Mrs Patmore's famously flustered features crumple as she watches a team of vets and nurses tend to a sick animal on a farm in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region where bears have, for years, been imprisoned in tiny cages and milked for their bile.

"This bear has had a terrible, terrible life," says Lesley Nicol. "All she has known is appalling betrayal from mankind, and it has all been for money - there is absolutely no point to it. Why she's not screaming and raging at us, I don't know. I feel totally ashamed."

About 9,600km from the refined manners of Downton Abbey, the indignation of the actress who plays the kindly cook Mrs Patmore is very real - and the drama unfolding before her eyes is as brutal as the suffocating subtropical heat.

On a week's break from filming the fifth series of the hit television show, Nicol has travelled to the jagged limestone mountains near the China-Vietnam border to see the work of a Hong Kong charity whose mission it is to stop the bear-bile trade. She rolls up her sleeves in a makeshift field animal hospital at the farm, an hour's drive from the city of Nanning, and helps vets from Animals Asia carry out health checks on sick bears that have been subjected to excruciatingly painful bile extraction.

The scene is pitiful. Highly intelligent animals, some are blind, some have had their teeth and claws hacked out, many are psychologically scarred by their captivity, while those with terminal growths and cancers may see their struggle for survival end in this grim enclosure.

More than 10,000 Asiatic black bears - an endangered species known as moon bears for the cream-coloured crescents on their chests - have been confined in cages from birth in farms across China. In many cases, the cages are too small for them to even turn around in.

Crude catheters are jabbed into their abdomens every day to extract bile that sells for about 4,000 yuan (HK$5,000) a kilo and is prescribed by traditional medicine doctors as a cure for everything from haemorrhoids, sore throats and epilepsy to hangovers. Bear bile contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid, a substance that helps animals avoid problems with gallstones during hibernation, and is taken as medicine in a variety of forms - in teas, tonics and wines, as tablets face packs, toothpaste and shampoo.

Now, in a major breakthrough, Animals Asia has persuaded a bear-bile farmer to stop milking his bears, so the Guangxi farm can be converted into a sanctuary.

Nicol fell in love with moon bears when she visited the charity's mainland headquarters, in Chengdu, last year, and is now championing the US$5 million fundraising effort to save 130 moon bears at the Guangxi farm from wretched, agonising deaths. The actress cajoled fellow cast members into making the appeal Downton Abbey's pet charity - something that could have a massive impact in the mainland, where the Edwardian drama, dubbed into Putonghua, has an audience of about 160 million.

Stars including Jim Carter, who plays Mr Carson, Brendan Coyle (John Bates), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Smith), Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow) and Sophie McShera (Daisy) filmed a video to promote the Nanning project before Nicol flew to China at the end of May. They recorded their heartfelt appeal in costume in the servants' hall on the Downton Abbey set.

"It was beautiful - really beautiful," says Nicol. "They all waited until their lunch hour and did their little pieces to camera. They did it with great generosity. As they went up one by one to do their pieces, Rob said, 'It's an act-off.' We were all watching the cast members going up and saying, 'Follow that then.'

"What is even lovelier is that Raquel [Cassidy], who plays Miss Baxter [Lady Grantham's maid], asked wardrobe to make a banner saying 'We love the bears', which everyone holds up at the end of the video."

IN THE SUMMER CAULDRON of southern China, the rescue begins in earnest as the farm's bears - including one named Pickle Nicol; Nicol's childhood nickname - are anaesthetised and examined by a British, Australian and Chinese veterinary team.

In return for compensation, the farm owner agreed to stop milking the bears last year so the process of converting the farm into a sanctuary could begin. Some of the sicker bears will be transferred to Animals Asia's Chengdu sanctuary, which was set up in 2000.

Nicol was introduced to the charity, founded by Jill Robinson, by fellow actor Peter Egan, who appeared in the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas special.

"Peter told me that once you've seen them, they get into your heart and it's a lifelong thing. It's forever," Nicol says.

In a break from filming last year, Nicol travelled to Chengdu, an hour's flight north of Nanning, where some 140 bears rescued from bile farms are living in a purpose-built, 12-hectare sanctuary.

