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This article first appeared in Cavies magazine in February 2001.

Thank you, Cavies, for permission to use it in this website. Readers are encouraged to subscribe to Cavies, the only magazine published by and for the Cavy Fancy.

CAVIES MAGAZINE (February 2001)

WHAT’S IN THE SHED? MALCOLM ATKINSON  (Interviewed by Peter Gammie)

  The end of Summer 2000 saw us venturing into the North Yorkshire Moors National Park for the second time in this series of articles.  Our first visit a few years ago was near the southern edge of the Moors, to that much loved fancier, Jim Johnson, sadly no-longer with us, so it was fitting that on this occasion we should have the opportunity to visit two of his closest friends in the Fancy.  Travelling over the lofty moor road, firstly the sea came into view, next the famous Abbey on its precipitous cliff, and then we almost tumbled out of the heather down into the fascinating and picturesque town of Whitby, divided by the River Esk into two parts, the one an ancient fishing port and the other an attractive seaside resort.  And it was on the eastern outskirts of the town that we found the home of another very long serving and popular North Yorkshire Fancier, Malcolm Atkinson and his wife Olive.

The Subject

  Malcolm is Whitby born and bred, and has been involved in farming locally for all of his working life.  And it was farming which provided his first introduction to the Cavy Fancy when, having kept cavies as pets since he was a young boy, in 1973 he noticed an article in a local farming magazine about Connie Cooper, an esteemed Tort & White specialist from the town of Pickering on the other side of the Moors.  Young Malcolm soon became the proud owner of some pure bred T&W’s (a breed he has kept continuously ever since), and was now firmly embarked on the hobby from which he has obtained so much pleasure ever since.

  For his first few years in the Fancy, Malcolm’s showing was restricted to the few shows in the Whitby area, including the very popular Egton Agricultural Show, but he soon expanded his horizons to become a regular exhibitor to the shows throughout the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside.  Even now, due to the very long distances involved, and in particular the long journey over the moors whenever going south, Malcolm only finds it possible to travel further afield when justified by special events such as National Cavy Club Shows or Stock Shows for the breeds he keeps.

  In 1976, Malcolm decided to add a more “competitive” breed to his stud, and acquired some PE Whites from Jim Johnson followed in 1980 by the breed with which he is best known for and with which he has achieved very substantial success over the years, Silver Agoutis from the strain of that maestro of the breed (also featured previously in this series), Vic Bailey from County Durham.  Throughout his years with Whites, Malcolm faced a problem of having to compete at virtually every show he attended with Jim Johnson, who at this time was one of the top breeders of this colour in the Country.  Shortly after acquiring his first stock from Jim, Malcolm advised his mentor that his ambition was to beat him if it took him 10 years – a feat he did achieve, but only after 9 years!  Malcolm found that with Jim being unable to show during summer months due to work connections and Malcolm himself having other commitments, he seldom had the chance to compete with his Whites in good competition, and when he did that show preparation let his stock down, although he did achieve reasonable success, including winning an u/5 breed class at Bradford Championship Show.  Malcolm tells a highly amusing story of how, when he pressed Jim to disclose his secrets of successful show preparation, he was told the key was to wash the cavies in “moor water” rather than “sea water”, offering to sell him bottles of the former for this purpose!

  In 1987 Malcolm changed from Whites to Creams, again a breed he has kept ever since.  Another breed with which he is currently enjoying great success is Black Dutch, which he has kept on and off over the years, but particularly since 1995.

The Shed

  This is 14ft by 18ft and of timber construction, with a wire mesh door on one end and a large window along one side.  It houses 50 pens, all of the same size (2 foot x 2 foot x 15 inches), at window height along one side to provide a large area for food preparation and grooming (separate areas allocated for Mr and Mrs Atkinson!)  The pens were all built by Malcolm personally and have seen many years good service, but are very sturdy and will no doubt continue to serve their purpose for many years to come.  Each pen provides comfortable accommodation for a pair or trio as Malcolm does not like keeping more than this number of animals together, except sometimes when a larger group of T&W’s may be kept for breeding purposes.

  Malcolm tries to keep each of the breeds in the Stud housed in the same area of the shed so far as possible, one bank of pens housing Dutch at the top with Silvers below on one side and Creams on the other, and those under the window housing T&W’s on one side, and Olive’s Golden Agoutis and Chocolates on the other.

