When people discover what I do, the question I am asked most often, apart from “what’s the wierdest thing you’ve ever done?” is “so, how did you get into taxidermy then?” A very short question for which an equally short reply is possible “…it was a hobby that turned into a job”. If that’s a sufficient answer, then you do not need to read another word.
However, if you require a more considered reply to that question, and the back story to how I came to be a taxidermist, or as I see it, how taxidermy commandeered my life, you will need to grab a chair for ten minutes, as to put it into proper context requires a look back over some four decades. To explain it all fully, I could probably write a book, but in the following ramble, should you care to read it, I will explain and put into context just some of the things in my life which led me into a passion for wildlife and taxidermy.
In common with many who are involved in taxidermy, my path to where I find myself today will be a very familiar one. My very earliest memories are of natural history related things and places. My interest (as I am reliably informed by my parents) began when I was no more than two or three, collecting any and all bugs, worms, spiders and caterpillars that I could find. All, lovingly “looked after” in various match boxes and sweet tins. My child like fascination with all things wild has never waned, and I am as absorbed today observing wildlife as I have ever been. My interests, then and now, are most certainly not restricted to deceased wildlife, in fact, quite the opposite.
Throughout my life I have never been far from living wildlife of some description. I have looked after or owned many creatures in various capacities and contexts, certainly too many to list them all here, but to name a few I’ve had in my care foxes, squirrels, endless birds from the humble sparrow, a pair of very talkative corvids in the shape of ‘Spot’ the magpie and ‘Jackie’ the Jackdaw, to becoming a licensed rehab keeper in the 80’s for injured raptors, of which we had most of the common UK species. In the years we did it, of the countless Sparrowhawks, Kestrels, Tawny, Barn, Little and Long eared owls, many were successfully re-trained to hunt and hacked back to the wild. Others we lost or had to remain in captivity. My parents’ back garden then was more like a small zoo than a normal garden, aviaries and pens everywhere. The house too and my own bedroom were used for housing various creatures. Even the bath was home to an injured great crested grebe for a week. For many years I basically used my family home and garden as a cross between a zoo and a home for destitute and injured wildlife and in spite of chewed curtains, stained carpets, broken ornaments and other “accidents”, too many to mention here, my parents tolerated my antics without complaint; something for which, I can never thank them enough.
My fascination for wild animals and particularly raptors brought me to a serious passion for Falconry and I had the absolute privilege for some 25 years of keeping and flying birds of prey. I had various larger raptors over time, including Buzzards, red tailed Hawks, a huge European Eagle owl, but, in particular, Finnish Goshawks were my real passion……….Read More
I travelled the length and breadth of the UK flying them, in and on, some of the most beautiful landscapes in the UK. To me there is truly no feeling like that of working with a well trained dog and a fully fit goshawk, as part of a team, up on the high moors of the Yorkshire Dales or Scottish borders on a freezing windy December day. I had very many happy years with them, my most recent goshawk “Storm” was released aged 17 in…. well, a very wild place. A fully trained and very experienced hunting bird, she earned it. Her predecessor “Bonny” passed away in her mid 20`s. Incredible creatures, I will never own another.
In the context of my taxidermy, being so close to these stunning raptors taught me a great object lesson about studying ones subject. If I worked on a raptor, of any kind, a glance at my goshawk, her eyes, her position, expression, even her mood, from one moment to the next, would quickly temper any illusions that I had, even a tenuous grip, on the art of taxidermy. To this day, no matter what creature I am working on, I apply that rule and it is a great leveller to the ego. Study your subject, never assume you know what it looks like, because really… you do not.
Looking back, my first attempts at collecting and preserving “dead things”, be they insects, birds, fish, crustaceans or small mammal skins, came when I was just nine or ten. I was also keen on drawing and sculpting models of birds. Of course, I had no real idea what I was doing, and the results of my attempts at taxidermy usually ended in the wings alone being added to my feather collection.
I was driven by an urge to be able to preserve and keep the amazing and fascinating natural things I came across as a child. It starts with a fascination for wildlife, animals, natural history generally; the urge to get closer in some way. I would find feathers or dead birds. I would want to identify the bird or the feathers I found, so I would invariably take it home and my highly tolerant parents would allow me to look it up, dissect it and generally mess about with it. I would take feathers initially; stick them in my scrap book with the relevant Latin names etc… It went from there, preserve the wings, then the skin…the only natural progression of that is taxidermy.
