What they lack in size, they make up in spirit. Terriers have been top dogs in Britain's stately homes for more than a century, as Rory Knight Bruce discovers

There’s much to love about terriers. They are loving, loyal and positively bounding with sporting instinct, making up what they lack in size with enormous character. It is no surprise that they have been the favoured companion of the country’s stately homes for more than a century, says Rory Knight Bruce.

As far as Field readers are concerned, terriers are top dogs. For a fun gallery of our readers’ terriers, including the Editor’s Sealyham, read The Field’s favourite terriers.


If no man is a hero to his valet, he can at least take some consolation in a terrier. Loyal, loving, often of unknown pedigree, bounding with character and sporting instinct, they have, for more than a century, also been the preferred canine companion of the great houses and “Top Dogs” of Britain.

The Duchess of Cornwall has shown great style by adopting two terriers, Beth and Bluebell, from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. At Edinburgh University, I had a rescue terrier called Thatcher that became a favourite in the various bars and inexpensive restaurants to which he was always admitted. Before me, a fellow student, Lord Michael Cecil of Hatfield House, paved the way with Johnson (named after the fighter ace), which went everywhere with him, although a line was drawn at his owner’s afternoon forays into Chinese gambling establishments.


Lord Stafford with two of his Norfolk terriers.

Speak to the frostiest grandee about their terrier and all formality will evaporate. Some have gone so far as to breed their own variations, such as the Lucas, Bedlington, Hucclecote, Scorrier, Tottenham, Manchester or Capheaton. In Jacky Turner’s Animal Breeding, Welfare and Society she observes this phenomenon: “Certain breeds could become fashionable after endorsement by high-status owners. The aristocratic fox terrier breed had its own 19th-century periodical, Fox Terrier Chronicle, covering the activities of the fox terrier elite (both dogs and owners). This included regular features on ‘Gossip’, ‘Visits’ (matings) and ‘Debutantes’ (dogs making their first appearance at a dog show).”

So who are these devoted aficionados of the terrier? All have an unswerving love of their own chosen breeds, are countrymen to their boots and give their dogs free rein on their estates and grouse moors. When Lord Stafford opens his car boot on a shooting day, fellow guns are both surprised and delighted to see three generations of Norfolk terriers tumble from the tailgate, Toots, Tinker and Tubby. “They are there for social reasons and are wonderfully obedient,” says Francis Stafford. “I even take them grouse shooting where they will chase a runner but stop short of a full retrieve. They are like little dolphins in the heather.”

Lord Stafford got into Norfolks through his good friend Sir Jackie Stewart but concedes they do not have a lot of ground clearance and need a good shower after shooting. But he takes them everywhere and they have even been shooting with the Duke of Norfolk in Sussex. “How appropriate,” one gun remarked.


When Martin Letts, the longest-serving MFH, came to the College Valley in Northumberland in 1964 he brought terriers with lots of Sealyham blood. “We had Borders as well but they took themselves off on the hills and came back covered in earth, which did not make me popular with my wife when they got on the sofa.” With the smooth-coated fox terriers, which Letts came to prefer, he says: “They had enough spirit to get up to the fox in an earth, to give him a nip and drive him to the end of the hole.”

Often Letts ran his terriers out hunting with the hounds. “They would follow the scent of the horse and take occasional short cuts.” A number of terriers were given to him from the nearby towns of Wooler or Kelso because they had been killing cats. “They soon adapted to the hunting life as by preference they liked to go out hunting with their master.”


Quentin Letts with Patterdale Flip.

Opera-goers to the Hon Christopher and Mardi Gilmour’s stately Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire are often joined for their picnic by Tipsy, the family’s 14-year-old Patterdale. “She is like another daughter,” says Mardi Gilmour, who has three daughters. “She wakes at seven and gets into our bed.” On one occasion, Tipsy walked on stage during an operatic performance, much to the delight of the audience, and she is often to be found in the orchestra pit, mingling with the musicians. “She is so good natured, so waggy,” says her owner. “But really she is a picnic dog and will sit by the guests. She is very well behaved and, when we take her to London, would not dream of eating in the street.”

Mardi Gilmour’s panegyric is not shared by Herefordshire resident and unparalleled parliamentary essayist Quentin Letts, who has two Patterdales, Flip and Bonnie. They have been known to bite men with beards, once locked jaws together at the South Herefordshire point-to-point and the police have even been round. “They go mad for a Liberal Democrat or rambler,” observes Letts. Recently a mink hid inside the wheel arch of his daughter’s mini and Flip bit through the plastic. “That was another £300,” says Letts, with a sigh. “But my family adore them and when they sit still, they do so with their bottoms off the ground, as if they are doing ballet.”

One way of diluting the fighting spirit is to cross-breed, as Northumberland landowner Suzy Browne-Swinburne discovered in 1988. She set out to recreate the pure tan looks of a terrier she had owned, of uncertain origins, and mated her with a Patterdale that had, she says, been “got by the rat man’s dog”. The Capheaton terrier was born, named after the Browne-Swinburne’s estate.