Feeding time in Malcolm's large Cavy Shed.

Feeding, Breeding & Management

  The cavies are comfortably bedded on wood shavings and hay.  Feeding is carried out once a day, in the evening.  The regular cereal feed is a mixture of rolled barley and flaked pea, influenced by the fact that Malcolm has access to a very economical source of these.  This mix in other circumstances can prove to be a cause of overheating, but the Atkinson cavies are used to it, and all are in excellent condition.  As a supplement, Burgess Supa Guinea is fed to in-pig and show pigs. 

  So far as green food is concerned, Malcolm is lucky in being able to obtain top quality grass throughout the season from the farm where he works, and also grows his own cabbage and kale.  Roots used include swede, mangolds, beetroot and carrots; all mainly home grown save for the carrots, which are Malcolm’s main item of expenditure on the cavies.  The farm again proves to be a readily available source of top quality hay.  All pens are cleaned out once every fortnight, unless requiring attention between.

  So far as breeding is concerned, like all other fanciers who have experienced success over many years Malcolm is a very firm believer in the principle that his best cavies should be bred from to improve the stud, and all sows are usually mated between 5-6 months old.  This may be delayed slightly if a particular animal is to be entered into a major show, but certainly sows are mated at no later than 8 months, with adult sows resuming a show career at between 12-15 months old following a first litter.  Very often Malcolm will hold back sows for major shows (such as Bradford or Yorkshire Championship Shows) and then breed with them immediately afterwards, leaving him with only a limited selection for showing at local events over the following months.

  Malcolm usually prefers to remove sows from boars before littering but, if has experienced difficulties in any particular sow getting in pig, he may leave her in with the boar for a post partum mating.  Malcolm has had problems with two sows littering down together, and if possible prefers for them to be housed separately for this purpose, but he does not apply any hard and fast rules.

  He is fortunate (particularly so far as the Marked breeds are concerned) in having a bulk market in the pet trade for surplus youngsters during the Summer, and does try to cut down on breeding during the Winter months.

The Silver Agoutis

  These are Malcolm’s main show breed.  Following an original trio acquired from Vic Bailey in 1977, the Bailey strain has been kept pure, Malcolm having only obtained further stock from Vic himself, and also a few from Jim Johnson of pure Bailey strain.  The stud currently comprises a nucleus of around 25 adult Silvers.

  In his first 10 or so years in the breed Malcolm achieved odd wins against what I those days was the very strong competition in the North East area, which was very much a hot bed of Silvers in both quantity and quality at that time.  However, it was in the early 1990’s that the stud came into its own, and started to achieve regular success at the highest level.  It was at this time that Malcolm cut right back on his stock due to getting married and moving into a new home.  At this time Malcolm had bred two top quality boars (which he remembered went first and second in a huge boar class which the writer had the pleasure to judge at an NACC Adult Stock Show at Saltaire, only being beaten for BIS by an outstanding Bailey sow).  Both went on to achieve much further success, and were used extensively for breeding.  Malcolm does feel that his stock was markedly improved by his having only retained the best quality animals at this time, and being in the fortunate position of having some top quality stock to use.

  He has achieved much success at all major Shows, but particularly remembers the super adult sow who won him his first NACC Adult Stock Show at Saltaire in 1995, although he had previously been runner-up twice.  I had the pleasure of judging this super sow on the Saltaire side, where she was very unlucky to be just beaten for BIS by a top quality Black.  This animal excelled on all points, outstanding type, size and coat qualities with excellent body ticking, chest, belly and feet and good colour.  Another sow of similar quality had become the first winner of the Geoff Fox Memorial Trophy for Best Agouti at Bradford Championship Show earlier in the year.

  Malcolm is a keen supporter whenever possible of National Cavy Club Stock Shows, and at the 1999 Combined Show won the adult section with a Silver sow, only beaten for overall BIS by the 5-8 section winner, a Palemoon White.  Malcolm’s commitment to whenever possible reserving his best stock for specialist Club Stock Shows and major Championship Shows is influenced by his strong belief a win is only as good as the competition in which it is gained, and his main interest is in competing against the best opposition available.  In the world of Silver Agoutis, the past few years has seen a number of new breeders make their mark by achieving success in major stock shows.  Although some of this success has been over Malcolm’s own animals, he has been very pleased to see new faces doing so well with the breed, and the improved competition which this brings.