By fourteen or so I had discovered some basic books and a few local chaps who were doing it. I was also, by now, very absorbed in bird watching, shooting, fishing, ferrets, falconry, beating on shoots and just about anything that would get me out and about in the countryside.
In those pre-internet days, taxidermy was a very secretive activity, and whilst people were happy to chat, or show their skills off, none would actually show me how the process was actually done, in detail. The workshop stayed locked. No courses, no apprenticeships, just a few old books.
The only person from the world of taxidermy, who actively encouraged me, and to whom I remain eternally grateful is Geoff Yates, former taxidermist at Bolton Museum. My early visits to his studio in the basement there are etched deep into my memory. I would be so excited, knowing I was to go there for an hour or two on any particular day to see what was on the bench. I knew however that Geoff, in spite of my enthusiasm, had a job to do and was not able to tutor me for hours on end.
I soon realised, I would have to do myself, by trial and error… lots of trials and lots more errors, in those early days. The one thing I did do, again encouraged by Geoff, which assisted me greatly, was to join the UK Guild of taxidermists. I attended meetings and took work along to be judged by some of the UK’s leading professionals. I also got the chance to see their work, close up, and it put into context for me just how little I really knew back then, and needed to learn, to become proficient.
I clearly recall a mount by Peter Summers, a brilliant bird taxidermist, of a small covey of Ptarmigan set in a large case, the birds arranged on a slopping patch of mountain scree, as if in the high cairngorm. The birds even looked as if they were cold and huddled in a strong wind. This mount demonstrated a detailed knowledge of these birds, their character, their habitat, and a consummate ability to interpret that through the construction of accurate diorama, truly brilliant taxidermy and the technical expertise to execute the piece. It blew my mind at the time and he made it look so easy. There are many other examples I could give of people whose work has inspired me, including my discovery of the genius that was Carl Ethan Akeley. If you are unfamiliar and have a genuine interest in what taxidermy can and should be, look him up and prepare to be educated on what real taxidermy is. His superb work survives him.
Just seeing this high quality work then, allowed me to benchmark my work against my elders and betters. Rejections, at the judging stage, whilst personally very disappointing, just drove me to study harder and learn more about the subject. Failure was not an option, as they say.
In common with many taxidermists, I am by nature an autodidact; therefore, if I cannot be shown, or have explained to me how to do something, it is my instinctive response to say “fine, but I will learn it anyway” by research and practice, until I fully understand it and am able to apply that process to my work . My dad would call it my “bloody mindedness”. Self teaching is a long and hard road to walk; I did it as I had no choice, I would not necessarily recommend it. That said, self criticism is essential to develop.
Going back to my school days; Taxidermy then, unsurprisingly, was my first career choice. Much to the chagrin of my careers’ teacher who, I think, thought I had completely lost the plot. “You want to be a what, Leggett?…get out of my office!”
I did look into a Carnegie scholarship and apprenticeships, to no avail, and once I accepted that I was not going to leave school on Friday and the following Monday, open Manchester’s answer to Roland Wards’ Taxidermy Studios, I looked for a more realistic alternative, commensurate with my qualifications and core skills. I took on an apprenticeship as a Dental technician, which actually proved incredibly useful, some six or seven years later on, when I finally took the plunge to be a freelance taxidermist with varying degrees of success.
A massive and severe learning curve followed. Like any self employed person, one has ones ups and downs over the ensuing years. To become “established” in taxidermy, takes a very long time. People often find a taxidermist through word of mouth recommendation. Placing endless adverts in shooting magazines and the like, though initially helpful, will not build a sustainable business and a solid reputation for quality work. I spent much of the late 80’s and 90’s relentlessly attending game fairs up and down the country, to display my work and make contacts with potential clients. All the time hammering away at trying to improve my understanding of how to raise the quality of my work.
I very quickly learned that saying you are a taxidermist, and being able to do it full time, as a sustainable business that will earn one a living worthy of the name, are two very different things. As a paying hobby, pension top up etc. it’s great, as a living, certainly not easy. One could be busy one month, then nothing for another two! Competition amongst taxidermists for business was (and remains) quite fierce. Standards vary wildly and the public are often not able to distinguish between good and bad very amateurish work. The internet has exacerbated this situation as anyone who can throw an animal together can also start a web site. There are now many on social network sites and general web sites. The uninitiated are faced with a morass of options of varying quality and cost. Understandably many simply opt for the cheapest option, irrespective of quality. The issue for any genuinely professional taxidermist is that one simply cannot earn a living doing squirrels for £80 each!
