Humans have always been hunters, and we have preserved souvenirs from our hunting trips since time began. Trophies such as antlers would once have been used as tools or decorations, and as man evolved, so did our appetite for taxidermy ? the art of preserving a body when it is no longer alive.
The ancient Egyptians mummified pets upon the death of the owner, using a primitive form of taxidermy, and the naturalist Pierre Belon is thought to have been the fi rst person to write a book about the practice, in 1555.
All taxidermists have the same goal ? to present an animal in the most lifelike form after its death. This is only possible if the carcase of the animal ? be it mammal, bird or fish ? has been treated carefully before it reaches the taxidermist.
The art of taxidermy
Based in Salisbury, Wiltshire, Sean Douglas has been a full-time taxidermist for more than 23 years. He started out as a gamekeeper, skinning pelts and selling them to supplement his income. One day, Sean caught a fox, and it was such a handsome specimen that he wanted to keep the cape but he couldn?t afford to have it done by a professional. So, he decided to learn the art of taxidermy himself, and this hobby grew into a profession. Sean is, therefore, well placed to provide advice on preserving your trophy specimens, and how the taxidermist would prefer to receive them.
If you shoot a white pheasant, you may want to have it stuffed but make sure you ask the keeper first. However, whether it is a pheasant, a partridge or a pigeon, the taxidermist will not want a bird that has been hanging by its neck in the gamecart all day, bouncing around and having its neck stretched ? that makes it difficult to set the bird in a natural-looking position. Also, try to avoid letting a hard-mouthed dog retrieve your bird, as they can damage the specimen.
To preserve a bird?s feathers, wrap it in a pair of tights or a sock immediately after it is shot ? this will stop the feathers being ruffled and damaged, giving you a better-preserved specimen.
When placing the bird in the chiller, lay it on a crate (still wrapped in the tights) rather than hanging it. If you can?t get the bird to the taxidermist within a day, freeze it immediately. Even in the chiller the bird will start to decompose and the feathers will be more likely to fall out. When freezing the bird, keep it wrapped in the tights and then place it in a carrier bag to stop blood leaking into the freezer. The quicker you can get your specimen to the taxidermist, the better ? don?t leave it in the freezer for years before deciding to have it stuffed, as the final outcome will not be as good.
Like birds, small mammals such as stoats and squirrels start to decompose as soon as they are dead, so they need to be frozen or taken to the taxidermist on the day they are killed. This will give the taxidermist the best chance of creating a true representation of the animal.
When you are choosing a small mammal to take to the taxidermist, it is worth considering how it died. Sean suggests that it?s better if mammals haven?t been shot heavily, so snared foxes and trapped small mammals usually make better specimens. For example, if you had a chance encounter with a stoat and you shot it in the chest with your .22 rimfire, then the body may be too badly damaged to do a decent repair job when stuffing. Only when the skin has been removed will the taxidermist be able to tell what damage has been done.
A small mammal caught in a trap is always preferable, as it shouldn?t have any holes in the skin that can tear during the mounting process, or that will need hiding under the animal?s coat.
A similar consideration needs to be made if you are thinking of having a fox stuffed. Again, if you shot it in the chest with a large calibre rifle, leaving a large exit wound, that will be a difficult job for the taxidermist to disguise.
To get the cape right for a taxidermist to make the best possible job of your trophy, the stalker has to do everything right from the start. As Sean points out, ?Most stalkers make a mess of taking the cape off the animal. They usually don?t bring enough skin for the taxidermist to make a decent job of the mount, and they often cut the throat, which is unnecessary.?
You need to provide a good amount of neck skin so that when the taxidermist mounts the cape on the mould, he/she has plenty to work with. This is especially important with the larger species of deer. For example, if you try to hang a large red stag on the wall without a decent length of neck on it, the antlers will be touching the wall before the neck does. The cape should be taken from near the shoulder of a deer and not at the base of the neck.
Another important point to remember is never to cut the throat on a deer cape that you would like to have mounted. The taxidermist will have to cut the back of the cape from the shoulder to the skull so that they can remove the antlers, so if you have cut the throat then there will be two cuts that the taxidermist will need to sew up and hide. A cut throat is also on show on a cape because the throat faces the front.
When you are making your cuts, it is best to use either a guthook or a sharp knife held upside down (i.e. with the sharp edge pointing towards the hair). If you cut the skin with the knife in the conventional manner, it can cut the hair on the cape, and then the taxidermist will need to slice another inch or so off the cape to make it look good.
With all mammals, you will need either to freeze the cape (or the whole head and neck) within a day or get it to the taxidermist immediately. If you treat the carcase well before it goes to the taxidermist, then you should end up with a perfect specimen.
You can now have a painted cast of your prize catch that is close to the original, though they lack some of the definition of a traditional skin-mounted fish. Sean still skins the fish and preserves them in the traditional manner. He said, ?Freeze a fish instantly, if possible, or as soon as you get home. Fish start to decompose much quicker than a bird or mammal, so it is important to get them frozen within a few hours of killing them if you want a traditional mount.?
You only need to place the fish in a carrier bag, but you may want to wrap it in foil as well. Place strips of cardboard on either side of the fins, holding them in place with a paper clip, to maintain the shape and look of the fins. Creating a preserved fish is time-consuming for the taxidermist, and a traditional skin mount is usually more expensive than a painted cast.
Preserving your trophy
Mounts not in a case can easily become dusty. To keep them looking as good as the day you hung them, a good tip is to use a hairdryer on a cold setting to blow the dust from the mount. If the eyes are looking dull, gently polish them with some window cleaner on a cloth to bring back their brightness, while furniture polish is good for cleaning horns and antlers.
To clean a feathered mount, one simple method is to use cotton wool with a small amount of white spirit on it, brushing in the direction that the feathers are facing. It is important to keep away from any painted areas with this method, as the spirit will strip the paint off the specimen.
Cleaning a fish mount is best done using a simple lint-free cloth and some cool water ? simply wipe down the mount, removing the grime. If your mount has an insect problem, contact the taxidermist to find out the best method to get rid of them.
Sean Douglas takes commissions nationwide. For enquiries, tel 01722 331714.