Private Passions – Much ado about stuffing

William Hancock has worked as a fine and rare wine consultant for World Wine Agencies SA since 1985. The company has offices in London and Buenos Aires. Hancock advises on all aspects of the wine industry, from investment, cellaring and shipping to label design.

Much ado about stuffing

How did you get into taxidermy?

I began shooting aged eight on my father’s farm in Scotland. On a good day out, ‘the bag’ consisted mainly of pheasant, partridge and woodcock. Some days we could add duck and snipe to the list, but rarely a grouse.

There were also these amazing hare that would change their fur to white in the winter as camouflage against the snow. Then in springtime, once all the snow had melted, they were still white against the green and the heather.

I was always fascinated by the plumage of the pheasants and could be seen gathering feathers, almost in d’Artagnan fashion, at various shoots.

I’m a little colourblind, so it was a great pleasure for me to be able to cross the line of colourblindness in that moment and quietly enjoy the pure beauty of what nature’s rich palate was offering.

Years later, during lunch one day at The Jolly Sportsman in Lewes, I met an artist called Bob Read who also happened to be a taxidermist. We got talking and I ended up going to one of his workshops and never looked back.

What kind of things did you stuff when you first got started?

I started off collecting small birds to stuff, and one or two rabbits, which nearly put me off the whole thing. It’s hard to remove the skin of a rabbit without tearing its innards, and the smell is unbearable and unforgettable.

It’s a pungent, throat-gagging, sickly sweet, dense, rotting rat aroma that lingers in the air like an old heavy carpet.

My children always thought it was a little bizarre that dead wildfowl, pheasants and the like were hanging outside the front porch of our home, but they got used to it.

Talk me through the process of stuffing an animal from beginning to end…

I always keep my beasts bagged up in the freezer until they’re ready for stuffing. First you have to defrost them. I will have already disembowled and de-brained the animal before freezing, including eye removal.

The next step is to skin the specimen and wash it thoroughly with alcohol and Borax. Then you have to dry the animal out as moisture is the enemy of taxidermy. Finally, after filling with clay and stuffing, some serious modelling-up and cross-stitching takes place.

I spent years as a sculptor and a letter carver, which has helped me develop an eye for detail and learn the art of patience. The final stage is to feather up or groom the fur. With birds it’s a bit easier to get away with some errors as the plumage can be used to cover the mistakes up.

As for tools, I use a basic surgical kit that includes sharp knives, a chisel, tweezers, scissors, a small hammer and sewing needles and thread.

Where do you get your animals from?

Most of them I have hunted myself and the rest have either been road-kill or I’ve found them lying around.

Which of your efforts are you most proud of?

After many years of hit and miss attempts, I’m most proud of my pheasant, Alfredo, which I won a ‘well done’ rosette for at a Pony Club fête.

I’m also very happy with my pollock, Alberto, who caught the eye of a photographer friend of mine, Juan, who created a modern day still life picture of the fish and I where Alberto stars as the centerpiece of an extravagant banquet.

Which animal has proved the biggest challenge?

An armadillo. I didn’t like handling it at all as it was far too reptilian for me. And I had an audience present, which made stuffing it all the more difficult.

What animal would you most like to stuff?

A small polar bear.

Have you ever dressed one of your animals up in miniature clothes?

I have indeed. Last Christmas Freddi the pheasant sported a sparkling Christmas crown and red Santa scarf.

Do you find taxidermy relaxing?

Yes. To me it’s like meditation. It’s very Zen as you need total concentration, cleanliness and a gentle hand throughout the operation.

Do you still go hunting and shooting?

I stopped shooting in 2001. It was a beautiful fresh sunny day in Scotland and I had an epiphany moment where I realised that it just wasn’t my thing anymore. As soon as I removed the cartridges from my shotgun the birds began to fly in my direction and not in the path of my fellow hunters up on the hill.

What is the next animal you plan on stuffing?

One of my South American wine clients has a llama farm 3,000 metres above sea level in Abra Pampa in northern Argentina where she breeds the last remaining rare breeds of various types of llama.

One of the older, rarer, male beasts keeled over and died in the cold one night and she asked me if I could go up and stuff him. I agreed, and at this moment he is on ice waiting for me to go back there to finish off the job. It will be my last stuffing.

Lucy Shaw at The Drinks Business