Emilie Woodford shares her home in York with one husband, two kittens, one small dog, two snakes and a gecko. Not to mention assorted birds she has immortalised.
She used to be a veterinary nurse and is now a taxidermist – and one job led to the other.
“We used to get lots of wildlife brought in,” says Emilie, 28. “Injured by traffic accidents, in window strikes, by cats and so on. I thought it was just such a waste when they were put to sleep. Obviously, it was the best thing for them because they couldn’t be rehabilitated. But they’d just go into clinical waste and be lost.”
Emilie, who grew up in Malton, has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome since she was 12. She was home schooled and later attended Ryedale Out of School Education, up to her GCSEs.
After that, she worked as a veterinary nurse in Stamford Bridge and Helmsley. She still misses the nursing but being at home accommodates her illness. Some days she has plenty of energy; other days she struggles to get out of bed.
Emilie first went on a course with Dave Hornbrook, of Guisborough. She took along an owl that hadn’t survived a collision with a car.
“Dave’s upstairs,” Emilie says, laughing. Not Dave the taxidermist but Dave the owl.
She named that first piece after her teacher. Dave the owl sits at the end of her bed, with other stuffed birds and animal skulls collected by her husband. Next Emilie worked with Carl Church, the bird taxidermist of Pickering, who is about to retire.
Taxidermists are often men of retirement age, but a new generation is now emerging, including young women such as Emilie, who sits on the committee of the Guild of UK Taxidermists.
According to Pat Morris, author of books on the history of taxidermy, the art form is seeing a revival.
“After suffering a long period of public disapproval, taxidermy is attracting more interest, as both an art form and an important aspect of the history of natural history in this country.
“We now have a new generation of fine taxidermists, Emilie among them, who expertly deploy new methods and materials to advance the quality of modern taxidermy way beyond that of the past.”
Emilie stopped working as a veterinary nurse three years ago. “Vet nursing you do for the love of the job and not the money,” she says. “Generally, this pays better.”
She averages two birds a week, and is admirably straightforward about what she does, seeing a moral element to modern taxidermy.
“In the Victorian era, people would go out with a shotgun and shoot down a nest of owls. That’s why you would have an adult owl and five chicks because they’d bumped off the whole family.
“But people are more aware nowadays. I hope taxidermists do it for the love of nature and because they want to do justice to the animal.”
Examples of Emilie’s work at home sit above cabinets housing an American Hognose snake, a milk snake and Mungo the leopard gecko.
Among the finished birds are a falcon, a tree creeper and a barn owl. Her largest bird yet has been a snowy owl. A smaller new commission is a swift for Helmsley Swift Group. When completed, the bird will be used to illustrate talks.
Spread out on her worktable is a common Scoter duck, a commission for a wildlife biologist. The duck is turned inside out.
“First, I inspect for broken bones or feather loss. Check over for damage, skin it out. All the meat of the leg bones is removed but the thigh bone stays in with the body. The skull and wing bones stay in. The feather tracks need cleaning. And he needs all his skin cleaning before having a bath, and his eyes measuring. You inflate the eyes to a natural inflation and take measurements so when you put your acrylic eyes in you can get the right angles.”
Or if she’s pushing the boat out, glass eyes will be used.
Once the carcass is clean of grease, Emilie washes it by hand with washing up liquid. Then it’s time for a blow dry, using an ordinary hairdryer.
Wires are inserted through the feet and the wings, then the skin is stretched over a body made from balsa wood, wood-wool or pre-bought to the right shape.
Some Victorian taxidermy in our museums is not up to scratch, according to Emilie, who giggles as she mentions a walrus at one particular museum. “It is just like a big inflatable. It is walrus shaped, but very ballooned.”
In November 2010, the BBC reported that the National Museum of Scotland was sourcing specimens that would look more realistic. The new gallery opened in 2011, and at the time the museum was thought to be the only one in Britain with its own in-house taxidermist, but he has since retired.
These days it often embraces modern techniques with some taxidermists taking the craft to a higher level, bringing model animals to life using animatronics.
As for Emilie, her health is better than it has ever been. There’s no cure, but she has learned to pace herself. And there is a bonus with taxidermy. “If I am worn out, I can just pop the bird back in the freezer.”