Michael Poland feels he has been blessed with good fortune through the many facets of his active and highly interesting life. But it takes more than just the occasional slice of good luck to achieve what he has managed to achieve. He has seized the moment, taken the occasional risk, and used his vast knowledge to lead a life that has embraced insurance, farming, conservation and highly successful ventures into the worlds of horseracing and cattle breeding.
He and his wife Carolyn enjoy the trappings of a magnificent farm house surrounded by a large acreage of conservation land near Wroxall, a main home in Hampshire and another retreat near Oban in Scotland. Yet he remains modest about the success and the land he has accumulated. He prefers to reflect on his achievements, rather than boast about them.
At 74 years of age he may have slowed down a little, but he still has more targets in his eye line. Not so long ago he was desperately close to becoming the owner of the winning horse in arguably the world’s most famous Flat race, The Derby. That unfulfilled dream still remains a possibility.
So for this special two-part series, Island Life met up with Michael Poland at his Island home to discover more about the former IW Master of the Hunt, who likes nothing more than wandering through his magnificent fold of Highland cattle, his true pride and joy.
“Am I wealthy, I don’t know? I don’t have any stocks and shares; all my money has gone into farm land,” he revealed. “My father and grandfather were very successful Lloyds underwriters, and prior to that the family were very successful furriers. I didn’t inherit a lot of money from my father, so I have done it myself – I am mostly self made, and I am proud of that.”
Michael was born and brought up in Liphook, the youngest of five children. His father Kenneth was an underwriter and the youngest ever member of the Committee of Lloyd’s, as well as Master of Beagles and a keen sailor. The family business was left to Michael’s two eldest brothers, but he said: “It was good for me being at the bottom, because it spurred me to do something for myself, which I did.”
He attended prep school in Sussex, and then Downside in Somerset before travelling to learn French at a school in Switzerland – he didn’t learn the language, but recalls he had a ‘lovely time’ in Lausanne.
“I never went to university which is probably the best decision I ever made. My father was a bit of an entrepreneur, and was largely responsible for the development of motor and household content insurance in this country. He had the ability to think outside the box, which I think I inherited. He met my mother Hester when she was poaching for fish on my grandfather’s estate, even though her father was a high official in the Indian Civil Service – Queen Victoria’s representative in the State of Hyderabad. I inherited a great work ethic from my mother. She had the motto ‘if something is worth doing it is worth doing well’. I have tried to follow that.”
Michael also worked briefly as a clerk in an underwriting box at Lloyds but said: “It was all dead man’s shoes. I was in my 20s and wasn’t going to get any meaningful promotion until I was 55, which was a long time away.”
That prompted him to build his business, Ajax Insurance Association Ltd, which specialised in insuring plant and machinery. He said: “We were the small ones in the sector, but totally changed the way our business operated, and the rest followed us. Then I realised we couldn’t go any further because we had big competitors, and we were just a small organisation in Liphook. So in 1989 I sold it to the Norwich Union, and worked for them for two more years before I retired.”
Michael has been married twice, the first time when he was 30, but that ended after 10 years. He had four children, all daughters, the eldest of which now lives at Seaview. Later he started seeing Carolyn, and they have now been married 31 years. He said: “She has always been of great support to me in sickness and in health and through quite a lot of difficulties. We have been a good team together.”
While still working in insurance Michael successfully applied to become Master of the IW Hunt in 1983, and that brought him to the Island, although he had holidayed regularly here since just after the Second World War, sailing here on numerous occasions.
Conservation has played a big part in his life, but he claims: “It started by accident. I bought the reversion of a Forestry Commission lease on Mottistone Down in West Wight. A lot of the forestry there had been laid low by the 1987 storm, and it cost a lot to restore it. I bought the lease of 90 acres on condition I had to restore it to pre-forestry status of chalk grassland, downland and heathland.
“It was an immense task, but Philip Butchers, who had just gained a diploma in conservation, suggested I should buy some Highland cattle; hardy animals with huge horns that could get through undergrowth. We bought six, and joined the Highland Cattle Society. We had to have a name for the fold – they are called folds not herds- so it was called the Mottistone Fold after the Down.
“That was a success, and then I bought another Forestry Commission lease at Idlecombe and Rowborough where they had the same problems. I acquired Countryside Stewardship grants, which were a great help. I bought some more Highland cattle, and Philip designed a very good conservation programme. If someone asked me what has been my greatest achievement, I think it was that. I am very proud of what we did there.”
With the help and support from mainland conservation experts, Michael acquired more farmland and woodland across the Island, including two ancient woodlands on his land that stretch from Wroxall towards Shanklin, and then out towards Ventnor and back towards Whitwell.
“The whole aim was conservation management with about 1,500 acres in hand and 2,500 in total including the Forestry Commission, which has a 999-year lease on the land, and I don’t think I will live that long!
“We have ancient woodland, chalk grassland, and heath land, all very valuable in ecological terms, as well as miles of hedgerows. We also have old stone buildings and dry stone walls, where birds nest and bats roost. We have a tremendous diversity of wildlife, including four species of very rare bats – Bechstein’s, Barbastelle, Greater Horseshoe and Grey Long-eared.
“With the adjoining National Trust there are about 1,700 acres of land here all devoted to conservation, and that is quite a sizeable area. We are lucky that the Island has such a huge expanse of land that is devoted to conservation. It is not a well known area- thank goodness!”
He continued: “We have won awards for our conversation, and were among the first on the Island taking advantage of the consevation grants. At the beginning it was laughed at by some Island farmers, but not maliciously. Now conservation on the Isle of Wight is very widespread.
“Our logo is ‘Farming for Wildlife’. We are not organic, because I think organic is a lifestyle choice, and has very little to do with the quality of food. I defy any organic farmer to say the welfare of his cattle is better than mine, or the welfare of his land is better than mine.
“The grants we receive do not pay the full expense of what we do, but they pay a welcome proportion, and without them we couldn’t continue. At the start I didn’t call myself a farmer because I thought it was an insult to my farming friends. But I think we have now established our management of the cattle, so I now call myself a farmer – probably only for the last three years, but not the 10 years before that.”
Michael and Carolyn also have a home in Hampshire, surrounded by 20 acres of horse paddocks and a small farm near Oban. But he says: “My heart is on the Island; I am here whenever I can be. All three places – the Island, Hampshire and Oban – are lovely and all different. I have more friends on the Island than the mainland. We go up to Scotland six times a year, and there is far less to worry about with the small property we have there.
“Both here and in Scotland I have the freedom to walk out of the door and walk amongst my cattle. I love that and it is important to me.”
He added: “I have been lucky. I have kept active since I retired, I hardly ever drink and I don’t socialise much because I have so much in the farm and racehorses to keep me active, and I am very grateful for it. But I could have done little of it without the support of Carolyn and all those working with me.”
*In the next edition of Island Life: Michael Poland’s love of hunting, horseracing and breeding Highland cattle.