Taxidermy and the Country House: where natural History meets social history

There can be few among us who have not gone for a walk and picked up an intriguing seashell or elegant feather and taken it home to share with children or friends. Such things are often kept for years. The more exotic, the more interest they generate. They also convey a message about their owner, being evidence of intellectual curiosity or their adventures in faraway places, a socially acceptable form of showing off. These motivations lie behind the many and varied collections of natural curios in our own houses, large and small. Those same motives applied in the past, and the bigger and wealthier the household, the more varied and spectacular a country house collection was likely to be.

Many country houses featured natural curiosities, gathered over several generations. They often included taxidermy, mainly in the form of ‘stuffed’ birds, sporting trophies and souvenirs of big game hunting in the Empire. Much of this went out of fashion in the 20th century and the mansions that accommodated them were themselves subject to social change and severe economic pressures. Thousands were demolished, their contents dispersed or destroyed.

Changes in public taste have undermined attempts to preserve, or even understand, taxidermy as part of our natural and cultural history. Moreover, it is vulnerable to natural destructive processes and requires careful conservation management, a cost which many owners have been unwilling to bear. Consequently, most of the displays that were formerly almost universal in country houses have been lost, compromising the ‘spirit of place’. The remaining collections represent an important aspect of the story of British natural history. They are also a record of how landowners and wealthy families interacted with wildlife and the countryside in the past, as a normal part of their every-day life.

What little remains is slowly becoming better understood, both as an aspect of our social history and as a legitimate art form. This book attempts to provide a background, to help owners and their visitors to better appreciate what they have and what they see. Chapters include a brief understanding of major taxidermists, what they did and how they did it, and a review of the social and natural environment in which country house collections became the norm. Taxidermy was a popular form of household decoration, often featuring hunting and fishing trophies. Some major land owners created extensive study collections, enriching our understanding of British wildlife. With the loss of hundreds of major mansions, and their taxidermy, as described above, where has it all gone? How should owners deal with the problems of looking after the surviving taxidermy collections, or even disposing of them? How should we respond to ill-informed criticism and against a background of declining biodiversity? Maybe, as a former Prime Minister once said, we should try to condemn less and understand more. Perhaps this book will help.


Dr Pat Morris was Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and retired (early) in 2002 to spend more time with his taxidermy. He taught many students who now work in wildlife conservation, and also taught evening classes for adults for 20 years. He is well known for his studies on mammals, especially hedgehogs, dormice, water voles and red squirrels. He is a past Chairman of the Mammal Society and holder of its Silver Medal. He was a Council Member of the National Trust for 15 years and Chairman of its Nature Conservation Advisory Panel. He is President of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, a former Vice President of the London Wildlife Trust. He served on a Government Enquiry into aspects of the badgers and TB problem and for 3 years was co-Director of the International Summer School on the Breeding and Conservation of Endangered species, based at Durrell Zoo in Jersey.

He has published over 70 scientific papers, mostly on mammals and written about 20 books on bats, dormice, ecology of lakes and general natural history, with total sales of around 250,000. His popular book on hedgehogs has remained in print since 1983, his New Naturalist monograph on the hedgehog was published in 2018. He was a consultant to major publishers and the BBC Natural History Unit, for whom he also contributed radio and TV programmes for 20 years. He has travelled to more than 30 countries, including five expeditions to Ethiopia and 19 visits to the USA covering 47 of the States.

In his spare time he has pursued a longstanding interest in the history of taxidermy and was appointed the first Honorary Life Member of the Guild of Taxidermists. He published papers and 8 books on this topic and serves as one of the Government’s taxidermy inspectors for assessing age and authenticity of antique taxidermy in connection with CITES controls. The Society for the History of Natural History awarded him its Founder’s Medal and he was made MBE by the Queen in the 2015 New Year’s Honours List and has a devoted (biologist) wife, married in 1978.

He speaks in a purely personal capacity and not on behalf of any of the organisations with which he is involved, past or present.

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