  Malcolm feels that the strength of his stock lies particularly in the type of his best sows, also sharpness of ticking and evenness of belly.  When selecting stock for future breeding/showing purposes, he is particularly looking for an even dark grey belly, with chest and feet failings only occasionally presenting a problem if the basic qualities of ticking, colour and type are present.  He will not accept as breeding stock any which are long in ticking or light on belly, although the occasional animal which is produced with a patch of white hairs will be considered if it is sound in the basic qualities.  Like all other successful Silver breeders, to preserve colour qualities Malcolm makes extensive use of dilutes (for the uninitiated these are animals bred from Silvers which appear to be black in colour, but which are genetically Silver Agoutis, although not physically displaying their ticking).  Malcolm also follows the golden rules of only using dilute sows rather than boars, and only using dilutes bred from two Silver Agouti parents, never dilutes themselves bred from a dilute parent (as this would cause an unduly high proportion of dilutes to be produced).  Malcolm is currently using 6 dilute breeding sows, and ideally likes to maintain the level of dilutes in his Stud at around one third of the total number of breeding sows.

  At the time of our visit, the stud contained a number of very good quality animals, although none quite of the standard of the outstanding Silver sows with which Malcolm has achieved his greatest success.  Malcolm always has a good adult Silver boar to show, including a fine big pig, which had won best Non Self at Egton the day before our visit.  There was a number of promising youngsters which Malcolm hopes will continue the stud’s show success during 2001.

The Creams

  These have been kept continuously since 1987, foundation stock having been acquired from Tony and Gill Cooke, with the introduction of a Palemoon boar.  At the time of our visit, there was a base of around 15 pigs of this breed, with which Malcolm has achieved what he modestly terms “reasonable” success over the years, although this includes a number of wins in top competition at Bradford Championship Show.  The animals are of good type and top colour although, in common with many other breeders of this colour, Malcolm feels there is scope for improvement on under colour, and he is currently working on breeding to improve this point.

The Tort & Whites

  This is the breed which Malcolm has kept continuously since 1973.  He maintains a stud of about 20.  The stud remains based on the initial stock he obtained from Connie Cooper, although there have been odd outcrosses over the years to stock from other leading T&W studs, such as those of Roy Hill and the late Jim Johnson.

  It is of course notoriously difficult to produce a top quality show animal in this breed and, despite the length of time over which he has kept them, Malcolm says that, although he has been close on a few occasions, he has never bred a “flyer” he would consider to be really outstanding, or which has achieved any great show success in top competition, and at the time of our visit he did not have anything about which he was particularly exited, although he did show us a young boar of good layout with four patches on each side, although short of white on one.  However, the stud is based on top quality blood lines and is of good colour, and there is of course always the possibility that tomorrow will see the arrival of the perfectly marked youngster which every T&W breeder dreams of.

The Black Dutch

  These produced my biggest surprise of the day when Malcolm professed that, notwithstanding the Silvers being the breed with which he has most often been associated over many years, it is the Black Dutch which at the moment are his personal favourites.

  In 1994, Malcolm unfortunately lost a lot of stock due to illness, and when collecting some replacement T&W breeding stock from Roy Hill, having kept a few Black Dutch in the past he took the opportunity to acquire a Chocolate Dutch boar and a Black sow from the same source.  This pair produced a reasonable Chocolate sow, and Malcolm subsequently acquired a Black Dutch boar from specialist Dutch breeder Chris Pearson.  All his Dutch have been bred from these few animals, and have produced a number of very decently marked pigs, which have achieved great success over the past few years.  In particular, he currently has two outstanding Black boars, one of which won 3 Dutch CC Stock Shows during 2000 against good opposition in other colours, including the Reds which usually achieve top honours in this breed.  These wins being the Northern and North Eastern Area Shows, and particular at the Millennium Show held at the National CC Championship Show at Northampton in July.