"The thing that blew me away last year was that bears abused for so many years now had the confidence to let you go up close and give them something to eat," she says. "They are so stoic and so forgiving after everything they have been through."

Like Egan, Nicol was smitten. In Nanning, when she met her adopted bear for the first time, her words to Pickle as she gazed at her through the bars of her cage could have come from Mrs Patmore herself: "Hello sweet pea," she cooed. "How are you, my little poppet?"

Later, as the actress hosed the eight-year-old bear down with water to keep her cool in the sweltering heat of her confinement - the animals are being kept in their cages and small concrete enclosures until new accommodation is built - Pickle delighted Nicol by slapping her paw against her thigh in seeming appreciation.

"I felt an instant surge of love for her," the actress says. "This has been the experience of a lifetime for me and one of the most extraordinary things I've ever done.

"When you do pretend for a living, it's very important to see something real - and it doesn't get any realer than this. I'm so knocked out by what's happening here and this just needs every ounce of support from anyone who can give it."

The following day, Pickle is anaesthetised for her health check. "Her teeth have been cut. There's a lot of dental work to do," says Nicol. "She's got nasty scar tissue where they extracted bile from her. Her paws are very, very dry and sore because she's never been on soft grass. She's been on bars all her life. But I can imagine her on grass in her own enclosure getting bigger and stronger.

"These bears all have their own personalities. Some are quiet and gentle. Others are big show-offs. Pickle is just a big show-off. She should be in pantomime."

Nicol admits she was daunted and emotional when she first set foot inside the bear bile farm, where conditions will remain harsh until Animals Asia is able to fully convert it into a sanctuary with open green areas.

"It looked like a concentration camp and I felt like we were going into an area of mass suffering," she says. "But because the bears were all recovering, I found it an absolute joy to see them having a moment of contentment. Even though it doesn't wipe out what has happened to them, it does make you feel something really good is happening."

One of the most poignant moments of Nicol's three-day visit comes when she meets the bear farm owner, Yan Shaohong, and rather than berate him, clasps his hand and thanks him for abandoning the trade.

As she speaks, Yan's young estate manager gasps and says, "I know you. You are the lady from the English TV show." He appears almost comically star-struck.

Yan, the first bear-bile farmer in China to agree to convert his farm into a sanctuary, says he was persuaded to do so by his young daughter, an animal lover.

"I realised the process of extracting bile from bears is very cruel and it hurts the bears' health very much," he says. "At first, I thought about selling the bears to another farm, but I realised they would just be tortured somewhere else if I did. This way, our sick bears will have a brighter future. I hope it will set a good example."

Robinson, who has been campaigning for 15 years for an end to bear-bile farming, hopes his example will help persuade Beijing to take decisive action and end the brutal trade.

"We have an agreement [from the government] to end bear-bile farming but it is always in the future and that is what frustrates people," Robinson says. "Times have changed and this industry is completely distasteful to the Chinese public now. People in China are asking, 'Why do this to a bear when there are effective medical alternatives?' There have been TV programmes about it and investigations in the Chinese media.

"We have turned our whole strategy around and are saying: 'We are backing the Chinese public now against bear-bile farming.' Everything has come full circle. Someone said to me, 'You can step back - it's our fight now.' I thought that was a terrific thing to say. It's absolutely true. It is their country and they are their bears."

She pauses for a moment, then in an exclamation that sums up her frustration at the continuing suffering in bear farms across China, blurts out, "Bloody well end it!"

Robinson, whose crusade has won the support of other celebrities, including Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais and Olivia Newton-John, is convinced that converting farms to sanctuaries is the solution.

"It is a win-win scenario for the bears, the farmers and the reputation of the country. Bear-bile farming is now seen as hideous within the country and in the international community," Robinson says. "If they continue with [the farm conversions], people will start looking at China and saying, 'They do care about animals.' People are too willing to write China off as a country that doesn't care for animals and we know differently. They do care deeply."

Nicol's visit has been a huge lift to the charity's spirits, Robinson says.

"Lesley has dived headfirst into this," says Robinson. "She skypes us when she's on the set of Downton. When she calls us up, I just take her over to the hospital and we'll have a chat with the hospital team. Everyone adores her.