“They yap a bit, are good house dogs but hunt like hell,” says Browne-Swinburne. “I then mated her offspring with dogs from youths with tattoos out of Harrogate.” At their height, there were perhaps 200 to 300 Capheatons in Northumberland. “They were never on the premises by accident or design and often came back hours later stinking of fox.”


Lady Serena Soames with Border/Lakeland Piper.

Nine years ago, Catherine Brooks-Ward took charge of her Irish terrier puppy, Fig, a rare breed the numbers of which have declined since their popularity in the 1920s, and they have been constant companions ever since. Irish terriers are known as “The Gentleman’s Terrier”, with other owners including the Earl of Leicester at Holkham Hall and actor Sir Derek Jacobi. “They are the greatest company and characters,” says Catherine Brooks-Ward. “She always has one eye open, is a great sentry dog and doesn’t push off. Perhaps this is why they were so popular with officers in wartime.”

It is not always true that terriers have to live in the countryside and once, visiting the Keats-Shelley House museum in Rome, I was met by the sight of a magnificent Tottenham terrier, Poppy, who belonged to the then curator Catherine Payling. Poppy was completely at home in the grandeur of the literary house by the Spanish Steps, which they shared for 11 years. “Poppy spent all day in my office and all evenings chasing balls in the Borghese Gardens,” recalls Payling. “At night she shared my empire bed directly underneath John Keats’s bedroom.”


Piper came to the Sussex home of MP Sir Nicholas and Lady Soames six years ago. “She is a Border/Lakeland cross with a bit of something else thrown in,” says Serena Soames. “She is only really naughty with chickens.” However, another bad habit was to turn on the kitchen tap but Piper has now stopped this having activated the hot tap and flooded the kitchen with water and steam. “Piper goes shooting but has to be kept on a lead as she will point, flush and chase, rather than retrieve,” continues Lady Soames. But she has her saving graces. “She is a hearing dog and will always bark at the doorbell or telephone.”

Last year, at a local terrier show, Lady Soames, who is over 6ft tall, and Piper won the “Six Legs” class, and received a red rosette. Says Sir Nicholas, proudly: “No time spent in her company is a moment wasted. She is immense fun, game for anything and adores Serena. Her character goes on evolving.”


Artist Lady Ralph Kerr with Parson Jack Russell Puffin.

Celebrated portrait painter Lady Ralph Kerr, whose home is Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, is seldom separated from the family’s seven-year-old Parson Jack Russell, Puffin. “He is biddable and comes riding, running and painting with me,” says Marie-Claire Kerr. Staying in Scotland with another terrier who went missing for three days, Puffin was drafted into the search party. “After hours with my daughter, Amabel, Puffin located the other terrier underground and there was much relief all round.”

No one knows better the perils and heartache of terrier ownership than Lady Cranbrook, whose Jack Russell Domino went missing for three weeks on their family estate in Suffolk in 2013. “We had given up hope of finding her but then Storm Jude ripped through the estate and must have disturbed the earth where she was hiding,” says Caroline Cranbrook. “Then this bedraggled figure came slowly across the lawn.” Has Domino, now six, learned her lesson? “Not a bit of it, and we live in dread if guests come to stay and leave the door open,” says Lady Cranbrook.


Korma, now 16 years old, has the run of Cresselly estate, the home of South Pembrokeshire Foxhounds’ Master, Hugh Harrison-Allen. “He is a Border/Lakeland cross but there must be some foxhound in him somewhere because of his size,” says Harrison-Allen, who got Korma from the Glamorgan hunt kennels as a puppy. “Like all good terriers, he likes to fight, hunt and s***, and has been known to travel 15 miles on his amorous adventures.” Korma has many offspring in the district, which are known, with some irony, as “Pedigree” Cresselly terriers.


Border/Lakeland cross Korma belongs to South Pembrokeshire Master Hugh Harrison-Allen.

“I had never owned a terrier until Zac came into my life nine years ago,” says Amelia Christie-Miller. “I can honestly say I would never now contemplate owning any other breed. The intelligence, loyalty and force of the terrier character is overwhelmingly endearing. Zac came into our lives at a dark time. I had just gone through a traumatic divorce and our house had burned down. Zac became a mysterious force for good, a bonding influence and the focus of a deep, impartial affection.”

Zac now splits his time between Chelsea, their home in Gascony and recently went to Spain for lunch. “Despite being small and hairy and thoroughly untrained, he is a very capable gundog,” continues Christie-Miller. “He is excellent at partridges and his real prowess is finding grouse in long heather, on one memorable occasion wiping the eye of a highly trained, professional ducal gundog.”

Being Devonians, we have always had Parson Jack Russells, with Ted, now 11, being the latest and best of family pets. He once excelled himself by catching a squirrel out of the wendy house oven. Instinct, loyalty, courage, manners and good company are his traits. And you can’t always say that about your valet.