Mike Felton: the legendary MFH with a twinkle in his eye *H&H Plus*

  • One of the country’s most experienced masters, Mike Felton is an integral part of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale. Tessa Waugh meets him

    There are very few MFHs who have been at the helm of the same pack since the 1990s. Plenty of people hunting now were not even born then. Many more will look back on the period pre-ban and feel that times have changed for the worse.

    Mike Felton, who joined the mastership of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale (BV) in 1992, has spanned both periods without a backward glance.

    We are speaking via Zoom but you still get a sense of his character; a man of action, not prone to pessimism or fusty reminiscing about what once was. He has retained his enthusiasm for hunting in Dorset throughout this period and continues to look forward positively. Some might say that this is because the BV country is not troubled by many of the issues facing other hunts; it is still very rural and shooting is not the blight that it is elsewhere.

    The running of the hunt has remained the same since his early days, divided up into three areas north, south and middle. Mike has always run the middle area.

    “Each area has a fantastic bit as well as more peripheral bits,” he enthuses, “and the farming and landowner support has been amazing.”

    Of the elements that have altered, he says, “there are fewer dairy farms now, and the ones that are left have got bigger, but we still have an awful lot of them. There is more maize now than when I started, and the constituents of the field have changed three times in my tenure – we have more indigenous than London people hunting with us now.”

    Catching the bug

    Although Mike has been synonymous with the BV for nigh on 30 years, it was with the Wilton that he caught the hunting bug. Both of his parents hunted and his father was secretary of the Wilton for 15 seasons. His mother’s father, Bert Davies, was master of the North Shropshire. Mike’s earliest memory of hunting was as a four-year-old on the leading-rein.

    “I remember telling my mother to run faster. She used to sit on the back of a Land Rover and get a lift with someone with me on the lead. We soon progressed to Mother on a horse, but I think I was such a little s*** that she was keen to get me off the leading-rein as soon as possible.”

    Like many horsey people, Mike can divide his life up by the horses and ponies he has ridden.

    “My first pony was called Tom Thumb and my second was called Surprise – a punchy little chestnut, a stormingly good pony who came from Exmoor. We called him Surprise because we had been on holiday there and some people on a farm had allowed me to ride him. It was my birthday three months later and he was my present,” he says.

    From those early days at the Wilton Mike remembers Willy Poole, the enthusiastic master and huntsman, and Lord Radnor, another master (the present Lord Radnor’s father) who championed the young.

    “I could go off and do my own thing”, he says. “The Wilton is a low-scenting country. You would find foxes and they would disappear. Keep them in view and then you would have a hunt. At least, that was the theory.”

    In his early twenties, Mike started point-to-pointing, first on an event horse belonging to his parents. He soon graduated to riding for other people, namely Michael Tory, qualifying horses with the Portman and the Wilton. It was on Michael’s horse Morning Heather that he had his first win at Badbury Rings in 1978.

    “Success didn’t come for a while. I had to work at it a bit,” Mike notes, but during the 1980s, after teaming up with John Dufosee, Henrietta Knight and Keith Cummings, he notched up enough wins to be crowned champion jockey three times and runner-up twice.

    The best advice he was given, “rather trite but very true”, he says, was that “good horses make good jockeys and you’re only as good as your last ride.”

    Mike stopped point-to-pointing in his early thirties, which he considers early, stating that he had done everything that he wanted to do.

    He moved to the BV country “having left wife number one”, and was asked by Mark and Tessa Woodhouse, who were the hunt secretaries at that time, to join the mastership with Peter Doggrell and Peter Marzetti in 1992. He stopped pointing and concentrated on the hunting.

    “Frankly it was all getting a bit too much”, he explains. “I did event one day in the morning and point-to-point in the afternoon but it didn’t work because in the morning I kept seeing the long stride and in the afternoon all I could see was the short stride.”

    “A twinkle in his eye”

    It is late morning on a weekday and, like many country people with horses, with the jobs finished, he is sitting at the kitchen table in a blue guernsey jumper with a cup of coffee. At one point he stops the meeting to go out and put fences up for his wife Lucy, who is schooling one of the pointers.