To me the fact that the public may not necessarily know good taxidermy from bad is no excuse for doing bad work. I have over many years met taxidermists who say “why spend time doing it the best you can… they can’t tell the difference and won’t pay for it anyway”. I disagree, to me one should always strive for the highest quality, across all aspects of ones work. It has always been my firm belief that those who seek the services of a taxidermist, and are serious about it, are willing to be educated as to what is possible and will appreciate it.
Looking back now, I had the choice to just churn out cheap work at a price that meant I could not put sufficient time and effort into it, or I could strive to achieve higher standards. For myself, I would rather do it to the limits of my ability or not do it at all. So I made the choice to be the best that I could be and study my subject in greater depth.
Comparing my work with nature, with live animals (live reference) was, I decided, the only way to move forward. Friends, colleagues, relatives and clients may encourage with kindly words, lulling one into believing one has become proficient. Just because a mounted animal or bird can stand up and not smell, does not mean one is a taxidermist! Unless one studies their specimen subject, in depth, from live reference, detailed photos and accurate measurements and then learns how to interpret that information, when reconstructing that animal, one can never have any hope of reproducing the nature of that animal, using taxidermy, to recreate it.
I have always sought to study, watch and understand all my subjects where possible. To see how their immediate situation, mood and behaviour affects their demeanour. This, coupled with meticulous study of dead reference: photos, measurements, models and casts of the carcass and anatomy, are the only way to achieve the standards we should all strive for in taxidermy.
I consider myself lucky to have been learning taxidermy, just as the older methods were on the wane. Using those old methods of moulding, casting, measuring and ‘binding up’ wood wool, over the rendered and re-articulated skeleton of the subject, then sculpting the musculature back on to the mannikin, teaches one an immense appreciation of anatomy, without which, I would suggest it is almost impossible to successfully mount any animal and get it anatomically correct. The process is involved and time consuming, but the value of what one learns is manifold. The use of new polyurethane forms today, whilst time saving, teaches the user nothing about anatomy and most forms are made for ease of production and generation of profit for the manufacturer, not for producing quality mounts. The true test of a taxidermist is to be able to mount well say, a full fox, without use of a pre made form, from scratch, using little more than galvanised wire, wood wool and some decent modelling clay.
Throughout the 90’s I continued working as a taxidermist doing all sorts of work from humble squirrels to full mount bear. Birds too formed a large part of my work. I also chose to look more closely at fish taxidermy. This area of taxidermy is a particular challenge, requiring completely different skill sets and methods to achieve. Also, I needed to develop my abilities at painting and airbrush work, as all fish need to be completely repainted. I had made some attempts at it in the late 80’s, with little success, so I took the decision to research the subject more deeply, and began my own R&D, trying out many unorthodox techniques to try to achieve good results. I found using the traditional methods lacking, if one wanted to achieve consistent quality results. My efforts began to bare fruit after about 5 years of development, and once I was sure I could produce work of a good standard I offered my services as a fish taxidermist, doing mainly gamefish like Trout and Salmon.
My initial introductions to doing game heads came back in the late 80’s, buying deer carcasses from game dealers and asking those I knew who were involved in deer management on deer parks and estates. Deer management (culling) is a necessary part of protecting woodlands, forestry and all sorts of habitats all over the UK. Well over 200,000 deer are culled annually in the UK and this figure is set to rise. The heads and skins of the deer (as they are in domestic farmed animals) are surplus to requirements. I would buy or be given them. This area of work I found very challenging. Deer are not easy to work on, the skins alone are a challenge as I needed to learn the correct process known as tanning. This is largely about chemistry and hard graft. Get this part wrong and no matter how good your taxidermy, the deer will look appalling. This interest in deer led me into learning a great deal about the complexities of deer management and I began to get involved myself. This gave me the opportunity not just to meet people and gain knowledge, but I was afforded the opportunity to study and watch deer in the wild. This is absolutely vital in learning about how deer actually look. Add to that the ability to attend at the deer larder, when the culled deer are being processed to go into the human food chain for the venison trade, and I was in a perfect position to take detailed measurements, study anatomy and gain invaluable reference. Initially I was doing the smaller Roe bucks, for occasional stalkers, who had culled a particularly memorable animal whilst out stalking. Gradually, I began to get the larger red and fallow deer from the Estates and direct from clients. I find the sculptural and anatomical aspect of my work fascinating.
