Trials of taxidermy
Variety is the spice of life for a taxidermist, even though it can lead to suspicious packages in the post.
After a busy game and wildfowl season, I’m at last beginning to get most of my commissioned taxidermy work up-to-date. One of the great pleasures of doing the job is never knowing just what will be brought in, what new challenge lies ahead and just what skills you are expected to possess, for while many of these challenges are desirable, others are rather less so. But variety is the spice of life and it’s often a new experience to handle the latest specimen to be delivered.
Several years ago, an old farmer turned up one morning with a beautiful cock golden pheasant. The immaculate body feathers were the usual gorgeous mixture of reds, yellows, greeny-blue and golden orange, but there was definitely something important missing. Right where its head should be, the top of the neck terminated in little more than a decapitated stump of bone and gristle. Apparently, fed up with the aggressive bird hustling his wild stock, the old boy had blasted it out of a tree with his 12-bore at roosting time, quite obviously at point blank range. Now lacking what is the main focal point of any preserved specimen, nothing could be done to restore it to anything resembling a lifelike manner, though my father somewhat tentatively suggested mounting it in a sleeping pose, with it’s head tucked under its wing! “What am I going to do with it now?” the old boy asked, somewhat disappointed with my complete lack of spare pheasant heads or magical taxidermy skills. I very nearly told him but, rather more politely, suggested he eat it instead!
During the shooting season, the bulk of work is obviously the preparation of rather less damaged gamebirds and wildfowl. It usually kicks off with the early season grouse – often loosely feathered and still covered with developing feather stumps, with some also beginning to suffer the adverse effects of warm weather during their long journey south. If suitably looked after and in prime condition, red grouse are a particularly favourite. Besides preserving and mounting the skins, I can get a delicious meal or two from what’s left of the carcases. The birds give off a delicious flowery aroma when cooking, followed by a unique and delicate taste that encompasses the purple heather-clad moors from whence they recently came.
Partridges are next on the list, and there’s no finer meal than a young English bird. A clean carcase is seldom wasted, though becoming something of a rarity now the red-legged has almost taken over. Despite being difficult to hold on the ground, it’s a pity more of the English or grey variety are not reared nowadays, as they beat the redlegs hands down both in taste and ability to test the guns.
A month or so later comes the first of what is usually a cosmopolitan range of pheasants. Besides the more normal varieties; ring-necks, black-necks, michigans, Mongolian, Polish and various other strains and mixtures, there are the melanistic black ones, white ones, fawn coloured ones and all sorts of shades in between. Mixed among these are the odd golden and Lady Amherst’s pheasants – both highly ornamental – and the occasional majestic Reeves’s; an impressive species introduced from China by its namesake
John Reeves in the 1830s as an ornamental aviary bird. Now living and breeding wild in some parts of the country, a fully mature cock bird, with its 4ft to 5ft streamer-like tail, must be quite a daunting target to take on, as they apparently give a good account of themselves in full flight.
The colder weather brings the wildfowl, and added problems. Duck are often the most difficult jobs, particularly in open weather when the feeding is good enough to allow a mass of accumulated body fat to build up, all of which has to be carefully removed before the skin can be cleaned sufficiently to be preserved. It’s the bane of every taxidermist’s life, and there are no shortcuts. Every bit of fat needs to be broken down, scraped off and removed before the skin can be properly treated or it will eventually seep through to soil the plumage. Depending on species, many duck skins become extremely delicate and almost impossible to “degrease” without causing irreparable damage, no matter how carefully the work is carried out. Woodcock can pose similar problems. Notoriously difficult to preserve properly, at the fat removal stage the process can be compared to attempting to scrape damp tissue paper without tearing it, and I always breathe a sigh of relief when this part of the job is completed successfully. The skins eventually toughen up during the drying process – if they survive!
The ring-necked parakeet is a species now regularly brought in by the shooting community. An alien originating from India and commonly kept by UK bird fanciers, since escaping to breed in the wild during the 1970s ring-neck numbers have multiplied alarmingly and now need controlling to avoid displacement of woodpeckers, nuthatches and other indigenous hole-nesting birds. Also capable of causing widespread damage to fruit trees, so far the birds have been largely confined to London and the south-east, but seem to be slowly and steadily spreading.
Though the shooting season prevents any chance of getting bored during the winter months, the sources of taxidermy material are many and varied. Throughout the year the most common source is road kills, with barn, tawny and little owls suffering particularly badly. Huge numbers of mice and voles are killed annually on main roads and motorways, together with kestrels attracted by such apparently ideal hunting conditions.
Window strikes are another regular source of dead birds. Some even die of old age, providing an interesting and often unusual array of specimens from zoos, wildlife parks and private bird-keepers. While there’s certainly no shortage of dead bodies, condition is particularly important. The old saying, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear” definitely rings true with taxidermy.
Without warning, some years ago I received a dead chicken through the post. Sending items by courier is usually quite acceptable, and a potential client is normally advised to freeze the carcase first, wrap it well for protection and insulation, and to forward it immediately by guaranteed overnight delivery. Without bothering to contact me first, this particular pet chicken had been wrapped up and popped in the post during a summer heatwave! Several days elapsed before I was even warned of its arrival, and as the parcel took time to turn up, it was little wonder that the postman gave me a funny look when he eventually handed it over. We could both smell something very dead in an ominous brown paper parcel bound tightly and comprehensively with string, with which I retired immediately and somewhat dubiously to the back garden. Several layers of paper enclosed the lethal package. Sealed in an airless plastic bag, by this late stage the chicken had blown up to resemble an over-inflated football with feathers, both looking and smelling in imminent danger of exploding. The bag also contained handfuls of shed black feathers, tinged with dark green.
The belly area was by now a similar colour. There was no way I was skinning that, and after digging a deep hole in the vegetable garden it was given a decent burial. The remains even discharged a parting shot as I firmed it in with my foot, deflating like an obnoxious and realistic whoopee cushion! The stink was incredible!
A clean English partridge is a rarity
A pair of red grouse pegged for drying