  The stud currently numbers only 10 pigs, and Malcolm stressed that he felt he was lucky to have produced a high proportion of top quality show pigs from such a small number.  He feels that the original breeding combination just seems to have “clicked” and is intrigued at the possibility that, using the resultant show stock and very selective breeding methods, it may be possible to produce a higher proportion of show pigs than has previously been thought possible.  Spurred on his success in this respect with Dutch, although not being fortunate enough to have the same quality of show stock Malcolm has been trying to apply the same methods of selective breeding to his T&W’s and has succeeded in regularly producing the four patches down one side that he is seeking to achieve, although unfortunately not on the other!  I am sure that all marked breeders will be very interested to monitor the future progress of Malcolm’s Dutch stud to see if he can continue to produce winners by breeding from a very select few, rather than from larger numbers.

Malcolm's well known adult Black Dutch boar - a very well balanced pig which has won several Dutch Cavy Club Stock Shows in 2000, including the National CC Millennium Show.

Golden Agoutis & Self Chocolates

  These make up the balance of the Cavies in the shed, and are owned by Malcolm’s wife Olive.  They celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary this year and, when marrying Malcolm, Olive fully realised that she would also be marrying into the Cavy Fancy!  Having shared Malcolm’s hobby for many years, a few years ago Olive decided the time had come for her to take on her own stock, and in May of 1999 acquired some Golden Agoutis from Trisha McGregor (who had been very successful with this colour but was giving up at the time), this stock being originally from John Tenner’s strain.  At present Olive feels she is very much still learning with the breed and only keeps half a dozen at present.  However, initial results are encouraging, her best result being Best Golden out of an excellent entry of 20 youngsters in this colour at the NACC YSS held at the National CC Millennium Show last year.

  Olive also keeps half a dozen Self Chocolates.  Malcolm had previously kept a few of these many years ago, from Pauline Avery’s Stud, and the current stock is again based on a few animals acquired from Pauline, together with a pair from Norman Field.

Judging, Show Management & Conclusion

  Having worked with cattle and livestock all his life, Malcolm has always enjoyed keeping livestock of his own, and greatly enjoys the routines involved in feeding and breeding.  What he finds particularly attractive about the keeping of cavies rather than other types of livestock is the lack of bureaucracy within the Fancy, and the fact that youngsters are born fully furred, meaning that (particularly in marked breeds) it is possible to make an initial assessment immediately the animals are born.

  Apart from the breeds he keeps, Malcolm expressed a particular fondness for marked breeds generally, and he also greatly admires a good Self Pink Eyes White.  He is greatly attracted by the contrast afforded by the Black/White colour combination, not only in Dutch but also Black American Cresteds and Black Himalayans (although he admitted he did not feel he had the patience to wait for the latter to mature to show standard and then watch their points change subsequently!).

  In addition to his success on the show table, Malcolm is also a popular judge, being on the panels of the Agouti, Dutch and T&W Clubs as well as the National Panel.  Having started off judging local afternoon box shows some years ago, he now finds himself officiating all over the North of England.  He admitted that he did prefer showing to judging, but felt it was important for the well being of the Fancy for fanciers to be seen to “take their turn” to assess the stock of others, and he does greatly enjoy the opportunity to handle other peoples’ stock and different breeds that judging presents.

  Malcolm has also been involved in management of local clubs for many years.  In particular, he has been on the committee of Egton Show for the past 20 years, and for the past 3 years Olive and he have been responsible for running the cavy section on the day of the show.  For a period of 6 or 7 years up to the early 1980’s Malcolm also ran the Cavy Section at the local Rabbit and Cavy Club of Sleights (a village a few miles outside Whitby), until this folded due to lack of support.  For many years, Malcolm has been the only “serious” fancier on the northern side of the North Yorkshire Moors and their nearest club now is at Pickering on the southern edge, where four box shows are held each year, and Olive helps with the management.

  Although Malcolm loves the atmosphere of big events such a Bradford Championship Show, and the opportunity for top level competition that these offer, he and Olive also greatly enjoy the social side of smaller local shows such as Pickering, where they can select a few pigs to take along on the morning of the show, and spend an afternoon out in the company of good friends, with show success (or lack of it) being only of incidental concern, which seems to us to be an admirable approach to the Cavy Fancy, and one which will no doubt ensure that these fanciers will continue to enjoy many different aspects of their hobby for many years to come.