The indomitable chatelaine of Cirencester Park in Gloucestershire talks to Melanie Cable-Alexander about pensions for police dogs and her deep love of the countryside
It is not every day that you take a bite from a police dog. But this is exactly what I am doing thanks to the persuasive skills of the Countess Bathurst, the chatelaine of Cirencester Park, Gloucestershire. She’s described by the Duchess of Rutland in her popular podcast Duchess as “a tornado of a woman”. I am learning why.
Incongruously we are in the middle of one of the Park’s prestigious polo pitches, famous for hosting sporting royals from the Duke of Windsor to HM The King. But it also doubles up as a police dog training ground and “has done for generations”.
Lady Bathurst and the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals
We meet at the Countess’ home on the edge of the Park to talk about her new project, the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals (NFRSA), as well as her love of fieldsports, namely shooting. However, I’ve been bundled into the Countess’ Porsche and whizzed across the Park, past a marquee set up for the VWH hunt ball, to participate in a police dog training exercise. “Oh well done,” I hear. “Not many people would be brave enough to take that on,” says the Countess – or Lady B as she is affectionately known – after a snarling German Shepherd hurtles towards me and grabs the bite shield on my arm.
The NFRSA, which celebrated its first anniversary in April this year at Christie’s, was the Countess’ lockdown project in 2020. While many of us were in a pyjamafied state of somnambulance, she decided to “put all her soldiers [or police officers] in a row” and create a charity inspired by her service as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire in 2016.
During that year, she concentrated her support and efforts on the police and judicial system. “As an animal lover, it was inevitable that I went straight for the dog and mounted sections,” she explains.
Support for the NFRSA
It was here that Lady Bathurst discovered that service animals – fire and rescue, border force, prison, and police – retire without so much as a pension, let alone money to cover vet bills, despite having risked life and limb for the good of the rest of us. Not one to sit on her laurels, she created the charity to fill that void, by offering assistance with medical bills. In the process she has won influential allies: ambassadors include Hollywood actress Minnie Driver, interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, entrepreneur Deborah Meaden and many other famous names.
Sarah, Duchess of York is passionate about the charity, and at Christie’s read a poem written by a Scottish police dog handler as a goodbye and thank you after his canine partner was put to sleep. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. In addition, Lady Bathurst is planning a simulated clay shoot at Cirencester Park in 2024 to raise further funds for the charity. “The wonderful team at EJ Churchill are going to organise it for us, and we’re all incredibly excited,” she explains.
A passion for conservation and the countryside
Lady Bathurst was born in 1965 but with a book in her hand rather than a gun. Her father, ex-Army, a farmer and friends with John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, owned a legendary bookshop in Lyme Regis called Serendip Fine Books. She met her husband, the future Earl Bathurst, through friends after returning to the UK to run the family business following a five-year stint in Chicago.
“My husband introduced me to shooting and therein started a passion for the sport and conservation of the countryside.” There’s a caveat, however. “I am not so keen on the large bags any more. I think it is incredibly important that we have a deeper appreciation of exactly what we are doing. I have just had a day at Highclere with Lord and Lady Carnarvon. A gentle shoot in beautiful surroundings with fascinating people. It’s a privilege to be able to take part and to see areas of the countryside that very few people get to see.
Lady Bathurst and the County Food Trust
“There used to be a shoot at Cirencester Park but sadly the geographical layout and public access has made it too difficult,” Lady Bathurst reveals. “As a result, we now take a day on a local shoot, owned by friends and run just as it should be. It is an absolute joy and just how we like it. I am extremely fortunate to have five to six days a year and that’s quite enough.”
She interrupts herself to make a phone call as she’s reminded of another charity she supports: “Forgive me but if I don’t do this now I’m going to forget.” She’s referring to the Country Food Trust, which aims to help beat food poverty by supplying game-based dishes to food banks across the UK. “I wouldn’t be comfortable going to a shoot if I knew that the birds were not entering the food chain,” she declares.
The sporting Countess
Her first guns were a pair of English side-by-sides. “My husband bought them for me when I first took up shooting and I have used them ever since. It’s possibly fairly unusual for a lady to shoot with 12-bores but they suit me very well,” she says. Lady Bathurst has also been known to stalk. “I’ve been kindly invited by friends to the Highlands to stalk,” she tells me. “I’ve also had a bash at fishing but I am not very good at it. I once thought I had caught a salmon but it turned out to be a log on the bottom of the river. I recently caught a Scottish trout and was so surprised that I promptly fell into the river.” She rides but admits to having precious little time to do it. However, the estate is in the VWH’s Monday country and hosts the hunt ball and Closing Meet.
Animal welfare is a huge priority for her, hence the NFRSA. “Having seen the amazing work these extraordinary service animals do to keep us, the public, safe, I’m passionate about the charity and everything it does.” She’s also brave: in the spirit of our late Queen who famously saw off an intruder, Lady B once faced off a burglar whom she caught hiding behind the curtains in her house. The Countess has also taken several bites from police dogs during training exercises. “It’s all part of the job,” she laughs. I’m not sure the same could be said for me.
For more information about the NFRSA, please visit the charity website.
If you enjoyed this article, read our interview with writer, actor, comedian, angler and conservationist Paul Whitehouse here.