Dr Norman Walker (1938 - 2018) – A leading figure in NI pig production

Dr Norman Walker
Dr Norman Walker

All former colleagues, friends and students of Doctor Norman Walker will be saddened to learn that he passed away peacefully at Cumberland Infirmary, Carlisle, on Saturday, 24th November 2018, writes Charles Kilpatrick.

Norman came to Northern Ireland in 1962 as a young agricultural graduate to undertake research in pig production at the Agricultural Research Institute - Hillsborough (now AFBI).

He subsequently led the pig research team at Hillsborough until his retirement in 1995, after 33 years of commitment to the Northern Ireland pig industry. Throughout this period Norman developed the pig research facilities and programme at Hillsborough and set the foundations for the development of Hillsborough as a Centre of Excellence in pig research.

Born on new years’ eve 1938 in the village of Moor Row in Cumbria, Norman came from a very humble background. His father worked on the railway and his mother as a dressmaker.

As a boy he was top of his class at junior school and he recently wrote of his childhood in his memoir a recollection of “being taken to school at the age of four up the cobbled back street by his Mam, or carried on her back if it was snowing because his clogs let in”.

Although his father’s career in the railway fired a lifelong interest as a steam railway enthusiast, his passion for agriculture stemmed from the many summer holidays spent working on his uncles’ dairy farm in the lake district.

He attended Barrow Grammar School and at the age of seventeen won an open scholarship that took him to Reading University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. A grant from the Pig Industry Development Authority then allowed him to go on to study for his PhD at the Agricultural Research Institute for Northern Ireland connected to Queens University Belfast.

His postgraduate research program focused on what was a key issue of the day - improving the carcase composition of the pig. The research examined the impact of the rate of pig growth on carcase quality and how this could be controlled by manipulating feeding strategies.

Further to attaining his PhD, he took up a joint Department of Agriculture and Queens University Belfast post to continue his research at Hillsborough. His role in this post encompassed pig research, lecturing on pig production to undergraduates and postgraduates at Queens University Belfast and providing technical support for the wider pig industry.

The academic standing of his research can be judged not only by the many peer reviewed scientific publications that he produced but also by the esteem in which he was held within the academic community across these islands. However, one of his greatest legacies is the number of key leaders within today’s pig industry who have been taught and inspired by Norman.

Although an academic, Norman was not aloof from ordinary people. He had an enthusiastic personality which cemented lifelong friendship with both pig producers and processors. He was a great teacher, committed to his undergraduate students at Queens and the many postgraduate students supervised by him at AFBI Hillsborough. He always made time to help, encourage and support them.

At a more direct industry level Norman was an avid contributor at meetings and discussions with pig producers. His great ability was to ensure that good science, correctly communicated, could address the relevant issues of the day. His ability to communicate science within a practical context ensured he was widely respected at producer level.

From his research perspective Norman and his team were the first to establish the link between behaviour and production in pigs, especially feeding behaviour and how this was influenced by feeder type and position in the pen.  In this work he clarified the importance of the previously unrecognised issue of feed wastage and how this was influenced by method of presentation, and hence its dramatic impact on feed conversion efficiency.

He also undertook a range of studies to evaluate the feeding value of a wide range of potential feed ingredients. Using this information in the 1980’s, he developed simple approaches for pig producers to incorporate “Least Cost Formulation” principles into diet formulation.

Norman interacted with all aspects of the pig industry.  He spoke at many pig producer groups; he liaised with the feed industry and worked closely with the pig processors.  His role in QUB and ARINI as lecturer and supervisor has ensured his legacy endures in all areas of the Northern Ireland pig industry from primary production, advisory, lecturing, feed production and processing.

Following retirement in 1995, Norman and his wife Lois returned to the Lake District making a home initially in Brampton and finally at High Heskett. They both enjoyed walking and Norman followed his passion for steam and rail as a member of the Wensleydale Association. He did a lot of railway related voluntary work over the years, not least laying the tracks on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Norman is survived by his wife Lois, sister Joyce, brother in law Louis, niece Sharon and nephew David.