In April 2019 Holly Morgenroth (Collections Officer at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum) gave me a call to say she had acquired a dead beaver that was in good condition for taxidermy. This was significant because this beaver was part of the River Otter Beaver Trial. All deceased beavers should now be sent to the Zoological Society of London for medical autopsies, which means they are usually not in good enough condition for taxidermy after the procedure. This particular beaver, originally from a population of beavers in Scotland, had been introduced to the River Otter in April 2019 to expand the gene pool of the population. Sadly she was found dead – it is possible she drowned in salt water as there were no visible injuries from conflict or a road traffic accident. Devon Wildlife Trust decided she did not need a post mortem and very kindly handed her over to Holly at the museum. Holly jumped at the opportunity and expertly packed her into a large plastic tub and placed her in the museum’s chest freezer and got to work obtaining funding to have her processed into taxidermy and a full skeleton.
After two years of worry that the freezer might break, in 2021 Holly was awarded the Bill Pettit Memorial Award from NatSCA for this project which went towards a large part of the funds, the rest of the money was supplied by the wonderful Friends of RAMM museum. Although there is much sadness that this beaver died she will now go on to educate about how amazing beavers are at creating fertile habitats for biodiversity. She will represent her species and their extinction from this county which had happened by the 16th century. She will also tell the story of the River Otter Beaver trial that gave her fellow beavers the opportunity to live permanently in the River Otter when they were granted the right to stay earlier this year in 2021. To find out more about this process, check out Holly’s blog, also out today.
After two years of waiting she arrived at my studio and the pressure was huge. So much can go wrong when preparing a skin for taxidermy that many sleepless nights were had. Each animal I encounter through my work in some small way is anatomically different but there was a huge difference with this beaver and that was her tail! I have not worked on a beaver before and expected the inside of her tail to be muscles and fat but in fact it was filled with what seemed like soft cartilage with a very thin tailbone running down the centre attached to a few delicate tendons.
When starting the work I was unsure how stable her skin would be. I only work with animals that have died from natural causes which often means I don’t know how long something has been dead before it was found. The fur on a mammal sits within layers of the skin and during decomposition these layers lift apart and the fur layer slips away. The fur needs to be fixed into place through a process called pickling and tanning otherwise over time the fur will fall out. When skinning a mammal I remove the skin completely from the body. The only bones that stay attached to the skin are the very last digits in the hands and feet where the claws attach to the skin. However with the beaver I could not use the claws because they were to be sent with the whole skeleton for articulation.
Once the skin is detached I remove any fat from the skin and then soak it in a bath of pickle. My pickle is made using a non hazardous acid which I mix with salt to create a pH level that is between 1 and 2pH. The skin stays in the pickle for at least one week, whilst checking the pH daily and stirring to dislodge any bubbles caught in the skin. During this time I also remove the inner layers of the skin, this process is called shaving and it thins down the skin making it easier to sculpt over my form. Once the skin is fully pickled I need to neutralise it using a water and bicarbonate of soda bath bringing it back up to 7pH. At this stage I could see that the beaver skin was in perfect condition and I sighed in relief!
The skin then needs to be tanned by brushing on a tanning oil which soaks into the skin. The pickling process plumps up the skin, sets the hair in place and removes the proteins in the skin which are then replaced by the tanning chemicals which are absorbed in the plumped up skin and preserve it.
Whilst the skin is being prepared I make the form for the skin to go onto. I do this using a traditional method called bind-up where woodwool (a soft wooden shaving) is tightly wrapped and bound around a wire frame to build up the muscular structure of the beaver. I used measurements I took from her body and reference plaster casts I created before removing the skin, so that I could make sure my sculpture of her was as accurate as possible.
After I built the initial bind-up with wood wool I coated it in a paper pulp and plaster mix to create a firm top later to make sure the structure was strong especially because she would only be supported by three legs.
Normally I clean and use the real skull of the mammal but this was not an option with the beaver so I created the head in bind-up form. Because I was not using the original skull I had to use false teeth but because the original beaver had chipped her teeth at some point I decided not to cast those and used commercially made resin teeth. I also needed to create fake claws. I did this by casting her individual claws in silicone and then created my own in resin, attaching these to bind-up toes.
Once the form was complete and the skin was fully prepared I started to sculpt the skin onto the body. I added her acrylic resin eyes and then placed nylon reinforced clay around her face, toes, ears and in the tail and started the long job of sculpting the skin into position and sewing her up.
After grooming her hair into place I waited for her to dry over the period of about one month. When the skin dries the pigment from areas of the skin not covered in fur lose their colour and can also shrink, these areas need to be built back up using epoxy putty and then painted with a mixture of acrylic paints. These finishing touches bring the taxidermy to life.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked with such an amazing animal and for Holly’s trust in me. I loved every minute of it and have learned so much from this project. The beaver is soon to be on display at the museum in the Courtyard Wall alongside her skeleton prepared and articulated by Jon Nott.