Our host at Hat­field

Lord Sal­is­bury is look­ing for­ward to wel­com­ing vis­i­tors to this year’s Game Fair, to be held at his an­ces­tral home, the re­splen­dent Hat­field House


Eleanor Doughty speaks to Lord Sal­is­bury, the owner of Hat­field House, site of this year’s Game Fair

One thing you should know about Robert Gas­coynece­cil, the sev­enth Mar­quess of Sal­is­bury, is that he is not a labrador fan. In­stead, his gun­dog of choice is the mild-man­nered clum­ber spaniel. Three years ago he was given one by his wife, a res­cue dog named Linc, short for Lin­coln.

Linc is about to have a very public out­ing as dad is host­ing The Game Fair on their home turf of Hat­field House, in Hert­ford­shire, at the end of July.

Hat­field, the Ja­cobean child­hood home and favourite res­i­dence of El­iz­a­beth I, set in a 42-acre, 17th-cen­tury gar­den, has been in the Ce­cil fam­ily since 1611. While “we don’t have any Rem­brandts,” Lord Sal­is­bury says, “and, as one of my daugh­ters keeps say­ing to me, ‘we’re not Chatsworth, you know’,” there’s a mag­i­cal ar­chive, in which the first draft of the ex­e­cu­tion war­rant for Mary, Queen of Scots lies. “Lam­beth Palace library will tell you that it has the first draft but it isn’t, ac­tu­ally, it’s the sec­ond,” he says proudly.

The Hat­field es­tate has about 1,000 acres and at Cran­borne in Dorset, the fam­ily’s other es­tate, there are about 5,000 acres. Would Lord Sal­is­bury like a few fields more? “Of course! Wouldn’t ev­ery­body like more?” he chuck­les. But mak­ing money from land is dif­fi­cult, he ad­mits. “You need an aw­ful lot of land for it to be a re­ally rich in­her­i­tance but, all other things be­ing equal, I would al­ways like more land. Chance would be a fine thing.”

In any case, Hat­field is the per­fect lo­ca­tion for the 2017 Game Fair, be­ing 22 min­utes from Lon­don’s King’s Cross by train and just over an hour from Peter­bor­ough. Roughly 120,000 peo­ple are ex­pected dur­ing the three days of the fair and Lord Sal­is­bury hopes that as many as pos­si­ble will come by train. “It will break rural Eng­land’s habit of a life­time but Hat­field sta­tion is 10 min­utes walk from the show­ground.”

Lord Sal­is­bury’s life, on and off the field, has been noth­ing short of ex­tra­or­di­nary. He first learnt to shoot pi­geon with his fa­ther’s “very gloomy” head keeper, Lake. “He used to take me out when I was about nine or 10 and we used to sit for hours and get very cold. Ev­ery time I hit a pi­geon, which was about once in ev­ery 12 shots, be­cause I was very un­lucky, he would up­end a car­tridge to show that I had ac­tu­ally hit one and then shake his head.” His fa­ther, the sixth mar­quess, was a keen shooting man and gave each of his seven chil­dren a pair of guns for their 21st birth­day. “My great-grand­fa­ther gave our guns to the Home Guard in 1940 and, of course, we never saw them again. In 1946 or some­thing my fa­ther bought up a load of smart pairs of guns for vir­tu­ally noth­ing, and we were the ben­e­fi­cia­ries.”

Hon­ourable pro­fes­sion

Af­ter an ed­u­ca­tion at Eton and Christ Church, Ox­ford, Lord Sal­is­bury – then Vis­count Cran­borne – was elected mem­ber of par­lia­ment for South Dorset in 1976, the sev­enth con­sec­u­tive gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to sit in the Com­mons. He served as an MP un­til 1987, be­fore join­ing the Lords in 1992. In 1994, he was made Leader of the Lords, be­fore tak­ing a leave of ab­sence in 2001 and suc­ceed­ing his fa­ther as Lord Sal­is­bury in 2003. Pol­i­tics does not so much ap­peal these days. “I was lucky to get in when I did, be­fore the in­ter­net, and lucky with my con­stituency, who were ex­tremely nice to me. I was there at the best time.” What is en­cour­ag­ing, he says, is that stand­ing for elec­tion is still de­sir­able – to oth­ers. “So long as peo­ple be­lieve it is an hon­ourable pro­fes­sion to which they can as­pire then we’re in good shape.”

Be­ing an MP and keep­ing up life in the coun­try­side is harder than it sounds. “One of the dif­fi­cul­ties about be­ing in pol­i­tics is that you don’t do any­thing ex­cept pol­i­tics,” he says. “Week­ends tend to be rather taken up.” Now aged 70, his hunt­ing days with the Port­man, the Beau­fort and “oc­ca­sion­ally in Ire­land” are long gone, he chuck­les. “I was the world’s worst horse­man. I used to spend more time in a ditch than ever on a horse.”

But he still shoots. “Peo­ple are kind enough to ask me away and we shoot at Hat­field. We try and en­cour­age wild birds and do all the GWCT stuff.” He is, of course, pres­i­dent of the GWCT.