"She's not just an actress who's come in to do us a favour. She's actually become our friend. She has made us laugh and she is thoughtful and kind. She has given up a whole week of her only break from Downton Abbey to come here, and broken her heart doing it.

"Lesley has spent the whole time crying around Chengdu and Nanning for different reasons, so her emotions must be a total roller coaster. Yet every morning she bounces up and she's ready for a new day."

Robinson was particularly impressed by Nicol's encounter with the bear farmer, who ended up lending a hand to spray one of the animals with water to keep it cool - a remarkable turnaround for a man who once oversaw their daily torture.

"Lesley was so kind and understanding," says Robinson. "He may not have the same values but she can understand things are so different here and a business of this magnitude is important to him for his livelihood - and she has cut through all the cruelty and focused on the man and what he has given up."

Mrs Patmore's fame has been a major boost, Robinson says.

"You can see it on people's faces. Animal welfare is being taken more seriously here and people are absolutely bowled over that someone like Mrs Patmore would fly all this way to see us."

As her TV character would, Nicol appears genuinely astonished at the impact her visit has had.

"One of the great parts of what we are doing is that, in a small way, we can bring attention to an issue and that feels great," she says. "If I wasn't in Downton Abbey, I wouldn't be in this beautiful place. Nobody would have asked me to come here and I wouldn't know about it. So thank you, Downton Abbey, and thank you [writer] Julian Fellowes."

Downton Abbey looks set to continue to play a leading role in the lives of the moon bears. Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley) and Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes) were among cast members who performed comic skits at a fundraising gala for Animals Asia in London on June 19.

"Michelle has rewritten a song and it is hilarious - it will have people in stitches," says Nicol, as she prepares to fly back (to take part in the gala). "Mrs Hughes and I are going to do a song by Bernard Cribbins called the Gossip Calypso. And I've got something else up my sleeve."

In the video appeal posted by Downton Abbey actors on the Animals Asia website, Cassidy says the project in Nanning "has the power to inspire China, its people, its government and even the bear-bile farmers to end this cruel industry once and for all".

The kindly cook who has become the face of a pioneering animal-welfare cause would most certainly agree.

"Mrs Patmore has a big heart," says Nicol. "She wouldn't put up with any of this. She wouldn't stand for it. Neglect isn't right. Torture isn't right. It has to end."

Details of the appeal for the Nanning sanctuary along with the video recorded by the Downton Abbey cast members can be seen at


From inspired to inspirational

An intrepid gap-year student pedalled wearily home to Hong Kong last Sunday, raising nearly HK$100,000 for Animals Asia by having cycled the 2,500km from the charity's Chengdu headquarters.

Fin Field, 18, spent 24 days navigating potholed back roads and alarming stretches of highway after being inspired by a talk Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson gave at his primary school when he was just eight years old. Field - who will begin studying Putonghua at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, in the autumn - was a French International School pupil when Robinson gave her talk about the moment that inspired her to set up her charity in the 1990s.

"I remember vividly the story Jill told about being on a tour party going around a Chinese medicine farm and her and a friend found these cages full of bears and one of them put its paw on her shoulder," Field says. "I thought it was a really compelling story and it stuck in my mind. What she is doing is amazing and I just wanted to do something to help."

A keen sportsman, Field met Robinson and actress Lesley Nicol in Chengdu before setting off on his journey with only two spare inner tubes and a vague idea of his route.

"I expected tarmac roads all the way back to Hong Kong but it wasn't quite like that and my bike did get banged up pretty badly," he says. "The biking was quite tough but the people I met on the way were absolutely fantastic.

"It was a challenge being by myself because it's just you and your thoughts, and it's tough when people are beeping at you all the time. But then you stop and you meet the loveliest people, who look after you and invite you in for lunch and refuse any payment."

Field celebrated his arrival back in Hong Kong with a bacon sandwich and a welcoming reception in Sai Kung as his mother, Jane, admitted, "I'm extremely relieved. As a mother, the whole thing filled me with horror."

Field at first wanted to set out from Urumqi, which would have added thousands of kilometres to the journey, but he was persuaded by his parents to scale back his ambitions, she says.

Donations towards Fin Field's bike ride for Animals Asia can be made at


Red Door News Hong Kong