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.

Spare heads?

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.

Road kill

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.

Deadly de­liv­ery

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!

What next…?


A clean English par­tridge is a rar­ity


A pair of red grouse pegged for dry­ing

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