The best shoot day, he says, would take place at home – where else? “It would have

‘I used to spend more time in a ditch than ever on a horse’

to be at Cran­borne or Hat­field, with the max­i­mum va­ri­ety of game, chal­leng­ing birds and agree­able com­pany.” As for the best shot he knows, “it’s not me, that’s for sure,” he laughs. “I only once found my­self in the same party as His Grace, the Duke of Northum­ber­land. I wasn’t in the next-door butt to him but I saw a rain of grouse com­ing down over his head and very few com­ing down over mine.” His wife’s fam­ily were “pretty showy shots”, he says, nam­ing his fa­ther-in-law, the late Bill Stir­ling, and his brother-in-law, Archie, the owner of the Keir es­tate in Le­cropt. “I’ve been lucky enough to see some peo­ple who were very ex­pert. When it’s well done it’s tremen­dously el­e­gant.”

My style is not ter­ri­bly el­e­gant, I say. Lord Sal­is­bury laughs. “Join the club!”

Brexit op­por­tu­nity

Hav­ing voted “no” in the 1975 Euro­pean com­mu­ni­ties ref­er­en­dum, he re­mains an arch-brex­i­teer. “I was very happy that the vote went the way it did.” Brus­sels, he says, is a shackle and we now have the op­por­tu­nity to rein­vent the coun­try­side, “rather than try­ing to make do with ne­go­ti­ated com­pro­mises... which try to ap­ply to agri­cul­ture in Si­cily and the Shet­land Is­lands, two slightly dif­fer­ent places.”

If we are to make a suc­cess of Brexit, “we’ve got to ask our­selves what sort of coun­try we want to be”. This, he says, should be a “free-trad­ing, out­ward-look­ing, wel­com­ing coun­try, which has pow­er­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­sti­tu­tions, which can adapt more eas­ily than the an­cien ržgime in Brus­sels, [which] is in­ca­pable of change.”

Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will not thank us if we get Brexit wrong, he says. “I sus­pect that one of the great dan­gers will be that we won’t be bold enough. This is a once-in-a50-year op­por­tu­nity to re­set our whole rural pol­icy. It’s not just farm­ing and con­ser­va­tion, it’s how do you stim­u­late the rural econ­omy? How do you make sure there’s enough in­fra­struc­ture so that busi­nesses can flour­ish in rural ar­eas? How do you have an ef­fec­tive hous­ing pol­icy?”

Brexit, he says, is an op­por­tu­nity to “har­ness our newly found in­de­pen­dence and de­velop a more co­her­ent rural pol­icy be­yond farm­ing, forestry and con­ser­va­tion”.

And con­ser­va­tion should not be a boxtick­ing ex­er­cise. “Rather than say­ing, ‘these are the de­tails im­posed from above’, [it would be] much bet­ter to say, ‘I’d like to see an in­crease in ground-nest­ing birds and let’s do that by re­sults.’ It en­cour­ages peo­ple to be in­no­va­tive and see if they can find bet­ter ways of achiev­ing re­sults, rather than a way that is put down by some White­hall man­darin.”

The bat­tle for hen har­ri­ers re­mains fraught. “The pro-shooting lob­bies do a very good job en­cour­ag­ing our side, just as the anti-shooting lob­bies do a good job en­cour­ag­ing theirs,” Lord Sal­is­bury says. “But there’s not much per­sua­sion go­ing on by one side or the other. The only way for­ward is to con­cen­trate on peer-re­viewed re­search and build your rec­om­men­da­tions to govern­ment for pol­icy on that. At least [then] there’s a ba­sis for ex­chang­ing views based on some­thing more than mere opin­ion or prej­u­dice.” The is­sue of rap­tors “ex­cites enor­mous emo­tions. One of the dif­fi­cul­ties is that na­ture’s bal­ance has tended to be pretty good. Then man in­ter­venes and you get to a mo­ment where there are im­bal­ances in the an­i­mal king­dom, which do need man’s care­ful in­ter­ven­tion to put the bal­ance back again.”

hunt­ing pri­or­i­ties

But where hunt­ing is con­cerned, Lord Sal­is­bury is not so hope­ful. “I’m ex­tremely pro-hunt­ing,” he says, “but if I had to bet… there will no doubt be a free vote but whether the govern­ment would give it time for a sub­se­quent bill is rather more doubt­ful. There is go­ing to be an enor­mous amount to do and hunt­ing may not be such a high pri­or­ity.”

By the time The Game Fair rolls into Hat­field, we may be closer to a res­o­lu­tion. But re­gard­less, come rain or shine, Lord Sal­is­bury will be there with Linc by his side. “I’m ner­vous but qui­etly con­fi­dent, I think,” he smiles.

Lord and Lady Sal­is­bury (left) are ready to wel­come vis­i­tors to Hat­field House (above)

The beau­ti­fully tended Old Palace Gar­den. Top: the sculp­ture Re­nais­sance be­fore the north front

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