Tyrone alpaca breeders' joy at champion of UK crown
A Co Tyrone couple's obsession with alpacas has taken them to the top of the breeding chain after one of their herd landed a major prize.
Roger and Elaine Clarke, both 40 and from Clogher, got their first three animals in 2006 not long after getting married.
Since then their stock has risen - in numbers and quality.
They provide a home for more than 60 of the South American beats on their Amberly Alpacas estate, and they can now boast the best alpaca around after one landed the Supreme Champion award at the biggest show in the UK.
Nineteen-month-old Popham Gabine - better known as 'Diva' - claimed the top prize at the the British Alpaca National last week.
The two-day show in Telford, Shropshire, attracted the top breeders from across the UK, with over 600 animals competing.
Native to Peru, Chile and Bolivia, there are two breeds: Huacaya, with their teddy bear looks, and Suri, with their long, shiny locks.
And while the Clarkes keep both, their champion is an Huacaya.
"We knew she was special when we got her at six months old," Elaine explained.
"This is what we have been aiming for, to breed the best quality in the UK or Ireland.
"My husband has been obsessed with alpacas since we first brought one home to live with us.
"The aim now is to keep on improving in quality."
And it seems Roger's obsession with the animals knows no bounds.
Last October the couple made the long trek to Peru, where they visited the annual Alpaca Fiesta to see the animals in their home environment.
Principal of Carntall Primary School, Roger is even in the final stages of training to be a judge, which would see him travel around the country to all the major shows.
"I guess obsession is the word!" added Elaine, who has helped turn that love of all things alpaca into a small, thriving business, not only in breeding the animals, but also selling a range of alpaca fleece clothing, including socks, shawls and soft furnishings.
"It's all about reinvesting to produce the best quality," said Elaine, who works as a chiropractor.
"With Diva we can now hopefully take that to another level."
Diva, despite being owned by the couple, has yet to set foot on these shores.
"She lives in the south of England," Elaine explained.
"There seemed little point in bringing her to Co Tyrone to live with us as we knew she was going to be aiming for shows.
"There's only one show in Northern Ireland every year, and though there are quite a few in the south of Ireland, we're not eligible to compete as we live in the north.
"You need to be in England. That's where all the major breeders and all the main shows are - and she's now won the biggest of the lot and we're thrilled."
It has taken a lot of scientific study and careful selection of quality to get the couple to the top of the alpaca breeding game.
Elaine explained: "When we started this we had around two acres of land and were thinking about what to do with it. Alpacas looked great and we decided to get some back in 2006. It's grown from there.
"We have over 60 of them now, but the numbers are changing all the time.
"We sell on quite a lot of them across Ireland, the UK and Europe.
"They're wonderful creatures, great trekking animals, but we're in this for breeding show quality now.
"And their fleeces can be used for anything from insulating attics to making carpets and rugs. They're known for the highest quality fine garments, they're so much more than just a cuddly face.
"You do need to be serious if you want to keep one as a pet, though.
"They need the usual shelter, hay and vaccinations. You need to be dedicated if you want to keep one properly.
"But they're fantastic creatures, friendly and inquisitive. They'll always come over to see what's going on and you can let them eat out of your hand.
"We run basic courses in how to look after them, progressing to breeding them."
The couple are hoping for even bigger things in the future - and the first step to that is finding Diva the best quality boyfriend.
"That's our next aim," said Elaine. "We need to get her the right man and take it from there.
"Her father won the same title four years ago so we've definitely got family history on our side.
"Hopefully winning the crown means we improve even more."