As part of our series on North East pioneering farmers who have made a lasting impression on the industry, Jennifer Mackenzie meets Northumberland sheep farmer Hans Pörksen – a passionate advocate of the power of genetics to improve farm efficiency and productivity.
For a Northumberland sheep farmer, Hans Pörksen has an unusual pedigree.
One of a family of 14 children and born in northern Germany in the last week of World War 2, he first found himself on a farm in Carmarthenshire in 1960 when he travelled to the UK to improve his English. Nearly 60 years on, he is widely recognised for the contribution he has made to the industry he took to his heart - championing the use of genetics to drive efficiency and productivity gains.
Throughout a career that has seen him build a successful sheep enterprise from scratch, help establish and run the Suffolk Sire Reference Scheme; teach a generation of Northumberland sheep farmers attending Kirkley Hall’s sheep management course and devote decades to representing the industry with both the NFU and NSA, Hans has always been determined to ensure farmers get a fair deal for what they produce.
An outspoken critic of carcass specifications used in the lamb marketing chain, and practices such as ‘rounding down’ that result in lower returns to farmers, Hans joined with others to lobby for more than 20 years for more accuracy and honesty in the chain – a campaign that has finally paid off with Agriculture Minister, George Eustace, announcing earlier this year his determination to see honest returns for producers in the future.
One of his most recent achievements, this is a long way from his early start in farming, which began at Harper Adams and a job as a farm-dairy manager in Surrey. His decision to go into teaching took him north to the county that would be his home for the next 40+ years. And it was at Kirkley Hall that his passion for sheep breeding and production began.
“As an animal husbandry lecturer, I was aware of the fantastic progress being made in other livestock sectors entirely due to genetic improvement,” he said. “So, I thought, why not sheep?
“The aim was to have more muscle and less fat. It was all about efficiency, and being able to produce the same amount of meat from a smaller number of sheep. Today we know that the amount of extra meat that can be produced by using a higher index ram is quite incredible if you take into account the 12.4 million sheep that are slaughtered in the UK each year.”
His first flock, of pedigree Suffolks was established in 1983 on his smallholding before moving to Gallowshill – a 136ha all-grass upland farm on the National Trust’s Wallington Estate at Cambo near Morpeth when Hans and his wife Audrey became full-time farmers in 1991. Today, the farm supports flocks of recorded pedigree Suffolk, Texel and Bluefaced Leicesters as well as commercial flocks of Scottish Blackface, Mule and Suffolk cross sheep.
Throughout, Hans has set out to make his sheep as efficient as possible using his interest in genetic improvement to establish two of the highest genetic-indexed flocks in the UK with his ‘Hans Suffolks’ and more recently his Wallington Texel flock.
“I looked at every conceivable breed and studied the scientific papers to see which had the most potential for meat production, said Hans. “I decided on the Suffolk and I have recorded the flock right from the start.”