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Is Taxidermy a dying art?

According to the chairman of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, Phil Leggett, membership to the guild has remained static over the past 10 years. However, the demographic of taxidermists has changed from gamekeepers to artists. ?In Victorian times, gamekeepers used taxidermy as a profitable sideline, but that seems to be fading away,? he said. ?Most professional taxidermists using traditional mounting techniques to preserve hunting trophies are now in their 40s or older, so it is important that we preserve these skills, otherwise they could be lost to all but a few.?

Phil says that if nothing is done to encourage young taxidermists, waiting lists would become increasingly long. ?The demand for taxidermy is as great as ever, and many of the full-time taxidermists are overwhelmed with work. Shooters in south-east England have reported having to wait nearly a year for a mount to be finished. This situation will only get worse if new talent is not found.?

A revival among collectors

The British Historical Taxidermy Society also fears for the future of the craft. Chairman Martin Dunne told me that while collecting taxidermy is now enjoying a revival not seen since its heyday in the 19th century, there do not appear to be many younger people wanting to learn the traditional techniques. ?It is a shame that many of today?s young people seem to be deprived of the opportunity to learn natural history,? he said. ?However, those with an interest in the natural world, such as shooters, would be more suited to consider traditional taxidermy as a hobby or possibly a career than, for example, those from an art background wanting to make a statement with a bizarre creation. Current trends seem to show that taxidermy is very popular with artists at the moment.?

Edinburgh-based taxidermist George Jamieson offers courses of between one and five days. He confirmed that the majority of people enrolling on his courses are art students ? almost exclusively women. ?Artists such as 28-year-old Polly Morgan, who use taxidermy in their modern art installations, have no interest in traditionally mounting a gold-medal roebuck. In Scotland there are now only six full-time commercial taxidermists offering shooters, deerstalkers and naturalists the possibility of mounting trophies or finds. We must do more to promote the craft and encourage shooters at least to consider it as a hobby.?

Top on the art scene

According to an article in The Guardian in July 2010, Polly Morgan?s macabre take on taxidermy is breathing new life into a dead art. But it seems to be the only side of taxidermy that is enjoying a renaissance. Polly?s creations, far removed from the faux-live tableaux loved by the Victorians, are snapped up by art collectors and sell for up to £30,000, often to celebrity clients. Some of her most celebrated work includes quails? heads stuck to a telephone receiver and a squirrel holding a jar.

When I talked to Polly, she explained what motivated her in her art: ?I use taxidermy in uncommon scenarios and I tend not to mimic the natural habitat of the animal or mount it in the hunting style.? She has also noticed an increase in the number of women taking up taxidermy. ?Around 95 per cent of the enquiries I receive each week are from young women. They want to do something more contemporary with taxidermy.?

To stop traditional techniques from disappearing, Polly believes there needs to be a more cohesive, effective way to teach people: ?Perhaps a central school of taxidermy is what we need. It would have made my learning a lot easier. I think it?s a huge shame that the skill might become extinct. I guess we are all so used to having things done for us that it rarely occurs to people to pledge the necessary time needed to learn something for themselves. If you are fed up waiting for your brace of grouse to be mounted, perhaps you should try learning taxidermy yourself.?

Taxidermy needs time and space

Quex Museum, in Kent, holds one of the largest and oldest collections of taxidermy in the country. Originally collected by hunter-naturalist Major Powell-Cotton between 1887 and 1939, the museum is now home to 500 trophies, 4,500 skeletons and 6,000 skins. The Major used dioramas to display his animals in representations of their natural habitats. Malcolm Harman, curator at Quex, is a keen deerstalker and taxidermist, and in part attributes the disinterest among shooters to a lack of time and space: ?I was fortunate, as I was taught the craft by the museum?s professional taxidermist when I was a youngster. By comparison, taxidermy materials and mannequins are far easier and cheaper to obtain nowadays. To pursue the craft it is necessary to have a lot of space, however. You can only do so much in a garden shed ? you?ll soon find it is not large enough fully to mount a deer or big game. I think the need for a dedicated workshop puts some prospective taxidermists off.?

Malcolm added that it is easier to obtain proper training in the US, where taxidermy is far more popular. ?Compared with the UK, the Americans have bigger houses to display it in and they are more switched on when it comes to training the next generation. In the UK it is difficult to obtain an apprenticeship as many taxidermists cannot spare the time.?

Anatomy lessons from nature

BASC?s game and gamekeeping officer, Glynn Evans, said that the change in attitude towards animal furs and skins has also had a knock-on effect. ?In the past, fox pelts, stoats and other skins had quite a value,? he said. ?I can remember skins regularly being sent to grader Horace Friend in Cambridgeshire, but in the 1980s the market for this petered out, so people stopped skinning their quarry. There are probably quite a few young gamekeepers who have never bothered to skin animals.?

According to Glynn, gamekeepers are well placed to take up taxidermy: ?I know of two gamekeepers who are excellent taxidermists. The time they have spent observing wildlife seems to have helped them to get the anatomy right. Good taxidermists? work is in demand, and it would be a shame if this art did not continue. I hope that demand outstripping supply will help to attract more people to take it up.?

Lancashire-based taxidermist Steve Heyes echoed Glynn?s sentiments. He said that to become a proficient taxidermist it is imperative that you understand anatomy and that you have plenty of reference material. ?Shooters and hunters spend much of their time handling dead birds and mammals, so they already have a distinct advantage over city-dwellers who have little or no affinity with the natural world,? he explained.

Steve thinks shooters should experiment: ?It is a fallacy to think that you need years of formal training. I would recommend buying a copy of Taxidermy ? A Complete Manual, by J. C. Metcalfe, and practising on small mammals or birds.? He added: ?Taxidermy started out as just a hobby for me, but it has quickly grown into a career. At the moment I am only part-time, but the amount of commissions I am receiving on a daily basis may hopefully mean I can take it up full-time in the near future. The taxidermy community is small in the UK, but the Guild of Taxidermists has been incredibly supportive in my venture, so if you are interested in the craft make it your first point of contact.?

To find out more, visit the Guild of Taxidermists,