancy. New breeders are constantly being attracted to try their hand and, as a consequence, there is an ongoing market for the sale of animals. This can be a lucrative business and almost all alpaca breeders make their living this way. We must remember, though, that this cannot continue for ever and that, when the market reaches saturation point, the breeders who will thrive will be those whose animals have superior fleeces. That, therefore, is primarily what I am looking for when I step into the judging ring.
So what is the process I go through when judging an animal as it is led into the ring? Firstly, I have each alpaca parade in front of me to check for conformation, that is 35% of the judging process. I check its conformation from the side view and again as the alpaca walks away from me. If I am unable to check conformation correctly on an alpaca that is not walking properly due to being nervous or a surface that it is not comfortable walking upon, I will ask the handler to parade their alpaca again until I am satisfied. I always respect the fact that the handler has gone to the trouble to present their alpaca in front of me and therefore they deserve the chance to have their alpaca judged. Once all the alpacas in the class are lined up I check them all once more from behind to check for conformation, the slope of the rump and length of the tail. I then take the opportunity to look at the lineup from the front checking again for conformation, coverage and presence. I must also add that I am always looking out for my Supreme Champion. I then approach the first alpaca from the front and check the bite, eyes, and ears and feel the muzzle for softness. I then check for the body score and check the tail. On males I check the testicles but I am not as tough on Junior Males for testicle size as I am for the older classes. However, I certainly take this into consideration when I am presented with junior males that are extremely close in their fibre qualities. I then open the fleece in three spots, the shoulder, mid side and hip.
What do I want to see when I open a huacaya fleece? (60%)
I love to open that first fleece in the line-up and I want to see a fleece that opens cleanly showing a highly aligned staple formation, a high frequency, high amplitude crimp style that is uniform from the skin to the tip of the staple. It must have excellent brightness, density, fineness and handle, this is the feel of the fleece. Two equally good fleeces may handle quite differently. I also check for lack of medulation and any coloured fibre within the fleece. I will pull out any alpacas from the line-up that I consider are worthy of a ribbon and by the time I have reached the end of the line-up I usually have placed the alpacas in order. When I have alpacas that are very close in fibre qualities, which is happening more and more often, I will inspect the fleece to see how far the character travels down the legs, belly, the brisket and tail and if it is present up the neck, bonnet and cheek. I am also looking for uniformity of crimp style during this process as the higher the quality of fleece in these areas the more valuable it is to the grower and the manufacturer. Fineness, which relates to the alpaca’s micron reading, is a prime requirement. I also take coverage into consideration as the first placed alpacas will be in the Championship line up and therefore must look like a Champion.
Naturally of course, other factors play an important part. Never underestimate the effect on a judge of a beautifully presented animal (5%), handled skillfully and professionally by its owner. If that well-presented and handled animal finds itself in the final line-up, the judge will be, at the very least, well disposed towards it. In the end though, I repeat it is the fleece quality that counts the most. It is the judge’s most challenging task to balance the good qualities and failings of one animal against those of another and to decide which is better. I believe that the essential thing is to be consistent and make quite clear why I came to my decision in my comments after judging a class. In this way breeders can be educated and assured they are on the right track or take steps to include in their breeding programme alpacas to improve deficits in their herds.
What do we make of the instances when an alpaca is placed first in its class at one show and not even placed at another? Assuming that the quality of alpacas was the same at both shows, which could be the case, one should bear in mind that the same alpaca can present quite differently on two occasions. It may be unwell or upset or the weather or show venue may have affected it. Serious breeders should always be prepared with electric fans to cool their alpacas in hot or humid conditions. A beautiful looking fleece with high density can collapse and look quite ordinary unless steps are taken to counter this.
What I love to see in the show ring are well presented alpacas and handlers. This sets the standard of professionalism for the industry. I am always aware of good handlers, they never take their eye off the judge, never get in the way of their alpaca to spoil my view and are always ready to listen to any instructions given by the judge or ring steward.
I look forward to the line up of black alpacas because I find them a spectacular sight and consider all the coloured alpacas something we breeders should cherish; they are unique to the breed. The older classes such as Mature are one of my favourites as you are hoping to see what we all aspire to breed, an older alpaca that is still producing high quality, fine fibre. I also enjoy judging the sire’s progeny class as this shows us what each sire is capable of producing; this is when I am looking for peas in a pod so to speak.
I take great pride in awarding ribbons and there is nothing more rewarding for the breeder than when they are placed in the show ring. The biggest moment is the awarding of the Supreme Champion and I love the moment when I approach the owner of the alpaca and see the sense of achievement and joy on their faces.
When I step into the show ring, I try to clear my mind of everything else and judge what I see - not what I expect to see or hope to see. What is more, coming from Australia back to the land of my birth, I shall have no preconceptions at all and greatly look forward to the opportunity of judging some of England’s finest alpacas. I am convinced that alpaca garments, either in pure alpaca or combined with other natural or man made fibres, have a very bright future and that is why I enjoy the privilege of judging. The more the industry is encouraged to compete in a fair and friendly manner, the higher the quality of a country’s herd will become. In that way we all benefit.