At just about all stages of the year, save the stalking, Thorn, Mark’s new dog, is at his heel.
Training dogs is a dark art to most, and Mark’s ability to train his is important - badly trained, and Thorn will become a substantial waste of his time. Worse still, it means his work is much more difficult. Consequently Thorn is the only of his dogs allowed in the house, as constant contact is required. The other dogs (a labrador for retrieving, three terriers for foxholes and a sheep dog for gathering; another freelance activity), are kept outside in kennels. At all times he is is developing under my very eyes. At six months old, I watched him carefully walk two pheasant poults back towards a tiny hole in the fence and back into the pen - an amazing feat for a puppy that only really wants to chase them. What is more amazing is that this is one of his many disciplines.
As Mark is versatile, so already is Thorn. He is a retriever, a pointer, and a second set of senses at the foxes. Mark can cover double the ground overnight if he leaves Thorn sitting watching a blind spot. The relationship is starting to border on instinctive, and Mark will soon be able to discern what Thorn’s body language is telling him; fox, roe, pine marten or even badger. This is the level of understanding reached by his previous dog, a lurcher, and makes his success rate with the foxes considerably higher, saving him a great deal of sleep.
Mark, as he will admit himself, is an obsessive character. This is the guy who was given a Playstation game for Christmas, and out of politeness he had a go, but failed a level after a while. He got so furious “that a bundle of wire and plastic” can beat him, that he spent the next three days, with little to no sleep, completing the entire game. Three years later and his son, Bob, still hasn’t even come close. The ultimate challenge for him, though, is the fox. The cliché ‘cunning as a fox’ doesn’t match the respect he has for their ability to evade humans, and sometimes elaborate schemes, surprising in their necessity, are set up to shoot them. His longest stakeout waiting for a fox to arrive was “probably 50 hours”, the longest time awake following a fox “...about 76 hours straight, is the longest I’ve ever done awake and I don’t fancy doing that again”.
Unlike most of us, who tend to sleep on nature’s circadian rhythms, Mark’s sleep patterns are ruled by fatigue. When he is tired, he sleeps. When he is awake, he works. If there is no estate work, farming work or fox work, he is to be found in his taxidermy shed. Doing work. It might be taxidermy, or it might be the creation of a new special hide (the latest being a fake sheep, so he can travel around a field without his target noticing).
This work ethic seems through choice rather than necessity, even though I question the ease with which he can pay for a family on freelance keeping wages alone. Ultimately, and just about all keepers will agree with this, the job is a vocational lifestyle choice. This is a passion. I haven’t yet seen, aside from in a Zoology professor’s office, a larger collection of wildlife and wildlife photography books specifically on the subject of Scotland. Purely for the purposes of taxidermy, he will sit staring at any animal for as long as the animal will allow him. He spent 30 minutes on a stalk once, staring at a red deer hind through a telescope, just to see how her nostrils flared when she was relaxed. Apparently the clients behind were totally silent the whole time, assuming that Mark was spying something important for the stalk, only to be told they were moving elsewhere after that long wait.
He is not shy of exploiting his reputation of being well versed in some quite unique knowledge, and practical jokes on the stalk are one of his favourite games. This year he has been taking chocolates rolled into small balls onto the hill. Every now and again he will stop, pretend to pick up some deer droppings, eat them, and say, “hmm, we are about an hour behind them, we are close now”, then move on. Eventually he persuades the ever-keen client to try some for himself. The best thing about it is there is always the initial surprise that “hey, deer poo tastes just like quality street!”.
The constant is taxidermy, and Mark often has something on the go for clients. Seeing as this is something entirely on his own time, it takes a back seat, and this is how I find him in his shed in the small hours, sewing up a pheasant. I left him at 2.45am (to accusations of "southern fairy" as I walk out), and go to bed. When I get up at 7.30am, I find him back in the house, passed out on the sofa. He got very little sleep, as he spent the entire night preening the bird while it dried. Encouraged by Jade, his daughter, I snuck a photo. On waking after two hours’ sleep, the pheasant needed a little more preening work, then after a cup of tea, he headed out to the pheasant pens.
It is taxidermy that defines Mark, the diligence and attention to detail accompanied by artistic flair, practical problem-solving and an obsession with the nature that surrounds him. His note to me sums it up better than I ever could:
“I do taxidermy now because it helps pay my wages and it also gives me the perfect excuse to do what I want to do! I started taxidermy as a way to get closer to and a better understanding of wildlife, drawing and painting gives you an understanding of colours and textures but only by taking them apart and rebuilding them do you get a true understanding of why they are the way they are. Once I’d started I kept trying to improve the mounts and the only way to improve is to study them in their natural habitat and the more you study them the more you want to improve your mounts (vicious circle). Taxidermy teaches you to really look at the live animal and not just look at it like everybody else does…”
The next part, Chapter 5: Stalking: Ecological Necessity?, will be posted on here at 10.30am on Saturday 2nd February. To buy a copy of the book for £25, contact me.