Spending hours on end in a garage surrounded by dead animals may seem less than savoury to many, but for one Derry man it’s become a passion. IAN CULLEN speaks to Waterside taxidermist Christopher Sherrard about his love for stuffing all things bright and beautiful.
The 36 year-old has developed a passion for taxidermy and over a period of many years has fine tuned the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals for display.
He admits that it’s an unusual hobby but then he’s quick to point out that the art which was popular throughout the world in the Victorian era is making a big comeback.
“It’s a passion for me, it’s not about making money - I just love it for the art it is.”
Married with three girls, he’s keen to point out that spends his down time trying to bring a semblance of life to the dead and not the other way around.
“Obviously, I’d rather see animals out running about but I just love working to preserve animals in the original form. I have hunted in the past but I don’t want to kill animals, my hobby is the art of taxidermy.”
Christopher’s makeshift workshop-come garage in Kilfennan is a treasure trove of stuffed animals - from the moment you enter, the eyes are on you. For someone not accustomed to being surrounded by wild animals it’s a bit unnerving, not to mention slightly eerie. They’re all long since dead.
However, once over the faint stench of death in the sealed workshop, visitors will experience the place come alive. Colourful game birds, foxes, squirrels, rooks, seagulls, snakes and even protected birds of prey such as sparrow hawks and buzzards decorate the space where you’d normally expect to find a lawnmower or garden tools.
Far from the gung-ho Victorian age mantra of ‘kill and stuff everything that moves’, taxidermy is a tightly-regulated business these days.
“I’m fully licensced by the Environment Agency and I’m held to account by the local wildlife inspector, which is vitally important because it reassures the public about taxidermy. The normal licence covers me to work on gamebirds, certain gulls, sparrows, foxes and many other animals.
“Another special licence is needed for protected species and birds of prey and that licence must remain with the individual bird if it is sold or passed on so it can be traced.
“Before issuing the licence, the inspector must check that it hasn’t been shot or poisoned.”
Christopher can’t understand how his work could upset animal rights campaigners.
“I have been heckled in the past when taking part in training up in Bangor. Young people shouted things like ‘murdering b*****d’ and other insults at me but the truth is that I don’t kill animals. I’m a fully licensed taxidermist, a full member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and I’m totally against any inhumane killing of any animal.”
He says that people who insult him for what he does simply don’t understand the nature of his work.
“It’s not cruel, we’re not murderers; it’s a hobby that can be educational for other people.
“I set up a stall at an event recently for people to view my work and at the beginning of the day two elderly ladies approached me and said they had concerns about taxidermy and the killing of animals.
“However, after a conversation the two ladies were over with their grandchildren admiring the animals and learning about them.
“Education is what taxidermy is all about but the unfortunate thing is that no one in this country has the opportunity to learn about it.”
Only 12 licensed taxidermists practise in the North and, Christopher says, few are keen to pass on their skills to others.
But family man Christopher is passing his knowledge on to his children who are keen to get involved in the art.
“When we’re out on family trips we always take black plastic bags with us in case we come across an unfortunate animal. The girls always keep their eyes peeled for roadkill. We were travelling in the car recently to collect a fox and spotted a hare in the middle of the road and picked it up.
”The girls are really taking to it - they get involved in making the bases and stands for the animal display and various other aspects.”
The vast majority of Christopher’s work is carried out on roadkill or animals which have died naturally, although some hunters do request that their quarry be preserved from time to time. He can’t keep up with the number of large roadkills he comes across, he says, pointing to the tightly packed chest freezers in his workshop.
Christopher, a part-time hospital domestic, has become so preoccupied with his hobby that he hopes to turn his labour of love into a livelihood.
“There’s certainly money to be made but it takes a long time to perfect it, as it’s a very delicate art. I’ve spent around £6,000 on training courses, books and DVDs to get where I am.
“Until recently taxidermy had been dying for many years - mainly because of the bad reputation it got during Victorian times. They simply killed everything and stuffed them. Animals were becoming extinct because of it and taxidermy gained a bad reputation.
“It’s much different today and I’d love to start a business in taxidermy - that’s what I love and it’s what I want to do.”.