In the early 2000’s I was introduced to South Africa by a client and friend. These visits to Africa had made an immeasurable impression on me emotionally, intellectually and professionally, changing my attitude to many aspects of life. Over ten years I was incredibly lucky to be able to go to Africa, many times, and see for myself, up close, how the much maligned world of hunting in Africa is run and operates. However, one judges it from a comfortable chair in the UK (and I did). The fact is that real world management and conservation of game and predator populations in Africa is a massively complex matter. To see healthy populations of wild game in Africa, one needs to go to managed reserves. Most of these reserves invariably need to cull and control their game animal populations (even the famous Kruger park does this). At the same time these reserves are phenomenally expensive to manage, protect and maintain. Legal Hunting in Africa is very tightly controlled by government bodies and through licensing quotas and permits. C.I.T.E.S, EU, US fish and wildlife also impose strict controls.
Unmanaged areas are practically devoid of any game at all, due to illegal poaching for food, which places no more value on wildlife than as a cheap, easy food it is indiscriminate and very cruel, using mainly snares. In many areas the situation, especially with Ivory and Rhino horn is worse than critical. Some of the only places in Africa with anything approaching a viable breeding stock of Rhino are hunting reserves. This may seem bizarre, but these are some of the only places they can be properly protected. Some are guarded 24/7 by armed soldiers.
Export of any hunted trophies from Africa is impossible without the requisite export and import paperwork. Importation likewise is harder still. Get the paperwork wrong and the shipment is forfeit. All of this, most people are unaware of.
Whilst in Africa, I experienced hunting of a range of species, from plains game to big game, and had the opportunity to collect vital and invaluable reference on these amazing animals. After long days hunting in the bush veldt, I would spend many hours at night skinning, measuring, studying and photographing a huge range of game animals.
To some, the prospect of spending long hours skinning a kudu, zebra or a warthog may seem an unpleasant one, but if you really want to understand an animal, it is a prerequisite. To see, not just how it behaves when alive, but also understand how its muscles look, how they attach to the skeleton, how that underlying anatomy actually works, moves; how it is affected by gravity, the way large muscle groups and skin can sag, or become suddenly taught, as the animals fight or flight response kicks in. To fail to see the beauty of, and really understand an animal by seeing how it works, from the inside out, is to fail as a taxidermist and an artist, trying to recreate these animals. Without one, the other is impossible. I spent many early mornings in trees and ground blinds, observing all the wildlife and its behaviour, drinking at waterholes and feeding. Sitting alone, thirty feet up a tree in the African bush as the sun rises and the incredible diversity of diurnal wildlife begins to awake and appear, is something which will be etched into my mind forever. Likewise, as the evening draws in and the sun sets, sitting looking out over a watering hole is an education on its own. I remember watching a young Kudu bull; He walked over to the blind I was in, pitch dark inside. He knew something was not quite right and he came in so close that I could even see the tiny veins around his eyes. He was less than four feet away, his nervous curiosity and twitchy muscle tone had me fascinated. His curiosity, had I been a lion or leopard would have cost him dearly. An old kudu bull would have been gone at the very first sense that something was wrong. Wild Africa is a place of stark realities and extremes for its human and animal inhabitants. I hope I may return again someday.
Coming to today…
We are, these days, very privileged to accept work from across the UK, Europe and even the world, on a range of species for clients who are more varied than the species upon which we work. We can one day be working on a road casualty Robin or Owl for a local client, the next on a 900 kg Cape buffalo for a client from abroad, another on a bespoke piece for a Museum or Artist.
Finally, Taxidermy has been and remains a lifelong passion for me. It brings constant challenges and despite the years doing it and the range of work, I never stop learning. I have an overwhelming sense that it is my duty to set up an animal as closely as is possible to how it looked in life. My hope for the future is that those who enjoy taxidermy today seek to be the best they can, to recreate the animals on which they work with skill and commitment. We owe it to the clients we work for, to the animals we work upon and to those in the future, who may not ever see these animals in the wild, alive. They may only have the work we produce to exemplify them, other than photos or some plastic model.
That…is how I got into taxidermy, and never got out.