    A small, energetic man with a twinkle in his eye, his relationships have fuelled plenty of gossip over the years. When I told a friend that I was going to interview him, she said, “Ah, the Rupert Campbell-Black of hunting.”

    But there is one woman in Mike’s life whose influence has never paled and that is his mother, Phyllis, who celebrated her 100th birthday this year.

    “My mother has been a massive rock throughout my life,” Mike says, adding with a smile, “a lot of people will say the ruination of me.” He elaborates: “some people would say that she indulged me for 65 years.”

    As well as lavishing love on her only child, Mrs Felton had a fascinating early life as a tracker of U-boats in World War II, a time that she documented in her eighties with Mike’s help.

    “She was clearly competent,” he observes, “and didn’t mind hard work. It is astonishing the responsibility they gave to young people at that time.”

    Gems of wisdom

    As one of Britain’s most experienced masters, Mike has plenty of gems of wisdom to share, stressing the importance of communication and building trust with farmers and landowners: “If a master doesn’t do anything else he must do this.”

    His prowess at field mastering, piloting the large and well-horsed fields over the testing BV country, is well known.

    “I see you’ve retired me off,” he says, referring to a question in the past tense. “I am still field mastering. Would never be a master without field mastering.”

    He adds, “I learned from a few predecessor’s mistakes, when I was that annoying little s*** on their shoulder saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing this, that and the other?’ One of the most embarrassing things that can happen is one hundred people sitting behind you and you have lost the hounds. You need to know where you’re going, how to get in and out of every field.”

    Mike is quick to acknowledge the joint-masters he has worked with over the years, saying, “I cannot emphasise enough how having such marvellous support from all my joint-masters has absolutely contributed to my longevity. The past few years would not have happened without Lucy’s [his third wife’s] input.”

    The longest-serving of joint-masters was Mike’s great friend Rupert Nuttall, who also completed a lengthy stint in the mastership, lasting 22 seasons. For a long time Rupert and Mike were the BV hunt. Both serious horsemen, they raced against each other in their youth and enjoyed a friendly rivalry spanning the decades. Evidence of this needling competitiveness is still there.

    “It was when Rupert broke his neck for the first time that John Dufosee gave me the chance to ride,” Mike says, later mischievously stating, that “his [Rupert’s] country was for the Pony Club, whereas mine was for the adults.”

    He later says in a more serious vein, “Rupert was very passionate and he is a very able horseman. We have remained extremely good friends and worked well together.”

    Rupert gives a similar account of Mike: “One of the most challenging people to follow across country. Where the hounds go, he will want to follow.” As a master he describes him as “very determined, very organised and very good with his farmers. He opened up a lot of country and was very easy to work with.”

    He agrees that his friend has done a good job of maintaining his enthusiasm for hunting through the years when some people would go off the boil.

    On their rivalry he says, “I think I was second to him 25 times one season and got sick of the sight of his backside when he was champion jockey.”

    An agile jumper

    We return to the subject of horses. I suggest that he must have had hundreds over the years but he corrects me, saying there are relatively few and lists his favourites, noting, “Of course I have ridden plenty of horses and there are hundreds of horses that will go half a head behind in second place, but there are not many horses that can go at the front day after day, particularly in the deep mud.”

    He names one, Roscoe, whom he describes as a once in a lifetime horse which came from Rupert.

    “One day hounds were running and I looked around and there was Rupert. ‘How the hell did you get here?’ I said, as the only way in was over a water trough with a big metal bar across it. ‘I jumped that,’ he said. ‘You can buy it if you want.’ So I did. Roscoe was fantastic, with a massive presence. He could jump over hedges rather than through them, he had a huge reach so ditches weren’t a problem. He was agile over timber and could jump gates all day long.”

    Later Mike emails to say, “I have derived a huge amount of pleasure down the years from watching how members of the field challenged themselves and tackled their day, at times hugely out of their comfort zone.”

    Mike may stand down as master at the end of the season, although this had not been finalised at the time of writing. At present he is a rare person in hunting holding the office of master and chairman simultaneously. There is no question that the BV are lucky to have him.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 24 December 2020

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