Otis Ferry: Leader of the pack

How did the unremarkable, slightly solemn son of a rock star become the standard-bearer for the countryside's onslaught on government? Despite wealth and good looks, he loathes the bright lights and just wants to be left to his obsession
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The Independent Online

Britain's huntsmen and women will tomorrow be polishing their mahogany boot-tops, pulling on their hand-tailored red coats and sinking a fortifying drink or two in picturesque town squares and low-beamed village pubs across the land. Though legal challenges launched by the Countryside Alliance will delay the ban on hunting with dogs beyond February, this may be the last Christmas when the ritual is observed, legally at least. The Bill is expected to pass into law within the next 12 months.

Britain's huntsmen and women will tomorrow be polishing their mahogany boot-tops, pulling on their hand-tailored red coats and sinking a fortifying drink or two in picturesque town squares and low-beamed village pubs across the land. Though legal challenges launched by the Countryside Alliance will delay the ban on hunting with dogs beyond February, this may be the last Christmas when the ritual is observed, legally at least. The Bill is expected to pass into law within the next 12 months.

If the ban does come to pass, the man most likely to make a martyr of himself is the joint master of the South Shropshire Hunt, Otis Ferry, the dashing young blade who masterminded the storming of the House of Commons during the debate on the Hunting Bill in September. While a crowd of fed-up country folk clad in Barbours and Liberty prints elbowed and shoved one other outside, Ferry and seven comrades infiltrated the labyrinthine corridors of Parliament, dressed as builders, emerging to harangue the Rural Affairs minister, Alun Michael, and Leader of the House, Peter Hain, live on television. Earlier this month they were charged with disorderly conduct, and will be tried in the spring . All deny the charges and have pledged to summon, and embarrass, a number of Labour MPs to give evidence on their behalf.

But 21-year-old Otis Ferry is not only the youngest and most troublesome hunt master in Britain. He is also the son of Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry, himself the son of a coal miner from Durham, but now very much a member of the landed rock gentry. It is, perhaps, Otis Ferry's misfortune to have inherited his father's exceptional good looks. Compared more than once to a tight-jodhpur-wearing character from Jilly Cooper's Riders, he is often dismissed as posh totty, the sort of chap Tim Nice-But-Dim might call "a jolly good bloke". In fact, say friends, he is a serious young man who is fervently, near obsessively, committed to his cause. With a pop icon father worth a reported £50m, you might expect him to favour the bars and clubs of Fulham Road or Notting Hill, like his younger brother Isaac, yet Otis is at his happiest in south Shropshire, professes to despise Londoners and does not drink alcohol. The romantic's sense of having a calling is clearly strong in him.

"He's not a flippant or frivolous sort of lad at all," says Davina Fetherstonhaugh, master of the Flint and Denbigh Hunt. "He's not a sort of overgrown teenager who'd enjoy a debutantes' ball. He's a very serious, grown-up hunter."

Being "grown up" has not stopped him from speaking with a candour and unworldliness that urbanites might easily mock. Interviewed by a newspaper last month, Ferry declared that resentment was deepening within the hunting community and that extreme violence could not be ruled out. "Feelings are running high. People are starting to realise a ban might happen and people might get assassinated. But I would feel terrible if anyone assassinated someone like Alun Michael." And earlier this month he made the startling revelation to Country Life magazine that "the fox is probably my favourite animal ... I saw a dead fox today - roadkill - and I thought what a terrible way to die. I think for the fox to be hunted and caught by hounds is going out in style. Fifty people have made a performance out of it, and appreciated it."

It is, perhaps, a measure of the hunting community's introspection that the author of such statements commands genuine respect. The former Telegraph editor Charles Moore says he should be given a peerage, while Charles Gordon-Watson, master of the fashionable Cottesmore Hunt in Leicestershire says: "I think he's fantastic. We have no leadership at the moment whatsoever. What we need is someone just like him to grasp the nettle and take it on. I think he certainly speaks for all of us, and I wish he'd speak out more."

Named after soul singer Otis Redding, the young Ferry grew up in Kensington, where his parents - Bryan Ferry and heiress Lucy Helmore, now separated - hung out with rock stars, supermodels and, occasionally, Princess Margaret. When Otis was 12, the family moved to Sussex and Ferry began to discover the rural life. His best friend at the time, he says, was a gamekeeper who taught him falconry and ferreting, though it was another hunting friend, Rory Knight Bruce, who introduced him to the sport. "He didn't do it to rebel against his father, but because it's the only place he feels truly himself. It's his stage," says Knight Bruce. Ferry's circle tend to describe the hunt in theatrical terms, as if directed by a showman.

Educated at Marlborough, Ferry spent his holidays in Ireland with his grandmother, and once went to live with an Irish horse dealer, "a shy old boy" who captivated the young Otis with his tales. "I learned all about hunting - there's so much skill involved in the chase," he has said. "After that, I couldn't go back to the boredom of school." So far, so very Jilly Cooper.

Aged 17, therefore, Ferry joined the Middleton Hunt in North Yorkshire as a whipper-in, and for the next four years got up with the sun to scrub out the kennels. Apparently, his mother was sympathetic to this lifestyle choice, but not without stipulations. "My mother told me when I was about 10 that I had to learn languages," Ferry told Country Life, "and I hated that and said: 'I don't want to speak bloody French. I like speaking English, thank you.' And she said: 'Well, I think you should, because in ten years' time, England isn't going to be a very nice place to live.'" (Not nice, we deduce, because fox-hunting will be outlawed.) An avid supporter of her son's stunt at Westminster, Lucy Helmore is familiar with controversy herself, once proclaiming artlessly that "it takes a lot of courage and skill to go hunting. It must be rather like the atmosphere in the trenches".

Bryan Ferry, once the model of urbanity and art-house sophistication, is equally supportive of Otis's activities - though many of his rock star colleagues are clearly not. At the Q Awards this autumn, Ferry dedicated his Lifetime Achievement Award to his "brave" son Otis - to a chorus of muffled boos from an audience that included U2, Sir Elton John and Elvis Costello. Otis himself, defiantly untrendy - he is a great fan of the Queen - is said to favour heavy rock and listens to Kerrang! radio station in his mud-spattered Jeep. He has an apparently off-on relationship with an art student named Jackie Coward, whom he met while hunting.

Ferry has made it clear that he will continue to hunt foxes, whatever the law says. His love of the hunt is indeed youthfully romantic, Cooperesque, the very opposite of the dull Westminster bureaucracy that seeks to quash it. "What better way than being permanently out in the countryside, always feeling wanted and appreciated by the hounds, horses, farmers and followers. Like my father, I am an entertainer; I want people to have a good time. This is my show. The spotlight is on me." Asked if he is good company, friends say, "He is to us, because we talk about hunting."

Is this the new leader of a rebellious movement? Essentially, Ferry is like a prism, illuminating the spectrum of opinion on the vexed issue of hunting with hounds. If you're in favour, he's a boyish, slightly solemn champion of the people. If you're against, he's a spoilt rich kid playing pressure-group politics. But as the debate drags on through the courts - boring the general public and enraging New Labour's back benches - you can be sure that if conviction counts for anything, Otis Ferry is in for the long haul.

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