From war refuge to lifelong haven


More than 40,000 animals were helped by the sanctuary created ‘temporarily’ by the Duchess of Hamilton near Shaftesbury, says Ferne Rescue Centre

Nina Douglas-Hamilton, Duchess of Hamilton, photographed in 1926

In 1939, Nina Douglas-Hamilton, Duchess of Hamilton, realised there was a huge need to help animals affected by the war.
A well-known early animal rights activist, she had co-founded The Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society (ADAVS) in 1903. When she heard that people were euthanising their pets if they were unable to find them a safe home out of the city, the Duchess rushed down from Scotland and put out an announcement on BBC radio asking for suitable homes for displaced animals. The story goes that when she returned home that evening, the Duchess was met with a queue of owners, with dogs, cats and even a parrot, looking to save their beloved pets from slaughter or starvation. Many volunteers did indeed come forward to offer homes to displaced pets, but the offers were very swiftly outnumbered by the number of animals in need. The Duchess didn’t hesitate. She opened the house and grounds of the family’s Ferne Estate near Shaftesbury to accommodate as many animals as possible.

Feeding time at the kennels – with Miss B Broms, Miss P Reid, Miss M Atherton and Nina, Duchess of Hamilton

The best of intentions
During the war years, with the assistance of a team of dedicated staff and local volunteers, the Duchess provided safety and sanctuary to more than 6,000 pets.
Inevitably, at the end of the war many owners failed to return to collect their pets. Ferne’s legacy of rescuing and rehoming animals-in-need had begun.
However, the Duchess’s well-intentioned restrictions were so stringent that the house became unsaleable. It feel into disrepair and was demolished in 1965. In the early 1990s the estate was bought by Lord Rothermere and in 2001, the present Ferne House, designed by Quinlan Terry, was built.
But the animals sanctuary remains, just as the Duchess intended, near Chard in Somerset, in the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Ferne sanctuary has cared for approximately 40,000 animals in its more than 80-year history, and in keeping with the Duchess’s aims, animal welfare continues at the heart of everything that Ferne does. Any animal passing through its gates is assured of love and compassion throughout the rest of its life. You can see cat feeding time in 1965 in footage from British Pathé above, and in the British Film Institute archive there is an eight minute TV documentary about Ferne Sanctuary, filmed in 1977, not long after the move to Chard (watch it here).

Ferne rehomes dogs, cats, horses and ponies and also currently provides a home – for life – for 300 farm and domestic animals. The centre is open to visitors, and provides a fascinating glimpse into a working sanctuary, with all proceeds going towards the care of the animals who need the sanctuary’s support.
There is also an on-site café – appropriately named Nina’s in honour of the Duchess – which serves locally-sourced produce and fantastic home-baked goods. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a catch-up with friends, or simply for a quiet coffee after a visit at the sanctuary.

  • To find out more about rehoming an animal, visiting the sanctuary or other ways you can support Ferne and its work please go to

Beautiful Amber is Ferne’s longest resident, having arrived in November 2021. All the dogs she arrived with have long since found homes, leaving Amber waiting in kennels, watching others come and go.
She is simply a joy to be around, adoring the company of people; she’s a playful girl who loves her cuddly toys. A thoroughly gentle soul, Amber is desperate for the right person to make her feel safe at home.
Amber loves cuddling up on a sofa and just sitting with people. She’s a keen sunbather, finding any sun square on a warm day, and she really loves her food!
Specific needs: Amber is selective with other dogs and needs to be the only pet in the home. She should have a secure garden, ideally in a quiet location. Amber cannot be let off lead in public, and she must wear her muzzle on walks. Off-lead time would be fine at a safe dog exercising facility.
Being in kennels for a long time can cause chronic stress, and this in turn can cause illness. Amber is now on lifelong medication for an underactive thyroid, and she is also under medication for hip dysplasia.
As a middle-aged girl, Amber desperately needs a second chance at happiness. But with the right owner, who has the right location, she will be a wonderful pet and has so much potential to be someone’s new best friend. Do you have space in your heart (and on your sofa) to give this beautiful sweet girl the home she so deserves?
Read more about Amber here


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