With a portfolio which resembles the passenger list of Noah’s Ark, gamekeeper- cum-taxidermist Will Hales’ workshop is as different as its contents are beguiling, says Will Pocklington.
Country sports provide the most remarkable opportunities to get up close and personal with all manner of wildlife. It’s a factor intrinsic to our enjoyment and inherent to why we do what we do. But getting really close to a wild animal for any length of time – close enough to thoroughly examine every aspect of its appearance in great detail – is rare, even for those of us who frequent the places where such encounters are most likely.
I’m talking unusually close. Close enough to make out the ember-orange of a bittern’s irises, pluck a feather from the ruffled throat of a cock capercaillie, or count the electric-blue specks on a kingfisher’s wing.
It’s not impossible, though.Recently, I saw all of the above at just a whisker’s distance. An albino peacock, too, and a pair of marsh harriers, a warthog, several barn owls, a black grouse, a Cape buffalo... And I saw the whole lot in the space of 10 minutes. In a church, in Lincolnshire.
Yes, taxidermist Will Hales’ workshop is as different as its contents are beguiling. The arched entrance to the 1860s edifice represents something of a portal into a world of fascination for anyone even remotely interested in the natural world.
As we walk down the aisle towards where the alter once stood, we are flanked by a couple of huge bull heads, a Highland and a limousin that have come in for restoration work from a client in a London pub. A myriad of creatures great and small sit in the vestry. But these represent just a fraction of Will’s portfolio, which in its entirety would look a bit like the passenger list of Noah’s Ark. The fact that he immortalises each with such exceptional likeness to their living relatives is quite remarkable.
Three centuries on from when the earliest examples of taxidermy were recorded, the craft is in good shape. It has, however, changed enormously since the days of ‘stuff and stitch’ and ‘shoot to preserve’. “Even in the 30 years I have been a taxidermist, much has changed,” explains Will. “Of course the principles of skinning and mounting are the same, but the materials we use are constantly evolving. We might use woodwool or polysterene, balsa wood or wire. I will often toy with filler products that other professions use. There’s no black and white, set in stone method, though – it’s more a case of experimentation and discovering what works well through experience.”
And whilst some of the new blood entering the trade now adopt an eccentric approach, dressing up specimens in cartoon fashion – think rats in top hats (no, really) – Will aims to model his in their most natural form. “I don’t think it’s right to make a mockery of the subject,” he tells me.
With words alone it would be impossible to convey just how right he gets things. The way a vixen raises her head in curiosity when basking in the sun, for example, or how a jay sits vigilantly, well aware of its giveaway livery. I’d only have been half surprised if one of the mounted specimens surrounding us had sprung into motion at any point during my visit.
Will’s knack for preserving bird and beast in such lifelike glory stems from two things: an artist’s eye for aesthetics and balance, and the countless days he has spent immersed in the natural habitat of his subjects. Even before his introduction to the craft at the age of 17 (when he attended a basic, have-a-go taxidermy course advertised at a local game fair) he was already a gamekeeper, and still is – spending 11 years at Dalby Hall and the two decades since at Fordington in the Lincolnshire Wolds. The latter, coincidentally, is where I first met Will as part of the beating team at the age of 12.
“At school, the only thing I was reasonably good at was art,” he admits, modestly. “Painting and sculpting, pottery, that sort of thing. And through keepering and living in the countryside my whole life, I suppose I’ve become familiar with how things look and behave.
“Some people know me as a keeper, some know me as a taxidermist, and some know me as both. I love working on the shoot. Come July and August, that side of things becomes much busier, but even during the season I often find a spare few hours to come to the workshop. By February, my mind is blown with new ideas.”
There is, of course, always the fear that those not as accustomed to gamekeeping and taxidermy might link the two more cynically. “The last thing I want is for Joe Public to assume that I source the animals I work on by shooting them,” he says.
Truth is, unlike during the Victorian era when taxidermy had no laws and it was all the rage to shoot or trap rarer species with which to decorate one’s mantelpiece, the vast majority of the animals which find their way to Will’s freezer belong to the 100 million-plus killed each year on the UK’s roads – the remainder being victims of power lines, windows and domestic cats, or game and vermin species which may legally be taken.
And believe me, some weird and wonderful creatures have found their way into that church. “Over the years I’ve had some real surprises,” Will remarks. “You never quite know what someone might bring in. It could be a waxwing, a greylag goose, or even a harvest mouse.” Stranger pieces include a white jay, several tortoises, even a pet coati mundi. Trophy fish are also mounted. These typically end up in traditional bowfronted cases which Will creates himself. Roughly 80 per cent of his work is within glass to guarantee that his subjects live on for decades to come.
His customers are an eclectic mix, too, some of whom simply wish to preserve a creature of interest they have found on a roadside, while others might wish to commemorate their very first gamebird.
“A bird the size of a barn owl might take me roughly three days, depending on its pose,” Will explains when I enquire as to the timescales involved.
So how is it done?
Firstly, everything brought to Will is logged in a book; where it was found and when. Certain specimens, if being sold, may require an individual licence from DEFRA. And if the customer then wants to sell the piece on, they must apply for a licence, too.
Beforehand, the condition of the specimen will have been discussed with the customer. “They need to have been found fresh and not have too much missing,” explains Will. “But it’s far better for me to have a look, even if frozen, to determine if it is useable.”
The carcass is then frozen to halt any further decomposition, and, when the time comes, thoroughly defrosted. With birds, an incision is made along the breastbone so that the body can be carefully skinned. The skin is then washed and salt-cured before mounting commences, killing any bacteria and preventing decay.
The word taxidermist is a coming together of taxi, meaning to move, and dermis – being the word for skin. “Ultimately, I am moving the skin onto a sculptured mannequin, and into the position it would lie naturally in real life,” says Will. “It’s a bit like when you get dressed in the morning and you put on a jumper – you adjust the sleeves or shoulders so that it fits properly. That’s what I’m doing with the skin of these animals.”
After the skinning, the leg- and wing-bones remain attached and all muscle and fat is removed. The body is then copied to the millimetre in a choice of materials. Wires are used to give support to the legs and wings when mounting, and the skull – still attached to the base of the beak – is also cleaned. If the process is done properly, there should be nothing within the frame that can rot.
And then there are the eyes... Have you ever seen a drawer full of glass eyes? Will sources his from a company in Belarus which manufacturers every conceivable type, from goldcrest to moose.
Once the specimen is mounted onto its natural perch, Will returns to a piece regularly to check that there has been no movement whilst the skin dries. This timescale varies between species as it is dependent on both the thickness of the skin and the drying conditions.
It is the small details which really set Will’s work apart. His scrutiny of feather placement, how clay sits between hooves, toes and talons, even the fiddly process of rebuilding eyelids, is quite incredible. The moss-covered stumps, reedbeds and frost-bitten bracken backdrops, typically fashioned from expanding foam and silicone moulds, are equally noteworthy.
Long before the advent of digital cameras, the internet and high-powered optics, the art of taxidermy afforded people the chance to get unusually close to all manner of species from the natural world. It preserved a part of history. Fortunately, thanks to remarkable talents like Will Hales, this most special of privileges will continue to be bestowed upon generations to come.